Thailand generates fantasies, both for tourists in search of sex and for aid workers peddling lurid tales of trafficking. The tsunami created more false horror stories. What are the facts of the trade?by Alex Renton / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
January was ugly in our part of Bangkok. We live near Soi Nana, off Sukhumvit Road, a famous tourist site catering for a specific sort of visitor: middle-aged western men. They come to Nana for one reason—to have sex cheaply. November to January is high season in Thailand for holidaymakers from northern nations, and the bars and pavements of Nana are packed with hundreds of people buying and selling sex. January was busier than ever this year. It took a struggle every evening to get through the ranks of skinny Thai women and the pale men in shorts picking them over.
It was the tsunami, of course. Patong beach, one of the worst hit parts of Phuket island, is among Thailand’s best known destinations for tourists seeking sex. So the men transferred their holidays to Bangkok. Happily for them, there was a drought in northeastern Thailand at the end of 2004. The poor rice crop that resulted sent more young girls than usual down from their impoverished villages on the plains of Isaan to harvest the tourists in the big city. This seasonal migration goes back, historians of the sex trade will tell you, to the Vietnam war and the establishment of Thailand as a brothel for American GIs on leave. Prostitution for foreign visitors developed into a major industry, although official Thailand shrouds its economic and social significance in misinformation and a variety of interesting hypocrisies.
For a start, no one knows how many foreigners come to Thailand every year to buy sex. Many people have opinions on the matter—not least Thailand’s government, which understandably resists the label “brothel of the world.” It has threatened to expel journalists who impugn the honour of Thai womenfolk, and forced Longman’s dictionary to change its 1993 edition, the entry for Bangkok which included the line “a place where there are a lot of prostitutes.” Thailand, in its turn, has been considerably abused by statisticians and NGOs. Claims that there are 2m or more prostitutes in the population of 64m, as was once stated in a Time cover story, are absurd. This much-quoted figure was drawn from the statistics of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, an international NGO. If true, it would mean that one in four Thai women between the ages of 15 and 29 in Thailand was a prostitute. Another anti-trafficking organisation, Ecpat (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), claimed in the mid-1990s that there were up to 800,000 Thai child prostitutes—a lunatic figure that still circulates in the US state department.