People flock from all over the world to watch the live show at Susie Wong’s Go Go Bar. Every night, hundreds of men pass through the velvet curtain at the entrance of the venue to find a group of women, wearing only stilettos and contorting their bodies into revealing positions.
Among the crowd are a group of British expats on a stag weekend. Like many of the first-time visitors on Soi Cowboy, they were surprised to learn that the sex industry is largely illegal in Thailand. “But it’s so obvious,” they said, as the women started performing sexual acts on one another.
Soi Cowboy is one of the most famous red light districts in Bangkok and it does little to conceal the illicit trade conducted on its street. Go Go Bars – a form of strip club popular in South East Asia – compete for customers using a combination of bright neon lights and scantily clad women, some of whom stand outside and wave at passersby.
Sex work has been illegal in Thailand since 1960 but government officials and law enforcement officers have long turned a blind eye. “No I’m not worried [about the law]” said the manager of one bar, who asked to remain anonymous. “If we are here [on Soi Cowboy] then we are safe.” According to a member of her staff, the manager pays nightly bribes to the police in return for their cooperation and protection.
But a series of high profile police raids has put considerable strain on that relationship and some sex workers fear the whole industry is in jeopardy. Earlier in the summer, according to the Bangkok Post, police charged five Thai men with human trafficking after raiding Nataree, one of the most famous massage parlours in Bangkok.
They detained 121 sex workers, including 15 who were under the age of 18. There are dozens of massage parlours in Bangkok, which are often a front for illegal brothels.
The raid at Nataree produced a ledger that appeared to show bribes to authorities ranging from local cops all the way to the tourist police and immigration. Shortly after the raid, the country’s Tourism Minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said “We want Thailand to be about quality tourism, we want the sex industry gone.”
Her intentions compliment those of the military junta that seized power in 2014 through a coup d’état. They have repeatedly emphasised that corruption in Thailand must be eliminated.
The Ministry for Tourism refused to comment on their plans for the sex industry but the Prime Minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, can enforce any measures that promote public order through Article 44 of the interim constitution. So far, this has only been used to clear some illegal street vendors from city pavements but could be used to shut down the sex industry.
“We already feel insecure and precarious,” said Somai Jantawong, a 31-year-old sex worker living in Chiang Mai. “Life is hard enough without this constant fear and threat that there is going to be a crackdown.”
According to a 2014 UNAIDS report, there are 123,530 sex workers in Thailand. Local NGOS say that figure is closer to 300,000 – nearly ten times the number in neighbouring Cambodia. If the industry was successfully shut down, the socio economic impact could be huge.
Last week, six karaoke bars in Chaing Mai were raided by the police. According to local sources, they found ten girls between the ages of 17 to 18 working at the venues and charged two people with human trafficking. All venues have been temporarily closed, leaving around 240 women unemployed.
WE ARE THE DRIVERS OF DEVELOPMENT IN THIS COUNTRY, IF YOU LOCK US UP THEN YOU WILL HAVE MORE PEOPLE IN POVERTY AND MORE PEOPLE WITHOUT HOMES – JANTAWONG, A WOMAN WORKING IN THE SEX TRADE IN CHAING MAI
“You have to understand that we are the head of the family, the main providers,” said Jantawong. “If we are arrested or lose our jobs then it affects the whole family and the whole community. We are the drivers of development in this country, if you lock us up then you will have more people in poverty and more people without homes.”
Jantawong voluntarily pursued a career in the sex industry because of the high wages she can earn compared to other unskilled professions. The minimum wage in Thailand is just 300 Baht per day. She can earn ten times that in a night.
And the sex workers are not the only ones reaping the economic rewards from the industry. Havocscope, who chart black market crime statistics and data, estimate that the sex industry pumps $6.4 billion into the Thai economy. In fact, Friedrich Schneider, an economist at Johannes Kepler University in Austria, found that Thailand has one of the largest shadow economies in the world, accounting for 40.9% of real GDP in 2014.
“I would love to see the sex industry closed and ended in Thailand,” said Annie Dieselberg, CEO of NightLight International, a Christian non-profit group that helps women in the Thai sex trade find alternative work. “But it does bring in a lot of money so the government has to consider what alternatives it can offer the women. There has to be a way for them to make money and right now, the minimum wage is not enough for a single mother to take care of her family.”
Dieselberg is confident however, that the best way to combat human trafficking is to end sex tourism. “We work with a lot of international victims of human trafficking in Thailand… when the industry is this visible and in your face, when it becomes normalised and socialised, then trafficking becomes more prevalent and it becomes easier for it to coexist beside the industry,” she said.
Earlier this year the United States removed Thailand from its list of worst human trafficking offenders. However, its report also stated that “sex trafficking remains a significant problem in Thailand’s extensive commercial sex industry.”
According to Liz Hilton at Empower, a Thai organisation that advocates on behalf of sex workers, the heavy-handed police crackdown is increasing human rights violations rather than eliminating them. “The key human rights abuse comes from police entrapment,” she said. The Royal Thai police declined an opportunity to comment on the raids.
Rather than remove the sex industry, Empower hopes to enhance its standing among Thai society. Last week, they officially opened a sex work museum, ‘This Is Us’, in the Nonthaburi district of Bangkok.
The museum celebrates Thailand’s long history of sex work, detailing the first recorded brothel in 1680 to the more recognisable karaoke bars introduced in the 1980s. Other displays include a Thai boxing ring, dancing pole and dozens of papier-mâché dolls that represent the migrant sex workers who have travelled to Thailand from neighbouring countries.
For over 30 years, Empower has been campaigning for the removal of all laws specific to prostitution in Thailand. They say that by decriminalising the industry, sex workers will have access to the same labour laws enjoyed by other professions, reducing exploitation at the hands of their employers.
A growing list of major international agencies are validating the sex workers’ calls for decriminalisation – this includes the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
But Hilton recognises that this ambition might be unattainable under the current regime. “In terms of getting to decriminalisation – we are a long way off, we are no where near it, so what we have to focus on now is how the 300,000 women who are currently putting their faces on and going to work, how are they going to live and work here safely… the most urgent thing we need to do is get the police out.”
One of Empower’s latest projects is the ‘High Heeled Defenders’ booklet, which informs sex workers of their legal rights (a very short segment, according to Liz) and advises them what to say if arrested by the police. But for now, it is business as usual at Susie Wong’s and her customers are not worried about the future of their vocation.
“The industry is never going to disappear,” said a British teacher, as his friend received a lap dance on the bench beside him. “If it can’t be here, then it will just go somewhere else nearby, maybe Cambodia or Laos.”
Special report shared by Refinery 29