The Reality and Denial of Sex Work in Thailand

Photo: Paul Sullivan / Flickr
Photo: Paul Sullivan / Flickr

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukWhat should we care more about: reality or denial?

In Thailand, prostitution is illegal and yet its sex industry is famous – or infamous – depending on how one looks at it. There are an estimated 300,000 sex workers, according to an estimate by Empower Foundation, a leading advocate for their rights.

Denying the reality that the sex industry is a thriving business in Thailand means we are not just pretending reality is different but bereaving sex workers of occupational rights, protection and benefits.

Sex workers are kept outside the formal economic sector, unprotected by labor laws and enjoy no social security or welfare the way workers in the legitimate enterprise do.

This is partly because the idea of legalizing sex work is unacceptable to many thin-faced Thais who judge the profession to be a foundation of vices. It doesn’t matter how many sex workers are left out of the formal economic sector and become more prone to extortion, exploitation and abuse – many Thais simply will not tolerate sex work as legal.

Similar to the longstanding debate on the legalization of gambling in Thailand, that of whether to decriminalize sex work is not making any progress.

It’s a classic case of morality versus reality, reality versus denial and hypocrisy.

People who are in denial do not seem to care about the unnecessary burden and risk placed on sex workers or the fact that the state could have earned tax income by legalizing the industry. The state could also regulate the industry and make human trafficking, particularly of under-age sex workers less likely.

Thailand is a society in denial and will be in denial at a heavy cost to its citizens – sex workers or not.

Forget about the debate on whether to decriminalize sex work for the meantime. A reminder of how far the state of denial is in Thailand was made apparent Monday when Salinee Chumsuwan, director of the Office of Culture Monitoring at the culture ministry, gave an interview to a local media saying sex toys should not be legalized as long as there is no solid research supporting them. She said research from other countries cannot be used because the context is different. The director recommended that people who have urges should instead resort to meditation or sport.

Her views led to a storm of debate on social media, some saying she’s out of touch with reality or in outright denial about contemporary Thai society.

“Having sex toys to release [the libido] is better than having horny men raping kids. Don’t be pretentious and say things that make you look good,” wrote Facebook user Jakrapho Pranhong in reaction on Workpoint News Facebook post Tuesday.

“The culture ministry opposes adult toys that looks like phalluses but Thai culture worships amulets that look like the male sexual organ!!!” Facebook user Wintercoldday Dom wrote. “It’s like we live in a parallel world!!!”

Given the pretension and denial, how do we even begin to solve contentious issues if a society is in such a deep state of denial?

A pluralistic society needs more than just one set of morality being imposed on the rest. There should be room for competing values to co-exist and that includes values that don’t regard sex work as something immoral and spiteful but another legitimate profession.

By failing to do so, society ends up penalizing its own citizens, fostering a culture of hypocrisy where pretense and reality are so different.