This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.
By Natt Garunrangseewong
“In China, my friend had sex with a prostitute and didn’t pay her,” says Winnie Kyi, a senior what studied abroad in Hong Kong last spring. “She got mad and left.” Her friend felt neither remorse nor regret.
With the recession still looming, more and more women in Southeast Asia desperate for income turn to prostitution as their solution to make ends meet. Kyi says she’d often witnessed sex motels behind bright neon signs on her walks to and from class. She feels that this example of sex trafficking is demoralizing.
What’s the Capitol of Thailand?
Ask any teenage boy and they’re likely to reply with a giggly “Bang-kok,” an implication of the sexual innuendo in the city’s name.
But the capitol’s name has more than just innuendos in this “Land of Smiles.” Somewhere deep in the dark streets is the scary reality of women, girls and even boys being sold for sex. What started as “comfort stations” for soldiers and servicemen during the Vietnam War has now grown into red light districts filled with massage parlors, strip clubs and hotels that front for sex.
According to the Pulitzer Center “Untold Stories” blog, sex tourism takes up an estimated 10 percent of tourist dollars. The majority of women who become prostitutes comes from impoverished backgrounds and do not receive any education to qualify them to search for a career. According to www.worldsalaries.org, no experiences required job salaries are as low as 4,028 baht, or $94, a month. Sex workers can earn thousands of baht a night depending on the extent of the sexual activities these women are willing to offer. Most of the time, they send their money home to their families, who often ask few questions about their line of work.
Prostitution in Thailand is technically illegal, but this law is not strictly enforced. Because of poor government regulation, sex workers are rarely taxed on their incomes.
In September 2009, Councilman Prayoon Homewong of the Udon Thani province in Northeastern Thailand proposed that the government legalize prostitution, claiming that eliminating the industry as a whole is impossible.
“We can never get rid of it, so I think we should pass laws to regulate it,” Homewong says. “If there were laws to regulate prostitution, sex workers would be eligible for legal protection and benefits, while the government would earn income from the tax.”
Back in 2003, then Thai Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana also discussed the possibility of legalizing prostitution. It was calculated that taxing the $4.3 billion generated from sex tourism income could help divert the money from the underground economy to government funds, while exposing corruption among the industry’s gatekeepers — police, politicians and business owners.
Sex Trafficking — Who’s to Blame?
According to UNICEF.org, “30 to 35 percent of all sex workers in the Mekong sub-region of Southeast Asia are between 12 and 17 years of age.” Legally, the age of sexual consent in Thailand is 18 years old. A study from the Projection Project at John Hopkins University found that Australians make up a large portion of foreigners involved in sex tourism.
Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of Child Wise Australia, said in an interview last September that little has been done to combat child sex trafficking even in a country outside their own. On average, families in poverty may opt to sell a child sex slave for only a few hundred dollars, she says.
The prospect of legalizing prostitution in Thailand has yet to resolve how the government will deal with sex trafficking or health risks such as AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
Jake Turetsky, an SU graduate student studying public administration, says government officials should aim to fix both problems at hand rather than just economic issues.
“If it would somehow be safer and they can track down the sex trafficking, then it could work,” Turetsky says. “But it wouldn’t be an improvement if strings are still attached.”
Kyi feels strongly otherwise. “[Prostitution] shouldn’t be legalized, it’s an unethical business regardless of taxation or no taxation,” Kyi says. “It’s selling your body, it’s undignified.”
Instead, she believes officials should take actions in helping sex workers get better job opportunities and protection so they would not have to resort to prostitution.
“There should be a reforming government not legalizing it to promote it, that’s going in the wrong route,” Kyi says.
Child Wise Australia launched a global campaign called ‘Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People’ to bring the issue back into its source of sex offenders. The campaign will run across 45 countries, aiming to raise awareness and lobby national governments. The group will reinforce its efforts in February by backing stalled amendments to child sex tourism laws in the federal parliament.