Tourists flock to Thailand for its temples and beaches, but also for its sex workers. From go-go girls to ladyboys, Thai cities and resorts like Bangkok and Pattaya are known as hubs of the Southeast Asian sex trade, despite the fact that prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960.
It’s clear many officials and law enforcement have turned a blind eye for decades. This could be changing. Thailand’s first female minister of tourism, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, recently called for an end to the debauchery. “We want Thailand to be about quality tourism,” she told Reuters. “We want the sex industry gone.”
Kobkarn’s proclamation came after police raided dozens of brothels last month, though only one establishment was shut down, with 100 workers arrested, including 15 who were underage.
The minister’s policies jibe well with those of the military junta that came to power via a coup in 2014 and appointed her soon after. Junta rhetoric has emphasized how corruption in the country must be eliminated. Corruption plays a significant role in keeping the sex trade afloat, as owners of venues pay a variety of bribes—even daily—to police and local officials to stay in business.
Advocates for sex workers say the plan to shutter their trade would impoverish them. While Thailand’s minimum wage is 300 baht ($8.59) a day, street prostitutes can earn, per transaction, around 1,200 baht ($34). For bar-based go-go girls, the fee is around $85.
The advocates emphasize that people work in the business out of necessity, not desire. “[They] only lack opportunities, which made them undertake [this] work in the first place,” Chantawipa Apisuk, director of an NGO that provides assistance to Thai sex workers, told the Bangkok Post. Chantawipa supports the legalization of prostitution for the official protections it would afford workers, while other activists say they welcome the ban—but only if the government has jobs ready for the newly unemployed.
Ten percent of Thailand’s GDP comes from tourism. While Thai men are the sex industry’s most habitual customers, foreigners bring in a good amount of business. One economist estimated that Thailand’s “shadow economy”—of which the sex trade is a part, along with other illegal activities like gambling as well as informal businesses such as street food carts—made up around 40 percent of real GDP in 2014. As such, banning the sex trade could have significant consequences not only for the workers and recipients of bribes, but the economy as a whole.
As Chantawipa said, “If you want to know how much this industry supports our country’s tourism, get sex workers to go on strike for a day. Everybody would lose it.”