By Tom’s Vitayakul
Although infamous for its sex industry, Thailand is not the only country where prostitution is prolific. Nevertheless, international media often present caricatures of this underbelly, using comic touches to make our administrators blush various shades of pink. The world’s oldest profession has been part of Thai culture and social fabric for centuries, yet it is actually illegal. Instead, it should be openly accepted and properly legalised for public health, safety and future development.
Many insist that eroticism should not be part of Buddhist countries but one needs only to look back at beliefs in history to see that sex and beauty have made our cultural canvas more vibrant.
For example, in Hindu mythology, apsaras (water angels) were created from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. These gorgeous angels who belong to neither gods nor demons are there to serve anyone’s pleasures. They adorn the walls of Angkor Wat and countless Khmer temples. Mural paintings in several Thai temples also feature erotic scenes as cautionary tales. Both male and female genitals symbolize power, strength, and fertility in Hinduism and Animism.
Like other languages, Thai has many euphemisms for prostitutes. Ying ngam mueng, or ‘beautiful women of the city’, is a phrase which celebrates these lovely ladies, both emblematic and entertaining. Historically, courtesans were not shunned because they can keep some wives’ husbands happy when the wives have a headache.
There was even zoning for nightlife in the ancient times. Kampaeng Din, the Earthen Wall, behind Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar was one location and, in Bangkok’s old Chinatown, green or red lanterns were raised to signify the sites of bordellos. Wat Kanikapol, the temple opposite Plubplachai Police Station, was built during King Rama III’s reign, using donations from a madam and her women. Now, looking on the map, one will note places starting with a “P”, such as Patpong, Pattaya, and Patong, as congregations of pussies and penises galore. In Bangkok, Nana, Ratchada, and Soi Cowboy are other districts of debauchery.
As sensual creatures, Thais enjoy carnal pleasures as long as they don’t offend anyone. However, being very hypocritical, we let thousands of massage parlors and pleasure palaces shine their neon signs while pornography and sex shops are absent. Soft porn is allowed as long as the naughty bits are not blatantly shown. Adult toys are seen sold on the streets around Patpong. Instead of making it look playful, it seems more unsavoury. Some porn websites are banned.
In the ‘Land of the Free’ freedom and rights come at a price. Instead of legitimising the industry, the government has turned into a prudish Pollyanna and has not honestly addressed this concern. The reasons are often about moral and cultural disrespect but countless corollary problems such as forced slavery, child prostitution, human trafficking, venereal diseases and drug abuse result.
Most sex workers have chosen this path themselves because “selling their own real estate” is the easiest way to make money without much effort. So the sex industry seeps beyond seedy strip clubs, bars and brothels.
Known as ‘sideline’ girls and boys, University students and office workers walk the street, trying to earn extra money for designer accessories or the latest hi-tech gadgets. Our society condones these behaviours but is not ready to take responsibility for them.
The Empower Foundation – its motto is: ‘Education Means Protection of Women Engaged in Recreation’ – was founded by Chantawipa ‘Noi’ Apisuk almost 30 years ago. Under her direction, this non-profit organisation provides women involved in the illegal sex trade with free English classes and advice on health, law, education and counseling.
Since sex workers greatly contribute to the economy, as many send millions to their rural hometowns, they should receive equal respect, basic human rights, community belonging and be protected by health and safety codes. With its centres in major cities with red-light districts, Empower also lobbies the government to extend employment rights, social security and benefits to them and to legalise prostitution. Other groups provide counseling for depression and other psychological illnesses, which can be by-products of sex work.
We know why many tourists come here, just as they travel to other sin cities like Amsterdam or Rio. If ‘Sun, Sand, Sea, Surf and Sex’ still does the trick for Thai tourism, then why should we be shy about the issue? After all, without some apsaras, how would a trip to paradise be?