Thailand Law Journal 2009 Spring Issue 1 Volume 12

C. Demand for Prostitution

What are the factors that create this demand for prostitution in Thailand over the centuries?  A variety of cultural attitudes, economic considerations, and legal responses combine to create a demand for prostitution in Thailand.

1. Cultural Attitudes

While much of the visible forms of prostitution center on Western customers, the highest demand for prostitutes is the local market which consists of Thai [FN20] men and Asian men of other ethnicities living in Thailand. [FN21] It also includes immigrants from Burma, Cambodia, and other countries, as well as Asian tourists from Japan, Korea and China. In terms of cultural attitudes, prostitution is an accepted part of Thai society. [FN22] The majority of boys have their first sexual experience with a prostitute. An estimated ninety percent of men have visited a prostitute at least once [FN23] and an estimated fifty percent of men regularly visit prostitutes. [FN24] Having multiple sexual partners is considered just part of being a man. [FN25] According to a 1958 public relations department publication:

To sleep out at night or to stay away from home is neither unusual nor badly regarded for a boy.  They generally have their first sexual encounter at the age of sixteen or seventeen with a prostitute.  There is no stigma attached to the frequenting of prostitutes by either married or unmarried men. [FN26]

These practices date back hundreds of years to the tradition of concubines and minor wives, which transformed into prostitution when slavery ended and slave wives had no other options. [FN27] More recently, a Deputy Police General rationalized that prostitutes were necessary because men would rape and engage in other sex crimes to relieve themselves of “a lot of pent-up sexual aggression” if prostitutes were not available. [FN28] According to the Friends of Women Foundation, which provides legal services for women in the sex industry in Bangkok, “[e]ven educated young men do not think it is good to control their desires.”  [FN29] However these attitudes consist of a sexual double standard rooted in a deep[] cultural ambiguity which sees the sexual appetites of men as natural and necessary, but deplores ‘promiscuity’ in women and treats it as a phenomenon to be punished and reformed. This is reflected in the discriminatory arrest pattern, even of those women who have been sexually trafficked, abused and violated. [FN30] Religious beliefs also contribute to these attitudes, although they are not technically based in the teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhism values the non-self, non-attachment to the things of the world.  In this context, women have been traditionally seen as activators of desire and were therefore despised and feared by the monks.  Women were felt to be impure and carnal.  The sexual misconduct of women is a consequence of their karma, their demerit in a former life.  In this way, men can express lust without demerit because it is caused by women.  Women must be reborn as men to achieve a high status.  Even prostitutes, however, can still make merit if they save their families from poverty or donate money to Buddhist temples. [FN31]

These attitudes form the basis of unsophisticated sexual social policy.  For instance, sex education for students is mandatory for girls but not for boys. [FN32] In a move to curb teen sex on Loi Kratong, a romantic holiday akin to Valentine's Day, the Social Development and Human Security Minister proposed a campaign of blocking motel entrances and shining flashlights in the faces of teens caught at motels. [FN33]

2. Economic Considerations

Economic considerations are a major driving force behind the existence and prevalence of prostitution in Thailand.  The sex industry, which includes brothel prostitution, go-go bars, karaokes, discos, massage parlors, barber shops, beauty parlors, call girls, beer bars, escort agencies, and nearly a hundred other forms, combines to form a multi-million dollar industry with an annual turnover nearly double the annual Thai government budget. [FN34] When the indirect receipts, such as alcohol sales, rents, and bribes and kickbacks, are factored in, the figures become even more staggering.

The economic power of prostitution is both domestic and international.  In some villages, the primary development dollars consist of money being sent back from daughters working in places such as Patpong and Pattaya.  Yet in addition to this hidden contribution to the Thai local economy, the sex industry is much larger in terms of raw dollars and raw image on the international sex stage.  Though prostitution is technically illegal and Thailand has attempted to tone down its Sex-Capital-of-the-World image, a strong link exists between the sex industry and international tourism.  Tourism is a key pillar of the Thai economy, at 6% of gross domestic product.[FN35] Year 2005 figures saw more than thirteen million international tourists and 450 million Baht, or approximately 11 million U.S. Dollars of tourism revenue pour into the Thai economy.[FN36] Six million international tourists visited Thailand annually in the mid 1990s; an estimated two-thirds of them were men traveling alone.[FN37] Although not all were sex tourists or “sexpatriates,” the sex industry is one of the prime supports of the tourism pillar. The Skytrain mass transit system, which opened for business at the end of 1999 to alleviate legendary Bangkok traffic and to make the City of Angels more accessible to tourists and residents alike, [FN38] conveniently stops at three of the main Western sex tourism spots, including the legendary Patpong, and two other sex-for-sale locations that are known by the name of their Skytrain stop.

This connection between Western tourism and the Thai sex industry is no accident, having carefully cultivated its roots in the R&R dollars of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era.  In fact, the American military is to blame for some of the resurgence of the Thai sex industry, which was being curtailed by a puritanical prime minister before lucrative R&R contracts persuaded savvy Thai and Chinese businessmen to open up sea ports such as Pattaya and land ports such as Patpong to the influx of American servicemen on Sun and Sex leave. [FN39]

[FN20]. “Thai” can mean both the ethnic Thai people as well as other people who live in Thailand but are not ethnically Thai, such as tribal minorities, Chinese and to a lesser extent, Indian and Malays.

[FN21]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 79 (“[A] majority of the clients of prostitutes are Thai men.”). See also Jeffrey, supra note 2, at 40 (“Even today, tourism accounts for a very small proportion of the prostitution industry. According to a number of analysts, the majority of clients of prostitutes are Thai.”).

[FN22]. See generally Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand (Peter A. Jackson & Nerida M. Cook eds., 1999).

[FN23]. Jeffrey, supra note 2, at xiv (“Reports of 88 percent or 90 percent of Thai men having visited a prostitute at least once in their lifetime made national and international news.”); cf. Human Rights Watch, Asia Watch & the Women's Rights Project, A Modern Form of Slavery; Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothers in Thailand, n.25 (1993) [hereinafter Modern Form of Slavery], available at (claiming that 75% of Thai men have visited a prostitute).

[FN24]. Some estimates are even higher. “Prostitutes are despised, although 90% of Thai men use them.” Seabrook, supra note 3, at 88.

[FN25]. See, e.g., Seabrook, supra note 3:
               Thai society believes that boys are mischievous, men naturally promiscuous.  Men need sex, but good women (this usually means the well-to-do) are expected to remain virgins until marriage.  Prostitution is the only mechanism that can satisfy these asymmetrical arrangements-provide sex for men while enabling higher class women to remain virtuous.
        Id. at 79.

[FN26]. Jeffrey, supra note 2, at 22 (quoting Vibul Thamavit & Robert D. Golden, The Family in Thailand, in Aspects & Facets of Thailand 2 (Witt Siwasariyanon ed., 1958)).

[FN27]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 81. “Slavery lasted until 1905. This left women to subsistence labour. They were also forced into an indentured polygamy and prostitution.” Id.

[FN28]. Modern Form of Slavery, supra note 23, at n.79.

[FN29]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 85.

[FN30]. Id. at 139.

[FN31]. Id. at 80.

[FN32]. By contrast, recognizing that “[n]inety-nine per cent of clients in the sex trade are male” and that “[b]oys are trained to be offenders and girls to be victims,” Kuhn Sanphosit from the Thai NGO Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights explains that “[t]o take good care of boys is vital, so that they do not become hungry, predatory outcasts, the abusers of tomorrow.” Id. at 168.

[FN33]. Wattana Vows to Shame Teen Lovers amid Outrage, The Nation (Thailand), Nov. 12, 2005.

[FN34]. Secrets of Bangkok (Singapore Airlines/Discovery Travel and Living broadcast Nov. 13, 2005).

[FN35]. BBC News, Will Thailand's Tourism Be Affected?: The Southern Provinces of Thailand Where There Have Been Gun Battles Between Islamic Militants and Police Are Far from the Tourist Havens of Phuket, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, Apr. 28, 2004, available at http://

[FN36]. Tourism Authority of Thailand, Target of Tourism in Thailand 1997-2006 (Aug. 18, 2005), (last visited Feb. 24, 2006).

[FN37]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 89.

[FN38]. See Thailand, Social and Labor Issues: Infrastructure, (last visited Apr. 9, 2006).

[FN39]. “At any one time there were 70,000 men in Bangkok for rest and recreation during the Vietnam war. The phenomenon of the miachao, the ‘rented wife’, was common; women hired for cleaning, washing and sex, all the most degrading elements rolled into one, a mixture of servant and prostitute.” Seabrook, supra note 3, at 105-06 (quoting Chantawipa, founder of EMPOWER) (internal quotations omitted).


This article is published with the kind permission of Christa Foster Crawford. The article originally appeared in Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender, Summer 2006 issue.


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