Sex Work in Thailand: Re-imagining Empowerment by Danielle Neufeld

by Christine Sine

Sai boarded a crowded bus and waved goodbye to her family members. She had never left the comfort of her own province before. As the eldest daughter and financial breadwinner of her household, she felt pressure to provide for her family, including her daughter. Sai borrowed money until she had enough to purchase a one-way bus ticket from Korat, in Northeast Thailand, to Pattaya city. Having never left the province of Isaan, the trip proved to be much longer than she had expected.

Sai was forced to quit school after 6th grade when her family no longer had enough money to pay for books and uniforms. Instead, her family required that she spend her time contributing to the household. Sai’s family attempted to make a living from farming, but the dry and infertile soil made it difficult to produce successful crops. She worked hard to help her family, but the harvests were minimal. It was not long until Sai’s family began to accrue tremendous debt. They owed money to middlemen, brokers, and banks, and were eventually forced to sell their land and give up their livelihood.


Walking Street in Pattaya, Thailand, the sex tourism center of Thailand


Sai had seen many other villagers leave the countryside to look for work in Pattaya. After her neighbor had gone to Pattaya, she noticed the woman’s family members could make ends meet. They paid off debt and bought new motorbikes. She was told that work in the city was easier than farming. Sai hoped that she would be as lucky as her neighbor.

When Sai arrived in Pattaya, she was overwhelmed by flashing neon lights and the busyness of the city. The smog stung her eyes; she had never experienced it. The noise made her head spin; she had never heard these kinds of city noises. She was surprised to hear so many strange languages being spoken around her. She was excited to see the ocean for the first time but she was disappointed to find it littered with garbage. She heard many women speaking Isaan, her own Northeastern dialect, but was surprised by the way these women were dressed. They wore form fitting outfits and sat in a row along the beach front. They also lined the streets in attempt to draw customers into the bars. They held signs and smiled at people walking by. She saw many foreign men walking around and surveying the area. These men would occasionally stop and talk to the women. Sai had never really talked to a foreigner before. She had heard people refer to Pattaya as ‘Little Isaan’, but the area had no semblance of home.

Sai did not know a single person in Pattaya upon arrival. Her first day in the city, she walked around and inquired about potential job opportunities in the area. She knew she lacked many skills, but she learned quickly and was determined to provide for her family members back home. She eventually got a job at a local restaurant, selling Thai food to foreign clientele. She was not able to keep the job due to her quiet disposition and inability to speak English. The pay was also very poor. One of her coworkers at the restaurant recommended a job at a local bar.

Sai had never entered a bar before and she had never drank alcohol. She did not like the idea of working in a bar, but she would lose face if she went back to Isaan empty-handed. The manager of the bar gave her a job on the spot and told her to get changed into her work uniform. She was ashamed to wear clothing so revealing. The manager also insisted she drink alcohol to calm her nerves. She was given a number to wear on her chest. Once she started her shift, she was approached by foreign men, but she was unable to understand them. The men bought her drinks and eventually she felt intoxicated. The manager assured Sai that she should feel lucky that the men liked her. Eventually, he negotiated on Sai’s behalf and she was instructed to leave the bar with one of the strangers. This frightened Sai, but she went with the man, paralyzed by fear. The man took her to his hotel. This scenario continued night after night, until Sai decided she could no longer continue.

Unfortunately, the story of Sai and other women like her is very common in Thailand. Since the start of the Vietnam War, Thailand has been a global hub for the sex industry catering to both local and foreign clients. Poverty, lack of education and cultural expectations of women have led to the prevalence of sex work in Thailand. As people of faith, what needs to be understood about these women and what can we do to help combat the cycle of sex work in Thailand?

1. Sex Work vs Human Trafficking: “Sex trafficking” is a buzz word that continues to draw global support from churches, faith-based NGOs, and secular organizations. However, defining all sex workers as trafficked can be detrimental. It may hinder organizations and individuals from understanding and delving deeper into the social and cultural factors at work. It can also send the message that those who were not trafficked in the traditional sense are not victims of unjust systems. There is a pervasive image that exists of Thai sex workers as shackled slaves, kept in positions of servitude and too afraid to speak out. This is certainly not the norm in Thailand, as most women fall into the sex industry due to lack of opportunity and familial pressure. Sex work in Thailand is a convoluted issue and difficult to understand at the surface level and the word “trafficking” can add to the difficulty. It is important to remember that sex workers in Thailand are not a homogeneous group and that choosing to work in the sex industry due to lack of economic opportunity does not mean you are not a victim.

2. Victims of the Sex Industry are Not Powerless and Do Not Need to be Rescued by Foreign Organizations: I once held strongly to the idea that most women working in sex tourism in Thailand were defenseless victims. In reality, they are a people who have incredible strength. Sex workers are victims of injustice and they are remarkable survivors. Portraying Thai sex workers as powerless women in need of rescue causes harm. Thai sex workers often define their role in terms of economic credibility. The shame of their role as prostitutes is less than the shame of failing to provide for their families. Hearing stories from Thai women involved in sex tourism expanded my narrow scope of the sex trade in Thailand. These women go to unspeakable lengths to give to others, to honor their families, to keep themselves safe, and to ultimately survive. This strength should not be ignored or extinguished. If translated to other arenas of life, this kind of strength could be very powerful and transformative.

For foreign organizations, a change in mindset from saviors to capacity builders needs to take place. Saviors need only to swoop in and solve the problem. Saviors do not need to learn a language, partner with local support, or practice cultural sensitivity and understanding. Unfortunately, this is a common mistake. Though the presence of International NGOs has caused a shift in the general mindset in Thailand about the exploitation of the poor, some of these organizations have also caused an increase in dependency on foreign intervention and have not adequately built up local capacity, thus only putting a band aid on a broken bone.


Same Thread Thai community partner, Nee


3. We Can Make a Difference!: Empowerment, economic opportunity and prevention can effect change! At the beginning of this post, we were introduced to Sai, a former sex worker with a common story. One evening as I sat with Sai, I asked her, “What do most girls hope to accomplish once they leave the sex industry?” Sai was silent for a moment and then said, “Some hope to go home and live their lives and sometimes they are a success. Most want to find good men. One woman I know started a grocery store and she is doing well. The store is expanding and other women are encouraged by her success. It is a testimony to others. Most women want to stay out of prostitution but it does not always work out that way. They need work they can support their families with”. Studies suggest that offering Thai sex workers, or women vulnerable to involvement in the sex industry, alternative employment that does not empower and is not lucrative is not ultimately effective.

While many organizations focus on the after care of women coming out of the Thai sex industry, there are very few that work in prevention. With an estimated 90% of Thai sex industry workers coming from the poverty stricken region of Isaan, providing education and economic opportunity in Isaan is crucial to breaking the cycle of sex work in Thailand. Due to my belief in the power of providing opportunity to women, my business partner and I are launching an ethical fashion company that is sourced and manufactured in Isaan. Same Thread is a fashion forward clothing line launching this summer that works to provide economic opportunity to women in Isaan, while also providing job mentoring and access to education. By employing a more holistic approach to prevention we hope to not only effect change in the lives of the women we work with but to also help build the local economy in the villages we work in.

In order to bring healing and reconciliation to the booming sex industry of Thailand it is critical to firstly, strive for understanding and secondly, support prevention efforts and find creative avenues to economic empowerment. Let’s work together to re-imgine what opportunity and empowerment can look like for the women of Thailand.


danielleDanielle was raised in Fresno, CA where she was exposed at an early age to a very ethnically diverse community. She has lived in Thailand, Germany, and Argentina and has traveled to more than 40 different countries. She has a background in community development and completed her MA in International Development where she focused her research on cultural context and community development practices, using the Thai sex industry as a case study. After living in Thailand and many long term visits, she has a love for Thailand and its people. She is the Co-Founder and Thai Program Director of Same Thread, a social enterprise that brings economic opportunity to women in Thailand through fashion forward clothing production. She currently lives and works in Seattle, WA. On a typical Saturday she can be found playing with her daughter Angelique, gardening, making Thai food, drinking beer, spending time with loved ones and singing karaoke in the International District.

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