It remains under wraps but all of us know at least one person in his 40s who has plans to go to Thailand because for sex-deprived Indian men of this age , it is the ultimate destination for the fulfillment of their fantasies. Thailand has become synonymous with sex tourism not only for Indians but also from people in the west who like it even more because it costs them less than their own countries. How did Thailand become the hub for sex tourism that it is? Key factors include US militarization of the South East Asia region, followed by internal changes in Thailand and the role of prostitutes in Thai culture to a large extent.
Vietnam War and the boom in Thai prostitution industry
During Vietnam war, Pattaya which was just a small fishing village at that time, saw exhausted and tired US military men coming over to recreate themselves. Their numbers which ran into thousands, led to a tourism boom in Pattaya with hotels and other allied industries prostitution coming up overnight. Besides Pattaya, Korean and Vietnamese towns also faced the same influx of US military men but Thailand capitalized on this appeal much better than its peers.
The military-prostitution complex was replaced by a tourist-prostitution complex once the war got over and military men headed back home. Even during the second world war, Thai women offered their services as prostitutes to Japanese occupants.
There were also reported instances of Americans recruiting minors in this trade which was later curbed by a law passed in US regulating sexual behaviour of Americans with regards to minors abroad.
In the 1960s socio-economic changes also led to Thai women migrate to urban areas as income from farming declined and forces of capitalism led to women choose prostitution as a profession as income in alternative professions were comparatively very less.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand
Ironically as it may sound but prostitution is illegal in Thailand. According to an act passed in 1960, prostitutes and their employers can be booked for providing sexual services in return for money. In an updation of the act in 1996, the punishment for prostitutes was decreased and a harsher penalty was imposed for selling children.
Despite the status of the industry as illegal, prostitution continues to thrive in Thailand mainly because of two reasons. First customers cannot be booked for seeking sexual gratification in lieu of money as Thai tradition recognizes right of males to pay for sex as legitimate and secondly because of a 1966 act which provided for ‘special services’ for entertainment in establishments such as massage parlors and bars.
The size of prostitution industry in Thailand
Few estimates peg Thai prostitution industry at 3% of the total GDP of the economy of Thailand. Various other studies estimate that about 1.6 million people are financially and directly dependent on prostitution out of a total population of 55 million in Thailand. It is also interesting to note that there are sociological studies which consider this prostitution industry in Thailand over-hyped as countries such as India and China have a higher prostitutes per capita ratio. Still, it is Thailand which has uniquely placed itself as ‘the’ destination for sex tourism in Asia and worldwide.
Thai men prefer losing their virginity to prostitutes
Cultures such as Indian and western consider sex to be reserved for people who are in love with each other but Thai culture considers sex to be a casual activity such as drinking and having food. Thai men consider sex with prostitutes as a symbol of coming of age. It is part of the tradition and passes on from father to son. It is socially acceptable for men to be promiscuous in the Thai culture. The prostitution industry has a huge domestic consumption and is not meant for foreigners from countries especially western countries alone.
What is peculiar about the legitimacy which prostitution as a profession has in Thailand is that while men are encouraged to seek services of sex workers, women are expected to be chaste until marriage and monogamous after that. This bears resemblance with Indian norms for sexual conduct of women.
One can also say that the place of legitimacy that prostitution enjoys in Thai culture facilitates sex tourism in Thailand.
Prostitutes DO NOT need your pity
NGOs and human rights workers often criticize Thailand for exploiting the vulnerable poor Thai girls and forcing them into prostitution. A part of this is indeed true but still cannot take away from the fact that prostitution is a profession in Thailand just like any other profession. Government has ghost-developed Thailand as a tourist hub for sex which it has gradually become. Girls especially from the rural areas seek such jobs over house maids which fetches them 40 times less than what they earn through prostitution.