PATTAYA, Thailand—The neon-lit red light district screams of sex.
In an apartment near Pattaya’s infamous Walking Street, Auchanaporn Pilasata studies her reflection in the mirror, applies another layer of plum-shade lipstick, and touches up her black eyeliner. In the corner of her mirror are two photographs: one from when she looked like a scrawny 15-year-old boy, and another, post-transition, as the stunning woman she is today.
The 37-year-old, who goes by Anna, has been a transgender sex worker for 17 years. While transitioning, she left a low-paying job in a cosmetics packaging factory on the outskirts of Bangkok to become a cabaret dancer in nearby Pattaya, a beach town with a reputation for wild nightlife. She took a temporary job at a “special” massage parlor to earn some cash. Her very first client propositioned her for sex.
“He said, ‘I give you 3,000 baht [$85]. One hour,’” Anna recalled. “[When] I worked in factory, [I made] 6,000 baht in one month. This is the beginning [of] my story [as a] sex worker.”
Thailand has long been one of the world’s major sex tourism destinations. Estimates of sex work’s contribution to GDP vary widely because the industry operates almost entirely underground. But in 2015, the black market research company Havocscope valued it at $6.4 billion per year—about 1.5 percent of the country’s GDP that year.
Despite earning billions annually, the industry is effectively illegal, controversial among Thais, and highly stigmatized. Now, the debate over sex work is spilling into public forums, with a progressive lawmaker introducing a bill in parliament to legalize it. Its proponents argue that criminalization has deprived sex workers of basic labor rights and protections enjoyed by other workers, making them more vulnerable to health risks, harassment, exploitation, and violence—while making sex work itself no less visible.
Visiting Thailand and not noticing any sex workers? It’s like going to “KFC and you never see fried chicken,” Anna said.
The majority of sex workers in the world are women, and a 2017 projection by the Thai Department of Disease Control conservatively estimated that 129,000 of 144,000 sex workers in the country were female. But it’s men who make the decisions about what they can do with their bodies.
Women held 16 percent of Thailand’s parliamentary seats in 2021, the same figure as 10 years ago. By comparison, women made up 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s governing assembly and 28 percent of the U.S. Congress that year.
The fight for legalization is an uphill battle. Conservative factions within the country and global anti-trafficking organizations remain strongly opposed to sex work. The U.S. Agency for International Development calls Thailand a “source, transit, and destination country” for trafficking, and opponents of the bill say the sex industry enables widespread abuse of women and children across the country and in neighboring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
Surviving day by day
Historical reports of sex work existing in Thailand date back to the 1300s. The modern sex industry in Thailand boomed while serving a wave of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s, Japanese soldiers during World War II, and U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. But many Thais grew resentful of its visibility and notoriety. The country adopted the Suppression of Prostitution Act in 1960, followed by the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, which outlawed almost all of the activities associated with sex work and income earned from it.
The push against prostitution was further bolstered in the 2000s, when the U.S. government, the religious right, and abolitionist feminists came together in an unlikely alliance. Their goal was to eliminate prostitution. The U.S. movement gained traction globally as those forces traveled to campaign against sex work in countries abroad, including Thailand.
Within Thailand, officials often downplay the prevalence of prostitution in order to present a more positive view of the country to the outside world and appease constituents opposed to sex work. After a Jan. 14 inspection, police said they were “satisfied” after finding no “illegal prostitutes” working in Pattaya, much to the amusement of social media commentators.
“Why don’t they ask all the girl [sic] standing all around if they have seen some sexworkers,” one Facebook user posted.
In practice, the revenues from sex work sustain a robust illicit economy and can be an important lifeline for women whose backgrounds range from educated college graduates to poor rural farmers. Many believe that some form of legal recognition, either decriminalization or legalization, would help to reduce violence against sex workers and give them rights and benefits that would help them, particularly during difficult financial times.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill and global tourism dried up, around 91 percent of Thai sex workers lost their jobs due to lockdowns, border closures, and social-distancing measures, according to the World Health Organization. As illegal workers, they did not qualify for government relief benefits during the pandemic.
“A lot of [sex workers] could not pay the rent and they had to sleep on the street,” said Supachai Sukthongsa, the Pattaya manager of Service Workers in Group (SWING), a services and support group. “They worked and cleaned up at the bar in exchange for small money and food, just enough to survive day by day.”
The pandemic also reduced access to health care services. Whether they get their business through dating apps, pimps, or on the street, sex workers face numerous risks to their health and safety. The Sex Workers Project, an advocacy organization based in New York, found that sex workers globally face a 45 percent to 75 percent chance of experiencing violence on the job. Transgender women such as Anna face an added layer of danger from clients who turn violent after discovering their identities.
“When I go to the police station,” Anna said, they don’t “help me because [of] my job, because I work illegal work here in Thailand.”
Sex workers frequently accuse Thai police of extorting or ignoring them. Researchers such as Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist and professor with expertise in sex work in Thailand, also accuse police of being heavily involved in sex tourism and profiting off of the industry.
“The authorities, especially the police, have a vested interest in keeping prostitution illegal,” Weitzer said. “They get payoffs.”
Gen. Surachate Hakparn, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, said he believes legalizing sex work could cut down on such activities.
“I admit that there is corruption going on, but it’s only a fraction of police officers doing that,” he said. “From a law enforcement perspective, if it is legalized, it’s good for the police. We don’t need to keep disciplining our subordinates about corruption. And we can put the resources and time into something else.”
Push for legalization gathers momentum
Globally, the legal status of sex work is divided into three broad categories: criminalization, legalization, and decriminalization.
The legalization model regulates the registration, health care, and welfare of sex workers. In contrast, the decriminalization model simply removes penalties for pursuing the activity.
There are also hybrid models, such as the Nordic model in countries such as Sweden and Norway, which blend elements of legalization and decriminalization.
It’s the criminalization model that’s employed by about half the world, including most of the United States. It involves the criminalization of every party: the seller, the buyer, and third parties such as pimps or traffickers.
According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, published by an Australian human rights organization, Thailand is home to about 610,000 human trafficking victims. Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says most of these victims are trafficked for manual labor, some women and girls are forced into sex work.
While the U.S. government says the Thai government is doing an increasingly good job fighting against trafficking, hard-line anti-traffickers remain vehemently against legalization.
“It’s consumption with nothing in return,” said Sanphasit Koompraphant, the chairperson of Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Alliance. “It’s sexual exploitation.”
But the criminalization model most anti-traffickers support has come increasingly under attack from sex work activists.
A growing body of research shows that criminalization forces sex workers to operate under more dangerous conditions, increasing risks of sexually transmitted infections, physical abuse, and exploitation—including by police. Aside from stigmatizing the work, bans also mean that many sex workers will end up with a criminal record if caught soliciting, making it harder for them to get other jobs and pushing them deeper into the sex industry.
Weitzer argues that criminalizing sex work has not succeeded in stopping its proliferation and has strong parallels to the U.S. war on drugs.
“The evidence is clear that it’s a complete failure,” he said.
In June 2022, Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, a progressive parliamentarian with the upstart Move Forward Party, drafted a bill that would establish designated zones for legal sex work. To ensure compliance with its proposed regulations, he said the bill calls for random checks to be carried out to verify licenses, the age of the sex workers, and whether illegal drugs are present.
He said the bill also outlines how the industry will be taxed and specifies locations where it can’t be practiced or advertised, such as near temples and schools.
“It has to [be] away from the children,” Tunyawaj said.
But some sex workers also oppose legalization. Juno Mac, a prominent sex worker and activist, said legalization can create a “two-tiered system” in which wealthier establishments can afford to comply with regulations, while marginalized sex workers operating independently cannot.
Rather than the special regulation and taxation that comes with legalization, Mac prefers decriminalization, which treats sex work like any other work.
Weitzer noted that decriminalization also has limitations, with the lack of regulations allowing existing bad actors—rampant throughout the industry—to continue exploiting workers.
But its supporters say the decriminalization model is more likely to help sex workers better integrate into mainstream society.
“If [we have] legalization, that means that we have the specific law to say this kind of job [is] legal. But we don’t want to have a specific law,” said Surang Janyam, the founder and director of SWING. “If we have specific laws for sex workers, we should have specific laws with every occupation. Decriminalize will [make us] equal as other people.”
Whether through legalization or decriminalization, Weitzer said the odds are stacked against changing the legal status of sex work.
“The majority of legislators are opposed to it, and every time it’s been proposed in the past, I don’t think it’s even gotten out of committee,” Weitzer said.
The last major push was in 2003, when proposed legislation was debated but failed to pass.
Tunyawaj’s June 2022 bill was not reviewed by the board of the parliamentary committee for youth, women, and other vulnerable groups until November 2022. At that point, the committee recommended transferring it to Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. The draft bill will be reviewed again in the next term of the government, and Tunyawaj hopes that having the backing of the Ministry will improve its chances. The fate of the bill now rests in the hands the new government, which will be elected in May.
If reelected, Tunyawaj promises to “keep pushing this bill.”
His coalition is growing. Surachate said the main thing missing is political will.
“The government can solve this matter, if they take it seriously,” he said.
Neha Wadekar is a Nairobi-based journalist.
Navaon Siradapuvadol contributed reporting to this article.
This story was supported by the United Nations Foundation.