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Thailand Drafts Bill to Decriminalize its Billion-Dollar Sex Trade

FILE - Dancers wearing face shields dance inside a bar at Patpong nightlife and sex trade district in Bangkok, July 9, 2020.
FILE - Dancers wearing face shields dance inside a bar at Patpong nightlife and sex trade district in Bangkok, July 9, 2020.

From the rows of massage parlors, pulsing night clubs and rowdy bars of Thailand’s gaudy red-light districts, the country’s billion-dollar sex trade operates all but in the open.

Technically, the sex they sell is illegal, but a new government-led plan aims to change that. It calls for repealing the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, which makes most sex work a crime, and replacing it with a new law, the Protection of Sex Work Act, affirming the rights of sex workers and their places of business to sell sex.

The bill’s proponents hope it will help the country’s sex workers — estimated to number anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 — ply their trade more safely and earn higher wages. Opponents fear it will leave many sex workers exploited by middlemen and trafficking gangs, and clash with the country’s values and traditions.

“The law is now out of date,” said Jintana Janbumrung, director-general of the Department of Women’s Affairs and Family Development, which is spearheading the reform effort.

By giving sex workers legal status, she said, “they can be workers who have access to the same welfare as other occupations, whose rights will not be violated, who will not be exploited by their clients or sex business operators [and have] a better quality of life.”

To help craft the bill, her department hired Narong Jaiharn, an associate professor at Thailand’s Thammasat Law School, and held a series of public hearings across the country.

While getting paid for sex is not illegal in and of itself in Thailand, he said, soliciting and advertising paid sex is. So is running a business where sex is for sale, he added, putting much of the country’s sex industry outside the law.

Repealing the 1996 law would make all that legal. The new law drafted to replace it, though, would require the clubs, bars and parlors where sex is sold to apply for a special license.

The goal is to make sex work safer.

“Sex workers are afraid of the police because it is illegal,” Narong said. “If they inform that they [were] assault by someone, the police ask them ... where [were you] assault and why you go there?”

If the draft bill were made law, he added, “sex workers can tell the police that this is legal work and during their work they have been assault by the client.”

With legal status, Narong said, sex workers could also sign binding contracts subject to the country’s labor laws with the licensed businesses selling their services. The bill would give the country’s labor courts express jurisdiction to settle disputes over any contracts and agreements between those businesses and their sex workers.

FILE - Members of SWING (Service Members in Group) Foundation, an organization for the empowerment of sex workers in Thailand, perform for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies during Pride March in Bangkok on June 5, 2022.
FILE - Members of SWING (Service Members in Group) Foundation, an organization for the empowerment of sex workers in Thailand, perform for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies during Pride March in Bangkok on June 5, 2022.

That is a welcome prospect to Mai in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai city, where the sex trade thrives steps away from the quaint holy temples of the city’s cloistered old town, a popular stop on the country’s tourist trail.

Now 37, she started selling sex 10 years ago after a string of low-paid jobs picking crops, bussing tables and cleaning hotels, anything to help support her family but nothing that paid as well as sex work.

“People have to work to make a living, just like everyone else,” she said. “Right now I take care of my father. My mother passed away some years ago, and my brother and sister have grown up. I used to support them too.”

She said most of the other sex workers she knows are also parents.

If her work were legal, Mai said the bar she works out of would not have to skim her wages to pay the bribes so local authorities will turn a blind eye. She said she could also get the bar to fix her wages at a guaranteed rate that would not rise or fall at the owner’s whim, as they do now.

“If I gain weight, or if I can’t get the customer to buy more drinks, the bar makes its own rules to cut my wages. Those rules would be against the law, but since sex work is illegal, the bar takes advantage,” she said.

With labor laws on the sex workers’ side, she added, “we could get paid fairly and we would be just like other workers in other jobs.”


Sanphasit Koompraphant, a former director of Thailand’s nongovernment Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights Foundation, said licensing businesses to sell sex, as the bill proposes, would still amount to the commercial exploitation of sex workers and land the country afoul of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which it ratified in 1985.

He said Thais should have the right to sell their own sex on their own behalf, but that he worries that entrenching the system of middlemen who now run much of the industry will also keep sex workers from earning their fair share of the profits. Without stepped-up law enforcement, he said he worries too that arming bars and clubs with government licenses to sell sex could make it easier for sex traffickers, who force people into the industry, to hide their crimes in the guise of a legal business.

Sanphasit said the government should be doing more to draw people away from or out of the sex trade, rather than formally endorsing an industry he believes is bred by, and breeds, other social ills.

“This group of women will have very serious ... physical health and mental health problems, which means that we have to pay a lot of money to treat them. And moreover they will create more problems of family conflict and it will affect to Thai development,” he said. “It means we have to spend a lot of money to solve not only ... the health problem, but including social problem and family problem too.”

Narong said some who came to the public hearings he held also complained that legalizing or decriminalizing sex work would run counter to Thai culture.

Whether the bill the government has now drafted becomes law will be up to a new administration and parliament. The National Assembly was dissolved last month in preparation for elections on May 14.

The major parties in the race have said little or nothing about the issue so far. Still, Surang Janyam, a sex workers’ rights advocate who runs a group called Service Workers in Group, or SWING, said she remains optimistic about change.

After nearly 30 years of urging a succession of administrations to decriminalize the industry, to no avail, she said she believes the odds of some progress are at least growing.

“Because sex work [has] a lot of stigma, not a lot of the people [want] to come out to say, oh, I support. But if we look [at] the last five years, six years, I see the trend is better,” she said. “The support by the government ... is more than in the past.”