History of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in Thailand

October 08, 2015 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 
Sex Trafficking

Prostitution and sex trafficking in Thailand are highly visible and strongly discussed topics in the contemporary antislavery field. Social attitudes, political interventions and economic realities have shaped the conditions that allow the two practices to continue.


From the mid-1300s to the mid-1700s prostitution was legal and taxed by the Thai government. The late 1700s to the 1850s witnessed an influx in the number of Chinese labor workers and sex workers coming to Thailand. Prostitution flourished especially after the abolishment of slavery in 1905 as former slave wives under the feudal system found themselves alone and without financial support. Then, the Japanese occupation during World War II popularized sex massage parlors. The use of Thailand as a rest and recreation destination for U.S. military servicemen in the Vietnam War as well as rising rural poverty, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, led to urban migration and the growth of the sex industry in the cities. In the 1980s, Thailand saw a boom in sex tourism as the government poured millions of baht to promote tourism in the country. 

Today, under the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, prostitution is prohibited. A person soliciting sex may receive a 1,000 baht ($27) fine. Pimps face a 20,200 baht ($555) fine and could be imprisoned for one to ten years. The Act addresses child sex trafficking as well. Customers who have intercourse with children under 15 years old face a 120,000 baht ($3,300) fine and between two to six years in prison. The fine is decreased to 60,000 baht ($1,650) and the prison time to one to three years if the trafficked child is between 15 and 18 years old. Briefly, in 2003, the Ministry of Justice discussed legalizing prostitution as a means of increasing tax revenue and improving conditions for sex workers. Though that debate never led to legalization, prostitution in Thailand today is largely seen as a financial transaction and is widely tolerated. Several cultural and economic factors support the continuation of the sex industry.

Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's popular red light areas, on an early morning. © End Slavery Now

Cultural and Economic Factors

Kevin Bales addresses the role of religion and gender stratification in sustaining the practice of prostitution. Strict interpretations of the Buddhist doctrine in Thailand put females at a much lower status than men. Ninety percent of the country’s citizens are Theravada Buddhists. These believers adhere to the beliefs centered on karma, rebirth and nirvana. The hierarchy is a result of the belief that good karma (good works) leads to a higher position when one is reborn. Thus, to be born rich and powerful indicates that one performed good actions in the past and is closer to the ultimate spiritual goal of nirvana. Those born in poverty, those who have diseases and those who are born female are assumed to have committed wrongdoings in the past and, therefore, deserve their lower status. In general, the hierarchy – from high to low – is as follows: the monastic, men, women, the crippled, the poor and animals. Additionally, only men can be monks; so, the best women can do to achieve religious merit is to bring honor and finances to the family. These views become evident when considering that Thailand refuses to sign and ratify the 1985 International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Officials disagree with the article stating that women should have equal rights to education, employment, property and inheritance.

This lower value placed on women plays out through the history of prostitution in Thailand. Women have been considered the property of men since the 15th century, and as codified by law, husbands could beat or sell their wives without sanctions. Additionally, having multiple wives was seen as an indication of higher status, and wives were categorized in the following manner: the major wife, the minor wife and the slave wife. The man’s parents chose the major wife, the minor wife was there to provide children and the slave wife was there to give sexual gratification. When polygamy became illegal in the 1930s, the prostitution industry provided an outlet for those who could no longer have slave wives. Today, prostitution is a normalized part of Thai society, and those in prostitution do not face the same degree of stigmatization present in other countries. This tolerance is partially due to the money generated in the sex industry. Thais traditionally have an obligation to secure their family’s well-being and status. If prostitution is a way to ensure these, then prostitution is more or less seen as a job. According to the ILO, the average monthly salary in Thailand is just below $500; adult sex workers pass that amount and become important – if not the main – wage-earners in their families. 

© End Slavery Now

Prostitution in Thailand Today

According to the Thai Ministry of Public Health and NGOs, there are more than 120,000 people in the Thai sex industry. Author and Harvard University Carr Center for Human Rights Policy Fellow Siddharth Kara provides an illustrative description of the sex industry in Thailand. Bangkok is filled with local sex buyers, sex tourists and prostitutes. Though prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, the Thai government as well as brothel owners and sex workers have found that it is an extremely profitable business; sex workers openly solicit on the streets and in red light areas. Thailand’s red light districts offer options that cater to every type of demand, and prices are kept comparatively low. For comparison, a fifteen minute deal in Amsterdam costs around 50 euros ($56) whereas in Thai brothels, prices are at 600-1,000 baht ($16-$27) for 20-30 minutes.

Interviews with several sex workers reveal that many female sex workers do so to fulfill their duties to their family. In Thai society, grown children are responsible for taking care of their parents. This duty usually falls onto the shoulders of the youngest unmarried daughter. Many uneducated, rural women find that working in the sex industry is the best way to do so, and they move to more metropolitan areas. Once there, they are unable to leave because they usually do not have other job options. These high-end establishments and major tourist areas in Bangkok are not necessarily the grounds of sex trafficking in Thailand. Rather, they promote a culture of accepted sexual mores that manifest in the form of sex trafficking in the lesser known, lower some of rungs of the sex industry. 

Sex Trafficking in Thailand Today

Sex trafficking victims are typically found in sex clubs, basement brothels, remote massage parlors and street prostitution. Many of them are Thai, but there are also a number of Burmese, Laotian and Nigerian people who are prostituted. These individuals were either lured through false pretenses or were sold by brokers. They are typically purchased by brothel owners or other brokers for $200-$875 and must pay off their “debt.” The location of Thailand plays a key role in the success of the sex trafficking industry. It is close to war-torn Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. China and Vietnam are also nearby. Various waterways along with porous borders also facilitate trafficking. According to law enforcement in Thailand, the majority of trafficking activities in Thailand are conducted by local individuals or small groups of brokers. However, organized trafficking groups such as the yakuza in Japan and Russian gangs have slowly emerged in the country. What is certain is that sex trafficking in Thailand is no longer limited to its East Asian neighbors. Russian and Eastern European victims have become more common in the country.

Check out ECPAT and IJM, two organizations that are fighting sex trafficking in Thailand. GAATW is another key organization researching the relationship among migration, gender and workers’ rights in the sex industry.

Topics: Sex Trafficking

About the Author

Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.