The UN in 2014 estimated that there were over 123,000 prostitutes in Thailand although sex workers say the figure is at least twice that with many estimates from the last decades suggesting the figure is higher again. The industry has suffered under an ongoing government crackdown which has had a chilling effect since the coup of 2014. Over 2,100 sex workers were arrested in Pattaya alone in 2016.

The Thai government may be ready to unveil proposals to reform the country’s laws on prostitution early next year according to a ministry spokesperson this week who was responding to sex workers calling for the trade to be legalised. Prostitution was outlawed in Thailand in the 1960s but a 1996 law updated the statutes giving police more powers and making it easier to bring prosecutions.

Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has indicated that changes to the laws on prostitution may be unveiled in 2021 as sex-workers call for legalisation of the trade amid the chilling effect of a crackdown since 2014.

A review of Thailand’s 1960 law which makes prostitution illegal is underway at government level with a public consultation on the issue due to be unveiled early next year.

This was revealed today by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security in Bangkok.

Women’s department at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security working on a revision of the laws on prostitution to be unveiled

It is understood that the women’s affairs department within the ministry has been working on the issue as Thailand’s government, in recent years, has signalled a determination to root out abuses within the trade targeted at underage sex workers while also initiating crackdowns on the what is probably the world’s most famous prostitution industry although, by far, not the biggest in Asia.

1960 law made prostitution illegal with a 1996 act that gave police more teeth to control the industry

Thailand is a deeply conservative country with a Buddhist tradition but where, also, many poorer Thai women, for generations, have resorted to prostitution particularly since the 1960s, to support their families or open up a future beyond the subsistence lifestyle of many rural communities.

A 1996 law introduced by the government closed off many loopholes in the 1960s era law that allowed the industry to flourish and gave police increased powers to prosecute those involved in the trade particularly those operating in an organised way.

In 2016 alone, it is reported that over 2,100 Thai women were arrested in Pattaya for being involved in prostitution.

First female tourism minister in 2014 vowed to close down the industry and its links with foreign tourism

In 2014, Thailand’s then-incoming tourism minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, on taking power after the 2014 coup, vowed to end prostitution and its links with Thai tourism.

Ms Kobkarn was the first woman to hold the position and appeared to follow through on her promise.

 She represented a growing unease among many middle class or more affluent Thais on the damage that prostitution has caused to Thailand’s image and reputation as a country outside its borders.

Her policy was endorsed by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha who declared he did not approve of prostitution in Thailand.

Raids on brothels and sex establishments from 2016

This was followed by a number of raids on sex establishments in Bangkok and even in Pattaya which, since the 1960s, became famous as a sex for sale tourist resort catering mainly to western foreigners visiting Thailand.

It later became one of Asia’s most vibrant nightlife hotspots and a magnet for Asian travellers.

The roots of Thailand’s high profile, sex for sale industry on the foreign stage, dates back to the 1960s and visiting American GIs during the Vietnam war but the industry itself, on an even larger scale, has always catered for Thai men in a culture which despite its conservative nature, has always tolerated prostitution as a requisite lifestyle alternative for some men.

International surveys have consistently shown, even today, among Thai women that they are the most tolerant in the world to this proclivity of a segment of the opposite sex towards having multiple partners or to engage the services of prostitutes.

Estimates of the number of prostitutes in Thailand range from 123,000 to millions although the numbers have been decreasing over the last decade

Estimates of the number of prostitutes in Thailand have risen to as many as 2 million women with links to the industry on an informal basis reported decades ago, although the numbers are diminishing. 

This has come about either through better economic prospects for Thai women at least before the Covid 19 crisis, the increased absorption of western culture and attitudes in addition to an ageing population.

A UN report in 2014 placed the figure at over 120,000 sex workers but sex workers themselves working within the industry have estimated that it is currently, at least, twice this figure.

Foreign-funded NGOs now involved in efforts to suppress the industry and its most serious abuses

In recent years, the industry has been increasingly targeted by external non-government organisations which have also set up shop in Thailand with funding from abroad with the goal of rescuing women from the industry, more especially so with underage sex workers.

The organisations are also understood to be working with the government and the Royal Thai Police in assiduous efforts to root out human trafficking and the use of underage sex workers often imported from countries such as Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar.

Official rapport with sex workers

The presence of these foreign NGOs has also helped empower many Thai women working in the industry in their efforts to communicate with those in authority.

Such rapport, even on an unofficial basis, was a key aspect in Thailand’s notable success over the decades in combating HIV Aids, a campaign that is still ongoing.

There is also an overlap between advances in sex industry worker’s representation and the emerging confidence of Thailand’s LGBT community.

Review of the law underway as sex workers are being exploited, it is believed, by unscrupulous officials

A ministry spokesperson this week confirmed that a review of the law is underway. Under current legislation, sex workers can be fined heavily and jailed for up to two years for selling sex. 

Police detection and prosecution efforts directed at sex buyers are limited to those involved in the abuse of underage sex workers.

Sex workers within the industry complain that the imposition of fines and the threat of prosecution is being used by some officials as a way of controlling or even coercing those working in the sex industry.

Sex workers face the prospect of being jailed or fined up to ฿40,000 under existing laws which causes them to be exploited by unscrupulous state officials including police officers.

Such reports have been met with enhanced credence among government officials following a raid on Victoria’s Secret, a huge brothel in Bangkok in January 2018, when raiding police found ledgers and notebooks indicating large payoffs to government officials and senior police officers in a highly organised manner.

This included regular complimentary sex sessions at the establishment.

Sex workers seek the protection of the law

Speaking to the Bangkok Post, this week, as news of the review was announced, Surang Janyam, of the representative organisation for sex workers, Service Workers in Group, called for sex work to be legalised and those involved in the industry given the protection of labour laws.

‘The sex industry generates massive income for the country, but there is no mechanism to protect sex workers,’ Ms Surang declared.

Similarly Mai Junta of Empower Foundation, which represents and supports sex workers in Thailand, also called for change. 

Speaking to Reuters she said: ‘The law punishes sex workers – 80% of whom are mothers and the main breadwinner for the whole family. It turns us into criminals.’

Thai academic made the case for legalising prostitution in 2019 on the basis of human rights

In June 2019, a Thai academic, Dr Akawat Laowonsiri, after researching the industry, called for prostitution to be legalised in Thailand as a matter of human rights.

He pointed to Section 40 of the Thai Constitution which guarantees all citizens access to a livelihood or a profession.

Please see our report from 2019 on calls to legalise prostitution in Thailand

A spokesperson for the ministry in Bangkok did not give away too much on its plans to be unveiled next year but did say this: ‘We are aware of complaints regarding rights violations of sex workers due to this law, and we are not neglecting their suggestions.’

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Further reading:

Child prostitution gang that ran a sex racket that terrorised children smashed by armed police

Calls to legalise prostitution in Thailand after Pattaya sex raid on Walking Street this week

Record year for Thai tourism but not so good for Thailand’s bar girls and luxury hotels as market has changed

Police raid on prostitution bar in Udon Thani linked with serving policeman and his Thai wife

Activist slams Air Asia ad campaign in Australia that she claimed promoted Thai sex tourism at Aussie blokes

Thai police raid a sex for sale hotel in Loei province staffed by Laotian women working as prostitutes