Understanding the roots of sex work in Thailand is more complicated than it seems, but it sheds light on the issue of sex trafficking and the life of thousand of women.

Although in Thailand prostitution is officially illegal, the sex industry plays a fundamental role and it keeps attracting foreign capital. Walking down the red light districts in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket is a unique experience, especially when you come from countries where prostitution is a taboo. The sight of hundreds of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese women offering their bodies in exchange of money is quite disorienting and confusing. Tiny, skinny, young women all dressed up for the night, accompanied by Western man, normally elderly, bold and in search of fun. The risk of confusing what those women do with who they are is quite natural at first, but behind their make up there is always a story worth listening to.

Siroj Sorajjakool – author of the book “Human Trafficking in Thailand: Current issues, trends, and the role of the Thai government”- presents a historical evolution of the sex trade in Thailand, tracing its origins back to the early 1900s when slavery was abolished and thousand of unemployed, homeless women began to vend their body in order to survive. When the wars broke out, the demand for sex rapidly increased and new brothels arose to serve foreign soldiers, whose presence in Thailand kept the market alive and helped its proliferation. Broadly speaking, the country’s fame for prostitutions is deeply rooted in its historical legacy and it has gradually expanded with the rise of tourism and foreign investments in the region. It is exactly within this framework that we have to address the problem of sex trafficking.

But first, what is sex trafficking?

Sex trafficking is one form of Human Trafficking, officially defined by The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes as the act of recruiting, transferring or receiving person through use of force, coercion or deception for the purpose of exploiting them. Generally, three elements constitute the process of trafficking:

  • The act (what): recruitment, transportation, receipt of person, etc.
  • The means (how): coercion, deception, abuse of vulnerability, etc.
  • The purpose (why): labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, etc.

Although forms of human trafficking can be found worldwide, developing countries often work as international hubs where victims are recruited, sent and exploited. This is exactly the case of Thailand, which represents a source, a transit and a destination for people being trafficked. Still, identifying and quantifying the victims is really challenging.

Firstly, many sex workers don’t see themselves as victims and do what they do because of the economic opportunities derived from it. Sorajjakool reports the stories of many women that voluntary entered the sex industry to upgrade their lifestyle, stating that it’s not unusual considering the constant demand and the high profits.

Secondly, some of them belong to the so-called “hidden part of the society” and their existence is rarely documented. They are immigrants, tribal women, children and their fault is having an illegal, unrecorded status that makes them invisible to the national law and potential sources of exploitation. They are sold to brothels, karaoke bars, massage parlours etc., where they work as modern slaves to pay off their debts. They are vulnerable and powerless. Sometimes ready to accept any job to make a living, sometimes too young to realise what is going on.

In addition, the Thai government – whose effort to fight human trafficking is gradually increasing – tends to minimise the issue, making more difficult collecting reliable information. In this scenario, it’s likely to have misinterpretations and confuse who’s at risk and who’s at fault.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the demand is still very high both from Thai man and Westerners. If we go back to how it started, it seems quite logical that no matter how you fight sex trade, it will always conform to market rules. True is that there has been a structural shift in the nature of the industry: brothels have been slowly replaced by karaoke bar, massage parlours, etc., where labour has became a source of economic opportunities.

It is clear that the line between the sex trade market and sex trafficking became really blurred; in particular, it’s hard discerning those who are victims of an illegal system and those who are just trying to improve their life making use of the illegal system. After all, they have normal desires that try to achieve through questionable means, but what is the alternative? Which job competes with the sex industry in terms of demand and rewards? The answer is debatable, but it seems that with no alternative available on the table anyone becomes a victim by default.

Whether targets of traffickers or victims of the system, their condition is hard to accept. One possible step might be taken for changing the norm: offer them the alternative that they don’t really see, through education, empowerment and support. Many NGOs are successfully working in this direction, although it is a long process that affects cultural understandings and current trends.


Our hope is that decreasing the supply will eventually decrease the demand too.



–       Sorajjakool, S. n.d. Human trafficking in Thailand.

–       Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons


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