Notes From The Road: Sex Worker Surprise

I really, really never thought I’d spend a Monday night this way:We walk into the side entrance of a swanky, gold-marqueed hotel and towards a back room that promises ‘turkish bath massage.’ “How do farang know that this is sex massage not massage/massage?” I ask my friend Rin. “You have to look around, look at the environment,” she grins as she pushes open the door.

There, inside the murky bar, we see what can only be described as a ‘lady aquarium’ – a brightly lit, glassed-in corner where sex workers in brightly colored dresses sit on red velvet risers, waiting for customers. They smile at us and wave; Rin shows the bartender her giant bag of condoms and pulls me toward the entrance of the aquarium. We stumble inside and Rin starts handing out condoms and promoting my English class. I smile shyly at the ladies and feel oddly under-dressed in my jeans and fleece. Some of the women are watching a Korean soap opera on a tv in the corner, one is painting her nails, several are barefoot. They’re incredibly sweet and coo over my hair and skin and promise to attend class if they’re not sleeping or hung over at when it starts at 3 pm the next day.

We slip back out and the customers seem unconcerned by the appearance of two be-jeaned NGO workers. They turn back to the aquarium to watch the ladies in the sparkly little nothings.

I spent the last week in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand teaching English to sex workers with EMPOWER, an NGO that works towards safe, fair working conditions for sex workers. And to be 100% honest, I took this gig completely out of curiosity. What would these women be like? What would they look like? If I met them on the street, would I be able to guess that they were sex workers?

Before coming here, I imagined 14-year-old girls sold to pimps by their families, smuggled across borders in the back of a truck and then trapped in brothels, humping 70-year-old men.

Or maybe that’s just me and my tendency towards hyperbole. The reality is significantly less shocking.

* Every sex worker I met had made an active choice to be a sex worker. No one had been ‘sold into’ prostitution. No one ended up in sex work because she’d failed at other jobs. They all wanted to be there.

* Despite what investigative news shows would have us believe, child prostitution is actually very, very rare in Thailand

* Thai sex workers don’t see themselves as victims and they are not interested in rescue/rehabilitation/retraining. One woman asked me “Why do I have to learn how to use a sewing machine? So I can be a tailor and make no money? And I can’t send my children to school? When I’m a sex worker, I can make a lot of money to send my children to school and university. I can help my parents and I can build a house. I don’t want to sew!”

* All the sex workers involved with EMPOWER have taken a pledge to use condoms with every customer, every time

* Just like any job, sex workers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. I met model-esque 20-year-olds in tiny dresses and false eyelashes. I met 40-year-olds in track suits and no make-up, playing bingo on the patio outside a bar.

* There are married sex workers, divorced sex workers, single sex workers. There are sex workers with children.

* Sex work in Thailand is actually quite different from other countries. Most sex workers are employed by a karaoke bar, where they work as employees, with shifts and work schedules. They wash glasses, serve drinks, chat with bar patrons, dance, sing songs, give massages and give tours of the city. EMPOWER estimates that only about 2% of their time is spent performing sex acts.

What are your thoughts about sex work? Degrading to women? Serving a need within society? Should be legalized? Should be banned?

26 Comments

Holly And the Ivy

To be honest, if they're not forced into doing it for whatever reason and they don't mind or enjoy doing it, fair play to them. It's a job that pays well apprently but it just involves something that is considered not the norm.
Given the right circumstances, this job is more empowering and turns out better rewards than an office job in the western world where a woman is paid less than a man for twice the amount of work, can't make it to manager despite her skills because of sex descimination so is stuck to try and climb the ladder further more or quit and find something else to do with her life. Even though this isn't as common these days it is still commmon enough to be widely recognised that women just don't get as much of an opertunity as men do.
Ah well, I guess it's just down to difference in culture and society.
An interesting read and something to think about. It certainly made me realise that they weren't all forced into it, it's nice to know that some of the girls are happy with their profession. 🙂

Holly And the Ivy

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Anonymous

For those interested, Mark Askew has written an excellent ethnography on go-go dancers and sex workers in Bangkok. It is chapter 9 in his book 'Bangkok: Place, Practice, and Representation', the majority of which you can read on GoogleBooks.

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Anonymous

I'm not very educated on the topic so I don't have a strong opinion, but I think that since it's inevitable anywhere, it's best to have it legalized.

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Stephanie

I'm a big fan of leagalizing prostitution. With that it can be regulated, people can have the ability to get health care for it, and regular doctor visits will be a higher priority. If anything bad were to ever happen to a girl or guy they could call the police without the fear of being prosecuted themselves. Also, if it is legal then it is taxable. We (and by we I mean our country [or which ever country you're in]) could be making money off of it and they could be filing taxes based on this income. There might be an opportunity for tax credits for their children, or school.

So let's see…safety to clients, safety to workers, and taxable income…it sounds like quite a few groups are getting a bonus here.

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Michelle

This is definitely much different from what people are often told about sex work in Thailand. Though there are exceptions to any rule, this is certainly enlightening. I know several friends who have worked and taught in Thailand and there seem to be some great NGOs focused on sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention, and EMPOWER seems really wonderful. You'll have to update us on how many ladies show up to your class! I'm interested in how receptive/truly interested these gals are in learning English (I may be moving to Thailand soon to teach). Anyway, a great post, thanks for sharing!

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trevor the lionhearted

The ultimate truth is that men will ALWAYS pay to have sex with women. Whether or not it's legal, the demand is a part of the human/animalistic nature and it won't go away. So, it is most definitely safer to allow and regulate sex work. Allow willing participants to be accounted for, tested for disease, etc. then the instances where men do pay for sex from these women can be safe and controlled instead of illegal and dangerous.

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V. Furnas

AS long as they have a choice and are being safe then who do they hurt. It isn't known as the oldest profession with out reason.

Thank you for showing this softer side of the profession.

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Amy --- Just A Titch

Whether one likes it or not doesn't really matter—it's going to happen, and in my opinion, harm reduction should be the most important thing (sort of like clean needle exchange programs, etc.). This EMPOWER organization sounds like it's doing great work…I love that you worked with this. Once again, you win for Coolest Life Ever.

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Princess and the Pea

I think legalising it could make it safer for the sex workers. There would be proper, clean, establishments and women woulnd't need to hang out on dark street corners and under bridges – places where they could easily be grabbed by someone after more than just sex. In the last few years, (in the UK) we've had a lot of prostitutes murdered, usually by serial killers and in really awful ways. Perhaps if it was legalised, there would be more protection for these girls.

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Kiri Marama

@trevor

I think also, women will pay to have sex with men, or with other women. Especially the latter I would imagine. I always find it a little old fashioned when people make the assumption that sex worker are always female, and the clients are always male.

Legalising it may also take away a lot of the stigma that surrounds it as well. And you know what, if it was legal and safe, I'd probably see a sex worker. Imagine what you could learn from them… Plus it would be safer than simply meeting someone in a club and having a one-night stand with them.

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K

That is SO interesting!! Thanks for sharing 🙂 I love reading real things that totally blow the preconceived ideas out of the water.

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Anonymous

So long as the women make the choice to get into that profession, more power to them. I definitely think it should be legalized. It's much like alcohol, guns, marijuana, etc- governments can try to limit it, to ban it, but it won't go away. I also have a lot of respect for these women.

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SnapandPrint

I learned long ago not to judge other cultures and how people make money in them.

I learned from a Filipino friend who was put through college to be a doctor by his mother, who worked in a sweatshop to get money to send both him and his brother to college. he told me if she hadn't worked in the sweatshop, sewing knock-off, fashion, merchandise that his brother and he would not have been able to go to school but would be working and they would ahve to worry about food.

Since then refuse to judge the working choices of people in countries like Thailand. They do what they can to make life pleasant.

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Freya

Love this. There is so much misunderstanding about sex work and sex workers, especially in the US. We have been bred with the idea that it's bad, dirty, and immoral on top of illegal. I was never really educated about it until I started doing burlesque where a small portion of the girls are also call girls. It totally changed my worldview to what they choose to do and why. I am now a supporter of legalized sex work so that they cna gain the same health benefits, which is the biggest risk. Thank you for sharing such a great story and program!

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Antonia M.

I think sex work should be legalised (but then, I come from a country where it is, as a matter of fact, perfectly legal) but regulated.

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Smaggle

Legal! Legal, legal, legal!
In Australia, prostitution is legal in all but one state but it's only legal in brothels. No street walking allowed. I'm also from the only (small as in one city) state in Australia that is allowed to distribute hard core porn. Which means that much of it is filmed here too. Mama Smaggle used to nurse in sexual health and sex workers MUST have health checks every three months or they can't work.

My first job was in a newsagent and we used to take advertisements applications for the local paper for sex workers and you had to make sure they were registered before you could take the advertisement. Quite the eye opening experience for a 16 year old! Became marvellous friends with 'Tiffany' a regular sex worker who'd always bring us chocolates when she placed her ad because we were always so nice to her.

It's the same as any job. Rights for the employer, rights for the employee and rights for the consumer.

Great article – thanks for pointing out that the sob stories are such a small percentage of an otherwise functioning and fairly harmless industry.

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Amoxil

This is actually very good. They are those they wanted to be. As long as women make their choice by their will, nothing is wrong. It's little strange that they count sex as their profession.

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tinadot

It's so great seeing a different perspective, a first-hand personal experience from a woman. The structure within which you came into contact with these women shows such a different side of them than I would have expected (I guess I have the same hyperboles as you mentioned). Totally inspired and curious now to research more into this! Great, great blog btw!!!

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amoxicillin

When you awoke this morning, you may not have realized that March 3 is International Sex Workers Rights Day. If you live in a country where sex work is criminalized, you might be surprised to hear that sex workers have rights. You might even think that they should not have rights, though if that’s the case, I suspect you’ve never spoken with a sex worker.

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cipro

You made some good points .I did a little research on the topic and found that most people agree with your blog. Thanks.

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Anonymous

1 week in 1 disco in 1 small city in Thailand does not make you and expert … you should not generalize your findings especially when the 'misleading' media is based on really research… I live here and work with women in prostitution and the stories are complicated … unless you speak the language and can invest time to get through the defenses you will never know the true story, it is irresponsible to state your experience as truth, feeding all these other people who are looking for excuse to cope out and never think what if I was in those shoes. You clearly have influence now as a blogger, with influence comes responsibility …

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Sarah Von Bargen

Dear Anon,

I certainly do not claim to be an expert on Thai sex workers. I would encourage you to read EMPOWER's webpage (http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html) before you make any statements about sex work and sex workers. It's an organizations founded by sex workers, for sex workers. I believe that when people who we believe to be 'at risk' tell us what they need, we need to listen, rather than make our own assumptions about what's best.

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Anonymous

I am so disgusted by this article. I cannot believe that you are generalizing all sex tourism in Thailand to your ONE experience. Personally I have done alot of research in this field for both child and adult sex tourism industry and have traveled to Thailand and backpacked around the country. I have seen, first hand that the sex tourism industry exploits impoverished woman and children for economic gain. While child sex tourism is not as "in your face" as adult sex tourism, it is there. IT is very very real. When given the choice, sex workers would choose to leave this line of work, unfortunately for 69% of the population who makes US 1.00 dollar a day, sex work become the only option to feed their families. Woman and children are often sold by their families or kidnapped and are forced to stay in brothels by a means of violence by those who run it. Emotional and Behavioral case studies of sex workers( adult/children) demonstrate low self esteem, self worth, a loss of innocence, self blame, attempt suicides, substance abuse, disconnection from society and often stay in sex work because they feel society will no longer accept them, their families will not accept them or abuse them and they feel like they are damaged and do not belong anywhere else.

Silence is power and by stating that most if not all sex workers enjoy what they do and they face no consequences by doing it, you have silenced all the exploited, impoverished and abused woman and children involved in sex work that had no choice in being there. You need to seriously re-think what you're saying before distributing this kind of message.

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Anonymous

I have been to that site, numerous times. While you may find sex workers, which implies what is being exchanged here, prostitution especially done through trafficking is not interchangeable with SEX WORK. In thailand 69% of the population are rural dwellers. Within these geographical locations the daily income is less than US 1.00 a day. A typical sex worker in thailand can make 300 dollars a day.
Prostitution is, realistically the only practical option for many Thai rural dwellers to break-out of their poverty. Thus, Some women view their entry into the sex trade as a sacrifice for their families and in this way the transaction between them and the western man is of dependency. Understanding sexuality through the eyes of a prostitute who has no other choice can best be observed through their own account of it: "It was scary, I didn't like it but I just kept thinking about the money, I felt good about sending it home but not about myself. I wish I had never become a sex worker, these men think we want to do this, but we actually have no choice, were just trying to earn money for our families and waiting for a chance to leave." An interview done with 15 yr old girl who was sold to a brothel and forced into sex work describes herself as a whore, garbage and that she makes herself literally sick every time she thinks about what shes been forced into doing. For many then, sex is not dispassionate or merely an exchange but a deep rooted trauma.

While empower may have woman who have chosen this life, ask yourself this, if the Thai government provided the education and employment opportunities to their people that created equal pay for what they do in the sex industry, would they still do it? My research says no, my case studies say no. Those that do most likely will stay in that field for fear of societal rejection. My point is, do not lump the woman in empower with all the woman in Thailand.

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Anonymous

As I read it and understand the world around me.

There is a to high number of woman working in this industry that are not at all necessary for human life and happiness. Truly there are a few who might want to work in this industry, which I have seen in my home country where it is legal. However even with legality there will be an underground, answer to an underground society is not violent police raids as stated by the empower movement.
Question is really do we ask the right questions ? what if things could be different ?
all the problematics as I see it lies with money and how it controls a country, for money is international controlled by a few people, mainly the rothschilds.
study banking if you want to understand this problem and see how a country can be robbed of all its value impoverishing its people. all hail export and giant cooperations.
Now what if, normal work would pay more ? and people started looking at the human side of life rather than some social stigma ?

It's not easy with a real solution but, possible if enough are awoken to the global financial breakdown crisis, that is the few oligarchs getting richer every year because of robbery. Controlling people as cattle with money.

as long as there is this money system as it is now disconnected with the people and controlling the politics there will always be an underground society.

I love all the people of the world, and hope to inspire humanity on a greater scale.
good day and good luck.

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