Why do we see a need for a project like this?
The number of exploited women in Thailand is great. Some of the women are forced into exploitation by economic hardship, some by cultural circumstances, and some sold or coerced in other ways. Many of the women come from broken families and relationships, and many of them have children who are left behind with their grandparents or other relatives.
Just Look at the Numbers
Sex trade statistics are overwhelming when you start to look into them, and the effects of the sex trade on the society is devastating.
•Thailand – high estimates say that 75% of men have purchased sex at least once
•Sex Tourism – In 2002 the number of prostitutes rose to about 10,873,000.6
•Out of all the tourists that visit Thailand each year, approximately 60% are male, and NGOs estimate that up to 70% of male tourists in Thailand are sex tourists
•That means that in 2002, about 4,560,000 male tourists came to Thailand specifically for sex!
•2015 – 29.88 million tourists = 12.5 million sex tourists. It’s tripled in just over 10 years!
Why has the sex trade in Thailand reached such a critical point?
Historic, economic, and cultural factors all contribute to the prolific exploitation of women in Thailand. Below is a brief snapshot of what has led to the current reality of the sex trade in Thailand, and why Baking For Freedom is needed to address this alarming issue.
History of the Commercial Sex Trade in Thailand
The boom of the commercial sex trade in Southeast Asia started with the U.S presence in Vietnam. There were approximately 20,000 prostitutes in Thailand in 1957. By 1964 (only seven years later), the United States had established seven bases in the country, and the number of prostitutes had skyrocketed to more than 400,000. In 1967, there was a pact in place between the U.S and the Thailand government to provide soldiers with “Rest and Relaxation.” The military personnel, however, did not refer to these times as rest and relaxation, but rather referred to them as “intoxication and intercourse.” Just knowing this leads one to believe that prostitution was common a way of life during the Vietnam War.
Economic and Cultural Issues
In the 1970s, banks in Thailand, which had largely ignored the credit needs of small farmers, were directed to increase lending to the agricultural sector. However, this renewed focus on rural areas was biased toward men; banks and bureaus dealing with finance defined men, not women, as heads of household, and therefore only men could obtain credit. Furthermore, women’s agricultural contributions dwindled in the wake of land privatization, industrial uses of water tables, and deforestation. Thus women’s access to the informal markets of barter and petty trade, as well as their status in the formal world of wage labour, have been undermined.
At the same time that Thai women lost traditional sources of economic autonomy, they have also lagged behind men in obtaining modern resources, such as education. Despite compulsory universal schooling at the primary level, 14 percent of Thai women (as compared to seven percent of Thai men) are illiterate. Furthermore, work at home continues to dominate girls’ time in comparison to boys’ by a margin of nearly three to one. Boys are frequently encouraged to seek out other educational and professional opportunities, while girls are indoctrinated into unpaid household and farm maintenance. Elite women who do have access to higher education also face ongoing obstacles to advancement. They are underrepresented in sciences and technical fields and overrepresented in low-paying humanities studies. Although Thailand’s educational gender disparities are far less pronounced than in many other developing countries, it is still notable that state-funded opportunities for primary and secondary universal education—even universal access to advanced degrees—collide with social expectations, and so women will forego these opportunities and provide for family maintenance instead. In imagining and constructing the new, non-traditional role of women as non-economic actors, state expectations of women’s dependence on men harms rural women’s autonomy, damaging both their material prospects and placing them in a precarious social position.
At the same time, however, social expectations of women’s independent economic activity generate pressure for women to earn money. These expectations come from families as well as from the women themselves, who believe that they should assume economic responsibility for supporting their parents, siblings, and children. These expectations and beliefs are important “push factors” for women’s entry into illegal jobs such as sex work. Simultaneously, the fact that sex workers can make so much money encourages the social and state sanctioning of sex work as a vocation for rural women. Most sex workers conceive of themselves as “primary breadwinners,” as do their families. For example, Thai sex workers often maintain good relationships with their families, remitting much of their income after brothel or pimping fees to their relatives. Families consider sex workers’ earnings highly desirable and important. Remittances fuel what could be called “sex-led consumption” in rural areas. Materialism is rampant in village culture. Keeping up with one’s neighbours involves newer televisions, sporty cars, and even luxurious housing on prime real estate. Because employment in sex work enables the existence of this rural consumer culture, selling sex becomes less of a sin and more of a service. Women’s errors in pursuing a stigmatized vocation in order to care for family can be more easily tolerated, and the merit they generate takes forms that can be viewed by entire villages. Therefore, any argument that “the state kept women out of better jobs” must be tempered with an interpretive understanding of women’s role realities in the village, in their homes, and within themselves.
Sex work and Culture
Sex work has become a naturalized career path for rural Thai women due to the rewards derived from sex workers’ high wages and the continuity with women’s breadwinning roles, which is allowed by employment as sex workers. But middle-class conceptions of and interactions with sex work also contribute to the normalization of sexualized labour markets in Thai culture. Let it be noted that Thai men, rather than foreign men, are the primary consumers of commercial sexual services overall. Commercial sex sectors that serve Thai men grew more quickly and showed more variation until the official acknowledgement of the AIDS crisis in 1992. Part of the explanation for Thai male consumption of sexual services lies in the local cultural history of gender relations; elite men have historically engaged in polygamy and commercial sexual relations. This trend has been reinforced by the rapid transformation of material conditions in Thailand. Growing numbers of middle class men have increasing amounts of “disposable” income and can afford to engage in elite privileges formerly available to elites only.
Purchase of commercial sex is tolerated and sometimes encouraged
It is not simply individual members of the male middle-class, but also the culture of male middle-class groups that help drive the demand for commercial sex. Men who can afford to socialize often go out in groups without their wives, drink together, and sometimes end evenings by spending time with prostitutes. Research demonstrates that male peer groups provide important collegial environments in which the purchase of commercial sex is tolerated and sometimes encouraged. Women’s roles as accessories to the consolidation of male power vary. When groups of Thai men seek sexual services from anonymous women as part of celebrating a special occasion in business or social circles, it is possible that the presence of the women serves to cement male kinship and dominance.
Emergent classes of resource-rich male bureaucrats, as well as Sino-Thai and Thai business elites, create a role for sex workers in the process of male middle-class consolidation, bureaucratic indoctrination, and male socialization in Thai society. However, the role of middle-class women in constructing and maintaining a place for sex work should not be ignored. Married middle-class women tend to turn their backs as their husbands buy sex because they believe that sex work must exist in order to maintain their marriages. In the Thai tradition of the “minor wife,” a married man has primary and secondary wives. Lower-class women often set their sights on wealthier men in order to marry out of their circumstances; however, they often settle for being the minor wife of a wealthy man. Married middle- and upper-class women perceive potential minor wives as a threat to the stability of their marriages and believe that commercial sex can provide male needs for sexual variety and frequency without jeopardizing their own positions. Such women tolerate their husbands’ occasional purchase of commercial sex in order to reduce their concerns about minor wives.
Professor Vicharn Vitiyasai of Chang Mai University even stated that, “In Thai society, boys begin to buy women when they are around 13 years old; 50 per cent of 16-year-old boys and 90 per cent of university students go to brothels.” (Yayori Matsui, Women in the New Asia, 1999)
Information and statistics gathered from the article “Rethinking the Sex Industry” Author: Dulcey Simpkins Go to the full article
Trafficking in Thailand
Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Thai victims of trafficking and some of the estimated three to four million migrant workers in Thailand are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labour or sex trafficking. Some labour trafficking victims are exploited in commercial fishing and related industries, factories, agriculture, and domestic work, or forced into street begging. Migrant workers who are trafficking victims may be deported without effective screening for indicators of trafficking. Sex trafficking remains a significant problem in Thailand’s extensive commercial sex industry.
Women, men, boys, and girls from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar are subjected to labour and sex trafficking in Thailand. Thailand is also a transit country for victims from China, North Korea, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar subjected to sex trafficking or forced labour in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Russia, South Korea, the United States, and countries in Western Europe.
Thai nationals have been subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking in Thailand and in countries in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Members of ethnic minorities, highland persons, and stateless persons in Thailand have experienced instances of abuse indicative of trafficking. Children from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are victims of sex trafficking in brothels, massage parlours, bars, karaoke lounges, hotel rooms, and private residences.
Local NGOs report the use of social media to recruit children into sex trafficking. Some parents or brokers force children from Thailand, Cambodia, andMyanmar to sell flowers, beg, or work in domestic service in urban areas. Child sex trafficking, once known to occur in highly visible establishments, has become increasingly clandestine, occurring in massage parlours, bars, karaoke lounges, hotels, and private residences. Reports indicate separatist groups in southern Thailand continue to recruit and use children to commit acts of arson or serve as scouts.
The majority of Thai trafficking victims identified during the year 2014 were found in sex trafficking. Women and girls from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar, including some who initially intentionally seek work in Thailand’s extensive sex trade, are subjected to sex trafficking. Victims are subjected to sex trafficking in venues that cater to local demand and in business establishments that cater to foreign tourists’ demand.
The need for a project like Baking For Freedom is immense
Looking at the statistics, the history, and the economic and cultural factors that surround the sex trade in Thailand, people often throw up their hands and shake their heads. But there is hope. Baking For Freedom will address the issue at its centre. Go to The Project page to find out how.