This is us


As you may be aware of is prostitution illegal in Thailand. But this does not prevent massage parlours and salons to operate with near immunity. The reasons are that most of the parlours are owned by influential people, and that police, soldiers and public servants accept bribes and – surprise, surprise – are among the customers.

If you open your Body Massage with an official speaker like Pattaya Mayor […], as it happened a few month ago with Rasputin Body Massage on Pattaya 2nd Road – a large parlour with more than 100 rooms, divided into different levels from regular rooms to VIP suites – then your business is legal. Otherwise not!” (Pattaya News Flash, 2010)

Thais love sex, but hide it. It is a common perception that what happens in private, remains private. A massage parlour can operate openly by advertise that they provide “massage and entertainment”. Yes, you get some massage there, and the “entertainment” part is a private matter.

And when you enter Soi Cowboy and other Go-Go bar areas in Bangkok, you will pass a small police booth. The presence of the police ensures that the areas are safe for tourists.

Police raid at a parlour. Photo by Bangkok Post.

Now and then are parlours been raided by the police. The raids can be brutal and intimidating for the sex workers. They are taken to detention centers and later fined. Under age sex workers are considered to be victims of human trafficking, even when they are not forced by others. Foreign sex workers are deported.

If there has been proven that the parlour has employed under-aged and/or foreign sex workers, then the owners and the managers will be charged for breaching the human trafficking act and/or the immigration act, and given long jail sentences.

This T-shirt is funny, but it also illustrates the reality for many people who otherwise are not able to support themselves and their family.

Sex workers are a major part of the black economy in Thailand, supporting themselves and hundreds of thousands of family members. Thanks to their money are more people freed from loan sharks, more kids get higher education, and more people can afford health service.

In 2012 was it reported by The National Economic and Social Advisory Council that owners of go-go bars and massage parlors in Thailand pay a staggering 3.2 billion baht (US$80 million) a year in police bribes.

Although the state no longer openly collects money from sex workers, the country still benefits from the huge foreign exchange generated by sex workers via tourism.

The history

Nudity is only accepted in art.

The earliest record of the State profiting from prostitution in Thailand originates back to 1680 when a Thai official was licensed by the state to run an elite brothel in Ayutthaya, at that time the capital of Siam. The brothel employed 600 women, and many of them were daughters of respected officers.

Sex work was criminalized in 1960, and this has brought many problems for poor people, because they do not have any other options to support themselves and their families.

During the Vietnam war were thousands of American soldiers based in Thailand. In 1967 it was estimated that the spending of the U.S. military personnel on rest and recuperation in Thailand came to approximately five million dollars. By 1970, the amount rose to approximately twenty million dollars, or as much as one-fourth of total rice exports for that year. Up until its end in 1975 the Vietnam War was responsible for injecting some $16 –20 million into the Thai economy annually.

2001 saw the introduction of the Social Order Policy that included no sex shows, no opening after 2am, no customers aged under 20, no alcohol sales before 6pm and creation of entertainment zones.

Empower Foundation

Chantawipa Apisuk.

Empower Foundation was founded by Ms. Chantawipa Apisuk in 1985. Her aim was to provide help to sex workers through programs such as English classes. According to Chantawipa is it about getting the right information before making life decisions, build confidence and empower.

“For every sex worker that retires there’s a new one. But the new generation can be smarter and do it as a second job. Even without higher education they can make as much money as doctors, so why not? I have seen many sex workers live happy, successful lives and start new businesses with their savings”, Chantawipa said in an interview.

“They still want to have a good life. They want a home, car and money for the family just like anyone else. ” “Sex workers are just like those working in other professions. They shouldn’t be punished for making money to feed themselves. They only lack opportunities, which made them go into this work in the first place.” Chantawipa hopes that sex work will be recognised as a legal profession, and thus protected by labour laws.

Empower Foundation also educate visitors from UN bodies, universities, research institutes, government departments, NGOs, journalists and others.

From their WEBSITE: “We are sex workers. We are workers who use our brains and our skill to earn an income. We are proud to support ourselves and our families. We look after each other at work; we fight for safe & fair standards in our industry and equal rights within society. We are a major part of the Thai economy, bringing in lots of tourist dollars. We are active citizens on every issue … politics, economics, environment, laws, rights etc. We try and find the space in society to stand up and be heard. Some see us as problem makers but actually we are part of the solution. We are sex workers; we are EMPOWER.”

  • Sex workers are people who work in a workplace that is called an entertainment complex, massage parlor, AGoGo, beer bar, restaurant, Karaoke etc. Where singing is work, where dancing AGoGo is work, or drinking beer is work.” 
  • “The workplace or entertainment place has a system of regulations. There is a definitive work schedule and a monthly salary paid according to your skill like other jobs. Sex workers are employees.”
  • “Sex workers are people working to support their family; sending their younger brother to be a monk, their older brother to join the military; building a house for their mother; taking their father to hospital when he is sick. They are the head of the family.”

In 2008, Empower Foundation was given the Red Ribbon Award by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Here is an extract from a statement made by Empower Foundation when they received the award:

“Once again we stand together are declare that:

  • Prostitution is not a moral problem that needs to be solved by making merit.
  • Prostitution is not a legal problem that needs to be solved by criminal punishment.
  • Prostitution is human rights problem that must be solved by sex workers having equal opportunities in society; our rights respected and be treated with equal human dignity.
“This Is Us” museum

Also founded by Ms. Chantawipa Apisuk, “This Is Us” museum is located in Nonthaburi north-east of Bangkok and is dedicated to the history of prostitution in Thailand.

“This is us” offers an insight into the lives of Thai sex workers and the history of the sex trade. Inside the small museum is a dance platform with a metal pole, a minibar, a karaoke machine, a bath tub, condoms, sex toys, a boxing ring and various other accessories – all accompanied by stories of how the prostitution industry in Thailand has evolved over the years.

A portion of the museum is dedicated to the display of papier-mache dolls called kumjing – a representation of illegal Myanmar migrant workers as part of the Labour Sans Frontieres (Labour Without Borders) project.