Opinion: The Double Denial of Sex Work in Thailand

Activists give a toast to celebrate the police's new policies on sex workers on Aug. 8, 2019.

Emboldened by new police protocols mandating more humane treatment of sex workers during arrests, activists on Thursday announced their next goal – decriminalizing sex work.

Prostitution is illegal under the 1996 Anti-Prostitution Act, though it’s rare for sex workers to be sentenced to the maximum one-month prison term stipulated under the law. Instead, the red-light industry thrives in a grey area, regulated more consistently by mainstream morality which shames sex work and corrupt officials who extort protection money.

Sex workers and activists scored a victory Thursday when the national police released new protocols banning sexual intercourse during sting operations, parading sex workers in front of the press, and allowing reporters inside raided venues. Also banned are stamps on the passports of foreign sex workers specifying that they were arrested for prostitution. The reforms came after years of repeated complaints and demands by advocacy groups and the National Human Rights Commission.

Read: Activists Hail Police’s New ‘Humane’ Protocols on Sex Workers

But the fact that no major political party is committed to decriminalizing sex work is a sober reminder to sex workers and activists that the road to legalizing sex work will be a lonely struggle. This is despite the fact that there are up 300,000 sex workers in Thailand – a large constituency.

No major political party wants to be branded as immoral or as pushing for a policy that would shame the Kingdom. Never mind the reality that prostitution is a major underground industry.

Decades ago in 1993, Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English defined Bangkok as “a place where there are a lot of prostitutes,” which was greeted by nothing short of a national uproar that resulted in the banning of the dictionary. Many Thais don’t seem to care about reality. It’s the façade of a fictitious alternate that counts.

Nearly three decades after the Longman saga, Thai police shocked the world earlier this year when they inspected Pattaya’s infamous red-light district, known as Walking Street, and found not a single sex worker.

It’s a paradoxical reality: the existence of widespread prostitution is formally denied, while it’s a commonly known reality that many foreign tourists come to Thailand for sex. Even the Public Health Ministry estimates that 75 percent of Thai males have bought sex.

Some feel that deconstructing morality as a strategy to decriminalize prostitution is a losing battle. Veteran women’s rights activist Naiyana Suphaphueng warned after the release of the police protocols that it’s best not to confront society by challenging the prevailing moral standard.

“Thai society doesn’t accept selling sex like selling objects…We should frame it by talking about human rights and protection first,” said Naiyana.

She may be right, tactically speaking. Still, there is something very disturbing about morality that is based on the denial of reality. Thailand is a society in denial on so many levels, whether it’s about the lack of genuine democracy or the lack of substantial freedom.

Many would rather not face the truth. Many would rather let sex workers suffer silently when exploited by an underground industry, so that Thais can continue to smile.