Editor’s Note: After my post What not to do in Chiang Mai drew some comments from my readers regarding my stance on sex tourism in the region (or lack thereof), I decided I wanted someone who knows more about the subject to weigh in on the topic. As someone who is heavily involved in responsible tourism, it is incredibly important for me that my readers are educated and then allowed to make their own decisions in regards to what they choose to support or skip while traveling. While I do not condone the Thailand sex industry, I do want my readers to know what really happens in this area in regards to working girls. Human trafficking, child slavery, drug addictions all do exist in the world of sex in parts of SE Asia, particularly those whose people live in extreme poverty. BUT, according to in-depth research, these problems are not occurring in Chiang Mai. This post is written by Alex Martin, someone who has spent a lot of time investigating the Thailand sex industry and sex tourism.
What’s the deal with Thailand’s sex industry?
The sex industry in Thailand is a vast and complex organism — something that cannot be defined in concrete terms. Also, the concept of ‘pay-to-play’ relations in regards to morality is subjective to the individual and their social and cultural background. For the purpose of this — a post examining the ins and outs of the sex industry (and a topic that is nearly impossible to fit into one concise piece) it is more prudent and beneficial to give a holistic description of Thailand’s industry so people can make their own decision.
I will keep my opinion until the end and ask you to set aside any pre-conceived notions of what you think sex should be about.
I sometimes work as a guide and translator for an educational tour company and almost always get at least one student who is studying women’s rights in Asia. It’s been my assignment on more than one occasion to bring a student to different venues and interview women working there. Most of the information I am using for this article comes directly from interviews I have conducted on these trips.
We all know that prostitution is an ancient profession, but that doesn’t make it anachronistic in the least. In Thailand, it’s a huge industry with many faces. It has ‘lady bars’, special massage parlors, brothels, go-go bars, and many other venues that travelers and locals frequent. There are even whole streets dedicated to different forms of ‘pay for sex’ places. Since this article is for tourists, I’ll keep the information narrowed down to places they usually frequent.
But first, ping pong shows
The most famous form of prostitution in Thailand is the ping pong show, which is exactly what it sounds like. Interestingly enough, when I’ve been asked to bring a person there, nine out of 10 times it has been by a woman, while the men in the group are very uncomfortable. I personally refuse to even talk about where it is possible to see one of these shows.
Ping pong shows are notorious for getting women addicted to ya ba, which is a methamphetamine that directly translates into “crazy drug,” as a way to keep them working. For many people, this show has become a popular tourist attraction that many people say is one of those things they just have to see once. The thing is, with millions of tourists coming to Thailand ‘just once’ every year, it keeps the demand up and the horrid-ness and exploitation continues.
There is no choice for women who work these shows and men (and women) aren’t going there for any sort of connection. Most people look at it and go for a joke or shock value, making it some sort of sick luxury. Many people don’t understand the implications of what they contribute to. This is not a ‘must see’ attraction in Thailand.
Sex and the women behind it
Now that ping pong shows are out of the way, let’s look at the women who work at the other venues (bars, massage parlors, etc.). The places I was able to conduct interviews at were go-go bars and ‘lady bars’. The first thing I gathered from speaking with many of them is that they are women first and sex workers second. Upon meeting them, most of them wanted to talk about their family, hobbies, and other normal conversation that you would have with any person you met for the first time. These interactions happened in Chiang Mai and most of the girls working were from other provinces. They had come to Chiang Mai of their own volition, usually telling their family they had found a job that wasn’t what they were actually doing, to be able to make money to send back to them. Many times, women said that they had a child whose father wasn’t supporting in any way. In Thailand, child support is almost non-existent and there are not many ways to legally get a father to financially contribute to the life of his child.
Financially, working in the sex industry is almost logical to a person who is desperate to support their family. There aren’t many government aid programs for people with money problems and a person who works as a farmer or in a factory can make as little as 300 baht a day (the minimum wage was just raised). The working conditions aren’t comfortable. There is no nine to five or overtime. In the sex industry, women can make more money without even sleeping with men.
The concept of pay-to-play
At lady and go go bars, women aren’t forced to sleep with men. It is their job to entertain them while they are drinking and get them to buy them drinks, which cost significantly more than a regular cocktail or beer. For each drink a man buys them, the woman makes a commission. If a man likes the woman (and the woman likes the man), he can pay a bar fine to let her leave work early. This does not promise sex. If a woman chooses to sleep with a man, it’s her decision if she wants to charge him and how much. Many women choose to give men their phone numbers and meet after work so they don’t have to pay the bar fine. The reason? These women are looking for more than cash for having sex one time. They are looking for somebody to take care of them as they have learned that society won’t. Obviously, there are people who are just looking to make as much money as they can by sleeping with men.
Regardless, they have the choice to do it.
The men who pay
Many people look at the men who frequent these types of places and label them as ‘old creepy perverts’ or sexpats. Upon asking different women their opinions of the men who frequented lady bars, they usually said the men were often polite and gentle. Interestingly enough, they said the younger men were often more problematic as they wanted to pay for women just so they “could do things that their girlfriends wouldn’t let them do.”
Upon talking to men who spend time at lady bars, I’ve noticed that many of them are widows or divorced. For how much they talk about it, one can only guess that they are still hurting. Losing a loved one is difficult and sometimes leaves a person feeling like they can’t ever love again. Many men who go to these places are looking for some sort of connection that isn’t as intense so they can’t get hurt again. Many marry girls from these bars because they want companionship that feels simpler than what they previously went through romantically. At the end of the day, as unorthodox as it is to many western standards, the relationship between men and bar girls is consensual and mutually beneficial.
To sex or not to sex?
I urge people to empathize — instead of judge — both the men and women who are working or patrons of these types of venues. There are things I can confidently say a person should not take part in while traveling to Thailand like the Tiger Temple, Full Moon Party, or almost any elephant camp that isn’t Elephant Nature Park.
My personal opinion is this: in regards to lady bars I can only say it isn’t something I’m interested in doing. I think the real problem isn’t this form of sex-as-profit, but a society that makes it almost necessary for the industry to exist as a whole. For me, I find it more disturbing that there aren’t any government programs to help single mothers who have to pay for their children’s food, clothing, and education as only the worst schools in Thailand are free. Students are expected to buy their own books, uniforms, and lunches regardless. Outside of Bangkok, there is nearly no government funding to public schools.
I also urge every person who travels to Thailand to have a look around in one of these bars. Talk to the women and buy them a drink. Learn about their lives and tell their story. Don’t treat them like they are anything less than a person who is trying to make a living and take care of themselves and their families.
21 thoughts on “Fact vs. Fiction: the Thailand Sex Industry”
A fascinating, yet ultimately sad insight into the industry. Bravo!
Alex did a phenomenal job tackling a very controversial and difficult subject.
Before I visited Thailand I had the view that sexpats were vile and the sex trade in Thailand was altogether extremely sad. Visiting a few times, I don’t really know what to say or think. Your article is the most objective and descriptive I’ve read and I think I can relate to that the most since visiting there.
I’ve talked to people who have visited ping pong shows before because they sounded funny, but everyone said these shows were just really sad. Prostitution all over the world- I don’t know, I can’t really comment on it. I do find it really sad that a lot of women find they HAVE to do it to earn enough money to look after their families or even just themselves. I’ve never been in that position so who am I to judge.
But illegal sex trade, which I’m sure happens all over the world, is disgusting and should be in the back of everyone’s mind if they think about getting involved in the sex industry. As far as the men go, I feel bad for judging all of them. I don’t think it’s really fair or my place to do so.
Yes, the illegal sex trade is a whole different story. From what I’ve gathered, it’s not completely non existent in Thailand, though very rare. You hear contained cases of one person engaging in illegal activities every year or so. That being said, it’s not a practice in the ‘mainstream sex tourism’ society.
Bobbi, I think we have had this conversation in person, so if that is the case, no need to read any more. But, for the rest, I have to say, when I first came here and met those “sexpats,” I was disgusted. Appalled. I thought their behavior was degrading. Then, I got to know them. And, like Alex said, most of them aren’t these beasts, but men who have lost their loved ones, are depressed, living very lonely lives. Some of them have actually become people I have gotten to know and care for.
The illegal sex trade — would NEVER support. And, you are right, is is SAD that women find they have no choice but to do these things.
Thanks for your article Alex. Really great to get an objective opinion from someone who has had more than one first-hand experience. I agree whole-heartedly with all of your comments although there is a piece of the puzzle that you didn’t touch on: the brothels and trafficking of underage girls who haven’t made this life their choice – they have been sold by their parents or their young minds have fallen victim to the promise of a better life. This piece would be something I would be interested in getting your opinion on in future blog posts!
Well written article! We were in Thailand in March, and we diffently saw the ping pong shows and working girls everywhere. It is sad, but you are correc that the government doesn’t have any aid programs to help their citizens. Maybe some day this will change. Great post!
Alex did a wonderful job with this post. I truly hope things change … but for now all we can do is educate and help raise awareness.
Great post. It definitely makes you think twice about the industry.
Thank you babe!!
I met a guy who works at a non-profit in Chiang Rai and he had a decidedly different perspective. He said many of the women, in Pattaya in particular, were sold by their parents. They’re often underaged and forced to be in the industry because they have no other skills. I’d urge anyone to rethink buying sex. You never can truly know if the woman is doing it by choice or not.
I have heard about this. I do know that Thailand passed the Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act in 1996 as a result of pressure from foreign NGOs, which has cracked down on forced prostitution in both children and adults. From all the research I’ve done, forced prostitution is not the norm anymore as the government is forced to help after passing this law. I imagine there are still contained cases of it happening. Though, I cannot comment on what happens in Pattaya as my work doesn’t bring me there, and it’s not the type of place I would want to go for vacation.
Human trafficking and child labor is still a problem in Thailand, but a lot of it has to do with immigrants and children being sold into seafood processing, agriculture,clothes factories, street begging, and flower sales.
Hm. Overall a good article. The following I found strange however:
> Human trafficking, child slavery, drug addictions all do exist in the world of sex in parts of SE
> Asia, particularly those whose people live in extreme poverty. BUT, according to in-depth
> research, these problems are not occurring in Chiang Mai.
I don’t like this statement for two reasons, first of all it blurs the difference between ‘mainstream’ commercial sex and sex tourism, and trafficking / slavery / child abuse. These are very different things with very different causes, impact and solutions. Like everywhere else, most child sexual abuse happens by a relative or family friend, or through a underground contacts away from anything as open and in-your-face as the typical bars and clubs. But then you go on to say that ‘this doesn’t happen in Chiang Mai’. OF COURSE that happens in Chiang Mai. It happens everywhere, and the size of the mainstream naughty nightlife has little impact on it. It most definitely happens in Chiang Mai, same as everywhere else.
Another thing I wondered about is why the ping pong shows are singled out. They’re not my thing; they’re a lot closer to a magician’s show than anything erotic. You can also find them degrading, but that’s in the eye of the beholder. I can also find many other professions degrading, which are objectively unsafe. A performer in a ping pong show will make enough money to never need to go with customers (unless she wants to of course) and crucially isn’t working long hours in a factory or construction site. Morality teaches us to find only one of these options degrading; I had a long chat with a ping pong show performer (I know, not a great sample size) but she was really level headed and preferred it over other possible lines of work. I don’t think these venues are necessarily worse categorically than other places that offer sexual shows or prostitution.
Overall though I get what the main message of the article is, and that’s well presented.
Final comment on one of the other comments: Don’t take any statement from any NGO for a fact. There is a lot of NGOs out there with a particular agenda (often a religious one) and many of these are in it for the funding and to convert people to their religion. The statement that trafficking and slavery is common in Pattaya is a bit silly. The tourist sex scene there isn’t too different from Chiang Mai, Phuket and so on from the perspective of the sex workers, just a lot bigger. There are many good NGOs too of course, one that I can thoroughly recommend to look into is Empower Foundation. (Google it). For starters they respect sex workers in choosing to stay in the profession while providing training and education to provide more options. But they don’t try to ‘rescue’ people from things they don’t want to be rescued from, campaign for the legalization of sex work (meaning sex workers would get social security benefits like everyone else) and are generally supportive and respectful towards sex workers AND their customers. (I’ll provide a link in the next comment; just in case including it here would make this comment flagged for review. )
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I would like Alex to comment on this.
The reason I wrote that the human trafficking and sex slavery wasn’t very present in Chiang Mai is simply because all the research I’ve done with primary sources, plus talking with experts in the field as secondary sources has led me to this conclusion. From what I’ve gathered, one of the worst places for human trafficking is actually in Mae Sot. In regards to parents forcing their children into prostitution, the idea was that people would sell their daughters to certain brothels for a determined amount of money and they would be considered indentured servants. This was a huge problem in Bangkok and Pattaya, where brothel owners would ‘buy’ young girls from Issan province. Obviously, I can’t say that anything doesn’t happen 100%, but I can confidently say that forced sex slavery isn’t even close to common in Chiang Mai.
In regards to the ping pong show, the establishments are notorious for getting their workers hooked on yaba (methamphetamines) and/or heroin to emotionally enslave them. There are many cases of Khmer and Burmese illegal immigrants who are forced to work in these shows.
Finally, I want to make it clear once more that this article was meant to tackle the issues that tourists take part in around Thailand. The idea of forced sex slavery is something that I believe should be examined, but not in conjunction to an article that was originally written as an offshoot of a ‘what not to do in Chiang Mai’ article. Tourists typically are visiting beer bars, go go clubs, and ping pong shows.
Link to Empower Foundation, one of the good NGOs: http://empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html
Good posts. Human trafficking goes on in every major city. Let’s do our best to keep young men and women safe. Educate your loved ones, friends and neighbours. Abduction is still easy in this day and age. Prevention is key. Thanks for a forum where education is taking place.
This is a very insightful post and has changed my views on sex tourism. I can actually turn some parts of this industry around to be positive now.
I haven’t seen it all that much in Thailand, but what I’ve seen in Vietnam was just dirty. Old guys with two girls, clearly prostitutes, clinging his arms were a pretty common occurrence, especially in Nha Trang and certain parts of Saigon. It just looked so intensely sad and desperate no matter what side you looked at it. Then again, I didn’t know any of their backgrounds so maybe I shouldn’t judge.
However if what you say is true, and there is actually mutual consent as well as benefit for at the women who aren’t forced into this work, than that’s a good thing. Also, if it’s by choice, it’s just another profession, I don’t see the big deal some people seem to make of prostitution.
Really good post. Kudos on being so objective about it! It just goes to show that the sex industry – like any other that revolves real people with real emotions, personalities, and back stories – is not simply black or white. It’s not simply good or bad – it exists in that gray area in-between.
This is the most interesting and enlightening post I’ve read in months. It’s so sad, but I appreciate your objective view and descriptions. Thank you for sharing this.
Honestly the best post I’ve read on the subject for years. It’s so easy for people to judge these girls having not lived in their shoes. Believe me most do not want to do it.