Legalizing Thailand’s Sex Industry Unfathomable

In this undated image, two women approach a passerby in Bangkok's Soi Cowboy. Image: Bangkok 112 / YouTube
In this undated image, two women approach a passerby in Bangkok's Soi Cowboy. Image: Bangkok 112 / YouTube


Last month’s recommendations by a UN body promoting gender equality to Thailand to stop prosecutions of female sex workers and violent raids of entertainment venues have got me thinking further about the issue.

While the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, was bold in making such suggestions in its 14-page report released on July 24 from Geneva, in realities such suggestions are much much easier said than done.

Please do not mistake this writer for being a supporter of continued criminalization of “women in prostitution,” as CEDAW’s described it. In fact I am for legalizing sex work so long as these workers have willingly entered the trade, known by those who looked down on them as prostitution. They will no longer have to hide, be extorted or exploited further. Proper income tax could also be collected.


While I do not personally purchase sex, I think we should be open-minded and not confine ourselves to one moral compass.

Who am I to look down on sex workers and feel morally superior when there are people in many other professions who sell their souls to the highest bidder by focusing their whole life in whatever legal works that promised them profit-maximization? Think about people who are paid to work tirelessly to convince us that their products or services are the best in the trade, no matter what the reality may entail. And that’s just the beginning.

For sexpats and Thai sex customers who wish that sex industry would be legalized one day, they should consider the factors below.


One of the most obvious major obstacles is the urge to maintain Thailand’s image or face. Thai face is so thin many can’t bear having their country be associated with red light districts and sex tourism, never mind the reality.

One naturally recall the emotional fiasco over Longman Dictionary when it was forced by not just the Thai government but angry public to alter its 1993 edition which contains an entry on Bangkok that partly described the city as “a place where there are a lot of prostitutes.”

No, no, no, decent and morally-upright Thais can never concede to such a description, no matter the reality on the ground. Legalizing prostitution or even ending the criminalization of women in prostitution may thus be just a pipe dream.

If you are still not convinced. Consider the need for these Thais to safely maintain the moral high-ground. Like in the English language, calling someone a “whore” or karii (กะหรี่) enables one to feel superior over those described as such. Somehow, the moral hierarchy must be maintained and some professions have to be kept much lower than others, fair or not. Prostitution as a profession remains among the lowest of the low to most people.

In Thailand, it’s hard to imagine how sex workers will ever be treated like any other workers – like in Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district where skimpily clad women try to seduce you from behind generic but legal glass windows. Here in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand, like in Phuket’s Patong Beach or Pattaya’s Walking Street, which is in like Bangkok’s Patpong on the beach, the flesh trade is supposed to be illegal, despite what one witnesses with one’s own eyes.

Perhaps it has to do with men’s desire to control women’s reproductive system that is being challenged by sex work. People also tends to traditionally think of sex as something ideally not to be consummated without love.


It must be confessed here that at subconscious level, I still find sex work rather unsettling. The trade of flesh for cash is never easy to contemplate though we should try to regard it, or at least let those willing, to see it as just another monetary transaction.

Nevertheless, legalizing sex work, or even thinking about such possibilities, breaks the narrowly defined moral code and embraces an alternative way of looking at sex industry.

Are Thais ready and mature enough to contemplate the unfathomable?