Thailand Law Journal 2012 Fall Issue 1 Volume 15


The complex nature of child prostitution in Thailand became apparent when I undertook ethnographic fieldwork between 1993 and 1994 in a small slum community, which I have called Baan Nua. Situated on the edge of a larger tourist resort in Thailand, Baan Nua was a poor community that survived through the prostitution of its children. The children's clients were exclusively Western, and the children's parents were not only well aware of their conduct, but even encouraged it. Approximately 150 people lived in Baan Nua, including sixty-five children, around thirty-five of whom worked as prostitutes. My research focused on boys and girls between the ages of six and fourteen. I spent fifteen months doing this research, interviewing the children, gathering life histories, and acting as a participant observer in their lives.66

Given the community's extreme poverty and lack of resources, a culture of need led these children into prostitution. The people of Baan Nua had migrated to this resort approximately fifteen years earlier to look for work in the informal economy and had put up makeshift houses of scrap wood and corrugated iron. It was a poor community without running water and only intermittent electricity, which the inhabitants patched into illegally from the supply of a local supermarket. The number of households fluctuated throughout the year as partners changed, children moved out, or the makeshift houses collapsed.

One of the most striking facts about the children in Baan Nua was that they lived with their parents. In contrast to the image presented in the media, the children had not been trafficked, debt bonded, or tricked. The children were therefore technically "free" and able to exercise a certain amount of control over their clients. There was no formal organization for prostitution in Baan Nua. Children entered the trade through the encouragement of friends or older siblings who introduced them to clients,
showed them what acts they had to perform, and looked after them afterwards. The clients of these children were from several European countries with three men in particular (from Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy) having the most contact with the children. Generally, the children stayed in the village and lived with their families, but sometimes they stayed overnight with clients. In a few cases, the older children (those over fourteen) stayed for a period of a month or two with visiting men but
frequently returned to the village during the day if they were not needed by their clients.

A. Viewing Paid Sex and its Income as a Familial Obligation Within Baan Nua, as in much of rural Thailand, children were seen as a parental investment with an anticipated return, and they were expected to work for the family as soon as they were able. This emphasis on filial duty has been a constant theme in ethnographic and other studies of prostitution in Thailand. As mentioned previously, Muecke argues that while girls in the past would have earned money through market trading, contemporary young women are likely to earn money through prostitution.67 Economist Pasuk Phongpaichit made a similar point in an early study of young prostitutes in Thailand. She argued that daughters who left their rural homes to work as prostitutes had not run away, had not been coerced into prostitution, and had not discarded the principles of support and repayment. These women and girls were fulfilling their obligations as best they could in a changed environment by earning money elsewhere and sending home the remittances.68

Concepts of gratitude and obedience towards parents remained important cultural reference points. Whenever I asked the children in Baan Nua about prostitution, they almost always referred to these concepts. I was constantly told that prostitution was a means to an end, a way of fulfilling the filial obligations that the children felt were demanded of them by their families.
Despite the stigma against prostitution, a powerful mitigating circumstance for many of them was the financial support they provided for their parents, particularly their mothers.69

This is not to argue that child prostitution is an intrinsic part of Thai culture or that it is not abusive, but these responses do suggest that the children's view of prostitution should be understood through the cultural reference points of duty and obligation. From the observations I made of these children, it was clear that they had profoundly different understandings of sex than Western observers. For these children, neither prostitution nor sexuality were the focus of their identity, which was based
instead on belonging to a society and fulfilling obligations to their family and the community. The children felt that by earning money for their parents and keeping the family together, they were acting in socially sanctioned roles as dutiful daughters and sons. Prostituting themselves with the "right" intentions meant that there was little opprobrium on what they did. While outsiders might label prostitution with foreign clients as abusive, exploitative, and a form of trafficking, in the children's view, selling sex
was about social relationships and fulfilling their filial obligations to their families.70

However misguided the children might have been, and however little they understood the wider political, social, and economic contrast of their situation, they remained adamant throughout the interviews I conducted with them that they were agents who could exercise some sort of choice. The children had strategies for rationalizing prostitution and for coming to terms with it. They consistently refused to admit to prostitution, rejecting the term when I used it, calling it an ugly thing that had no meaning in their lives. In their terms, it was only children in brothels who could be called prostitutes. The children also continually emphasized that they did not "sell sex," but rather they went "out for fun with foreigners" or had "guests."

Furthermore, these children had an ethical system whereby the public selling of their bodies did not affect their private sense of humanity and identity. When I asked one thirteen-year-old about selling her body, she replied, "it's only my body." She could make a clear conceptual difference between her body and what she perceived to be her innermost "self' and her personal sense of identity and morality. When I asked her about the difference between adultery and prostitution, she told me that adultery was very wrong. In her eyes, adultery was a betrayal of a private relationship, whereas prostitution was simply done for money. Betraying family members, failing to provide for parents, or cheating on spouses or boyfriends were roundly condemned, but exchanging sex for moneyespecially when that money was used for moral ends-was not blameworthy nor did it violate any ethical codes. Furthermore, ideas about sexual abuse played limited parts in these children's understandings of what they did.

My study also showed very different understandings about both the shortand long-term effects of sex on these children. In Western psychological terms, such acts would be seen as causing life-long damage, but sex was understood very differently in this context. When a mother was asked about whether or not she was worried that her eight-year-old son was a prostitute,
she replied, "It's just for one hour. What harm can happen to him in one hour?" The reality that a child's body is too small for penetration by an adult was ignored, despite evidence of harm done by these men seen in the bleeding and tearing that occurred during these encounters.71 Mothers would condemn such acts and do whatever they could to help their children overcome the pain, but these mothers still claimed not to see it as fundamentally harmful to their children in the long-term or damaging to their mental health. Such occurrences were viewed entirely in physicalrather than psychological-terms, and there was no belief that long-term damage could be inflicted on a child in "just one hour."

[1]  [2]  [3]  [4]  [5]  [6]  [7]  [8]  [9]

66 For a full discussion of methods and ethical dilemmas, see Heather Montgomery, Working with Child Prostitutes in Thailand: Problems of Practice and Interpretation 14 in CHILDHOOD 415 (2007). I carried out this research as part of a doctorate in social anthropology between 1994 and 1995. Although many anthropologists use the ethnographic present when discussing their research, I have used the past tense to describe the situation that I worked in. Shortly after I finished the research, the community disbanded, and the inhabitants of Baan Nua migrated to other parts of Thailand. For this reason, the use of the past tense seems most apt.

67 Muecke, supra note 39, at 897.


69 Such a view is not uncommon, and other studies with both adults and children have shown that how a person spends their earnings can help mitigate the stigma of sex work. For a vivid example of this see PATTY KELLY, LYDIA'S OPEN DOOR: INSIDE MEXICO'S MOST MODERN BROTHEL (2008).

70 MONTGOMERY, supra note 25, at 82-84.

71 Brian M Willis & Barry S Levy, Child Prostitution: Global Health Burden, Research Needs, and Interventions, 359 THE LANCET 1417 (2002), available at women/PDFs/Willis&Levy_2002.pdf.


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