The Sex Tourism Industry in Thailand


Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for the kingdom of Thailand. It is estimated that the industry contributed 11 billion euros to the economy of Thailand in 2007. According to the world tourism ranking of the year 2006, Thailand is ranked as the 18th most visited tourism destination in the world.

The issue of sex tourism in this country is controversial; although the practice is illegal, the government has in the past taken no concrete measures to control the vice. Now the pressure is coming from another quarter, the feminist movements.

This paper seeks to explore the magnitude of sex tourism in Thailand and the effect that Feminist International Relations is having on it.

Feminist International Relations

Feminist international relations refer to the effort of trying to understand the role of women in international politics. While women are usually caught up in many of the situations that define world politics for example wars, trade and industry, the theory seeks to find out if they influence the course of events of the world. In her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Cynthia Enloe seeks to identify the role of women in international politics as prostitutes, diplomatic wives and farm laborers in banana plantations.

According to the book, it is not common to look at the politics of an issue from a feminine point of view; for example, in case a developed country like the united states establishes a military base in a third world country, combination of a number of factors including the acceptance by the military command of prostitution as an acceptable form of R and R for the soldiers, and the economic needs of the surrounding community, the women of the area may be involved in prostitution. However, the issues that will be mostly highlighted on the international political stage are mainly those of the sovereignty of the host nation and the mandate of the guest military; the issues regarding the welfare of the women of the area rarely see the light of day.

In the case of Thailand, the issue of sex tourism in the past has only been discussed and approached from a masculine point of view. However the politics of the issue affects women to a large extent both in the country and outside the country. This is probably the reason why many efforts of intervention have not worked in the past.

The Sex Tourism Industry in Thailand

The sex tourism industry in Thailand was stated when American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War allowed to go for R n R (rest and recuperation) in Thailand. Thailand’s popularity as a sex destination has grown in leaps and bound over the years. It is estimated that the trade generates USD 4.3 billion every year; this industry is completely unregulated and untaxed. This is estimated to comprise about 3% of the country’s economy [AAP, 2003]. In fact, prostitution is illegal in Thailand.

Traditionally, prostitution is not allowed by Thai culture; however, there is a custom of polygamy [AAP, 2003]. Additionally it is not uncommon for a man to visit a paid mistress or a prostitute [Knodel, 1996].

A study carried out in Thailand aimed at estimating the number of sex workers in the country in 2004 places the total figure as 2.8 million [AAP, 2003]. This was an increase of 50,000 from the previous year. Out of this, 2 million of them were adult females. Twenty thousand adult males and 800,000 workers under the age of 18 comprised the rest of the group.

Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand; however, there are legal loop holes that the operators can escape through. In 1960, under pressure from the United Nations, Thailand enacted the legislations illegalizing prostitution; the provision of the law is rarely however implemented; and it is difficult to find a police officer arresting someone for prostitution; this is mainly because of corruption and government protection.

Some of the loopholes that have allowed prostitution to thrive for example is the provision allowing for the operation of massage parlous; the Entertainment Places Act of 1966 allows the Thai citizenry right to operate ventures that offer ‘special service’ to client such as bathing and massaging. When a client chooses the masseuse that he wants, and goes into a room to get the ‘massage’, there is no regulation on how far the ‘special services’ can extend. Consequently, many brothels have opened under the guise of massage parlous in Thailand. The political will to crack down on this has been lacking in the Thai administration.

Reasons for entering into prostitution

The 2004 study also sought to find out why many young people in Thailand preferred to go into prostitution. While the vice started years before the American soldiers passed through Thailand, there are other reasons why the country is so prone to this practice. For example, Khimer emperors kept concubines, some as many as one thousand. As opposed to other societies, the Thai culture does not view the practice with as much stigma; these coupled with the large number of unemployed youth continues to fan the fire of prostitution.

Effects of the industry

The industry has been blamed for the widespread corruption in the government. Officials usually actively participate in the protection of the massage parlors from police crackdown. In a story published by the Guardian newspaper, Chuwit Kamolvisit, fashioned as the Godfather of prostitution in Thailand went to the media with the claims that over the decades, he has paid up to 1.5 million pounds to corrupt government officials as bribes for protection of his million-pound business. Additionally, he claimed that the senior officials were among some of his best customers. To prove this the pimp produced a diary where he kept records of all the payments he made to the officials and all the sexual transactions that went on under his watch. Investigations further revealed that some senior police officers had financial stakes among some of the hotels in a Red-light district known as ‘Soap land’. The pimp claimed that he dished out so much money to the police, that he had a delivery boy ridding around the city in a motorbike delivering wads of money [Scott-Clark, 2004].

Prostitution and AIDS in Thailand

As expected, the practice of prostitution is usually accompanied by the increase of the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases; this is fueled by multiple sex partners and risky sexual behavior. Thailand was not spared. From the end of 1988, it is noted that a severe outbreak of HIV had hit Thailand’s sex workers and their partners [Anenberg, 1998].

The prevalence that was considered negligible in 1988 jumped 3.7% in men drafted in the army in 1993 and 2.3% in women in antenatal care in 1995.

The government launched a campaign to encourage the use of condoms between the prostitutes and their clients; it was estimated at the time that only 14% of the workers used condoms with their partners in 1989; following the highly successful campaign, a study in 1994 showed the new figure to be at 90% [Anenberg, 1998]. In addition to this, the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases also fell. The prevalence of HIV in women seeking antenatal care in hospitals fell from the previous figure to 1.8% in 1996. The success of the program can be attributed in part to the fact that there are very few freelance commercial sex workers in Thailand; most are usually affiliated with a brothel or a massage parlor [van Kerkwijk, 1992].

The clients

According to the book Sex traffic [Monzini, 2004]; the massive increase of prostitution in Thailand was heralded by the demand of American troops for commercial sex in the 1970s following the Vietnam War, however when the troops began to withdraw the brothel owners (who were relatively wealthy and influential) sought to create a new market. Sex trips were advertised to local men, to Japanese and German business men and to tourists. Today, businessmen form other nationalities such as Korean, Chinese and Malaysian are persistent clients of Thai brothels as a way of combining business with pleasure during trips. The advent of the internet further improved the capacity of the industry to advertise to a large number of people in the world.

The book [pg 32 -33] classifies the British sex tourist into three categories. ‘Macho-lads’ travel from their country in groups, and view the country as one large fun-factory where they indulge as much as possible in the hosts amenities. The next category is ‘Mr. Average’; are older divorced or married, travel alone on a package trip looking for sexual adventures to spice a more or less bland existence. The final group is the ‘Cosmopolitan men’; these are leisure or business travelers who deny that they are in Thailand looking for sexual pleasure, but do not hesitate to indulge in sexual tourism.

Sex tourism and pedophilia

When a sex tourist travels far away from home, he is removed from the social circles that usually limit the range of activities that he can engage in. this, combined with the desire to experience the exotic pleasures of the destination allows him to engage in otherwise unacceptable practices. One such of these is pedophilia.

In his mind, the pedophile make many justifications of engaging in the practice; one such is that in the exotic country, the definition of sexual abuse is not the same as his country of origin; and that the legal limit of consensual sex is determined by the peoples cultural practices rather than universal human rights. The international clients also use the guise of not being able to tell the true age of the prostitutes.

Sex tourism and the government

There have been talks of legalizing prostitution in Thailand; the main perception of this line of thought is that the government wants to tap into the untaxed multi million dollar industry of prostitution in the country.

The government generally has no political initiative to fight prostitution in Thailand as a whole; however, efforts have been made to reduce the risk of sex workers from contracting disease through mass safety campaigns and constant monitoring of sex workers groups. Additionally, the enactment of the Prostitution prevention suppression act of 1996 seeks to stem the increase of child prostitution by placing the guilt of the crime on the parents, the clients and the operators of brothels [Baker, 2000].

The proponents of legalization say that government regulation will improve the working conditions of the sex worker in the country; one of this ways is in giving legal recourse for violent customers or those who are unwilling to pay. Additionally, the workers will be able to get some of the amenities associated with legal businesses such as medical cover and unionization [AAP, 2000]. The legalization is also touted to be the cure of corruption among the government officials in regards to prostitution since the brothels will no longer need to pay protection money. Chantawipa Apisuk, a Thai who runs an organization for promoting the rights of commercial sex workers in Thailand known as Empower says that as long as prostitution is run illegally in the country then the “employer will be the mafia….and the employee will be sex slaves” [AAP, 2003]. Since the amount of prostitution in the country does not seem to be reducing the proponents of legalization are calling for an open debate on the issue. On the other hand, the feminist opponents of legalization say that legal or not, the practice has a negative physical and psychological impact on the sex workers that is not covered by the monetary payments [Spector, 2006].

Sex Tourism and Womens Rights

Particularly in Japan, feminist organizations are increasingly fighting the industry among the male counterparts visiting Thailand. The improvement of women’s rights in Japan has started to shift the destinations of Japanese tourists from sex-tagged destinations such as Thailand [Leheny, 1995]. The Thai tourism officials are now being faced with the task of marketing the country as a none-sex destination to Japanese tourist whose major motivation of visits to Thailand was for indulgence in commercial sexual pleasures. The social changes in Japan are therefore influencing international trade that is gender dependent.

Additionally, the Thai commercial sex workers have organized themselves into support groups that aid each other in fighting for their rights.

Sex Tourism and the Thai Economy

Tourism in Thailand contributes a major chunk of the national income; in 2007, it is estimated that the industry contributed to 6.7% of the countries GDP [Thailand tourism review 2007]. Sex tourism is touted to contribute as much as 3 percent of the countries economy. Additionally, the huge flow of tourists from other countries can also be attributed to the way the tourism industry in Thailand has been able to adjust itself to cater for the various needs of the different types of tourists.

The impact of sex trade on the Thai economy cannot be underestimated; the country has the unique ability to attract visitor who visit more or less specifically to indulge in the sexual services offered; a good example of this is the foreign soldiers during their R and R periods. For example, in the April of 1989, when the US seventh fleet docked on the coast of Pattaya for four days of R and R , the American military personnel is estimated to have spent a USD 8 million on sex alone and a further USD 12 million on accommodation, hospitality and gifts.

Thailand sex-label has also given the country an edge over other Asian destinations competing for the same market segment. Additionally, the industry is also able to attract clients from the neighboring Asian countries such as Japan; for example the Pacific Asia Travel Association predicted that the Asia Pacific countries will continue being the major source of tourist for Thailand with an annual growth of 7.3% and was expected to account for 11 million arrivals for 2009. In 2007 Malaysia was predicated to produce 1.402 million visitors to Thailand and Japan 1.401 million. These two countries are the largest contributors of tourists for Thailand.

The World travel and tourism council predicted that in the next ten years, the amount of revenue generated from (the general tourism) sector would double for Thailand as more and more people visit the country.

The role of sex tourism and its contribution to the national economy in Thailand can however only be left for to speculation and estimation respectively; this is because due to the illegal nature of the industry, there are no official records that the relevant information can be gathered from. Additionally, the shadowy running of the sector and the protection by corrupt government official make it a very difficult area to investigate.


Center to this sex industry is the woman; all the figures touted on how foreign exchange sex tourism is bringing to Thailand forgets the fact that thousands of women have to work everyday as either willing or forced commercial sex worker to generate this foreign exchange. The politics and the economics of the whole issue are usually discussed from a masculine point of view with emphasis being placed on issues such as right or wrong, economic impacts and corruption in the government. However, the emotional and social issues surrounding the industry rarely get airtime.

With talk of legalizing prostitution in Thailand being heard from several quarters, there is no concrete discourse being heard regarding the long term effects of selling ones body for money whether legal or not, safe or not.

The shadowy nature of the business and the fact that anyone engaging in it is a criminal by law has not helped the plight of the sex workers; this has in fact opened a leeway fro the exploitation of the women who have chosen to enter into the trade; they have no legal recourse for any injustices, may they be physical, mental or economic, that they may undergo during the trade since reporting such cases is tantamount to incriminating oneself. Additionally, since some of the people running the brothel establishment have the protection of corrupt government officials, making reports to the authorities will precipitate economic harm through loss of livelihood, or even physical harm meted out by the employer as punishment; and with no consequence to the employer. Additionally, this is a system that allows for the trafficking of women and their exploitation as sex slave in Thailand and other countries; additionally it has led to the increase of the vilest practice of child prostitution.

On the other hand, we must explore the idea that this women are key to the continuation of a system that is providing albeit questionable employment to thousands of women who would be otherwise unemployed. These women are key in attracting millions of visitors from across the world who are willing to be sex tourist; the infamous Thai red light districts are renowned world wide with their prospects attracting visitor looking exclusively for sex, but also curious on lookers who count as tourist as everyone else.

We must also explore the role of Thailand’s sex tourism phenomenon on influencing the sexual orientation of the world. The fact that thousands of sex tourist flock Thailand every year is a clear indication that the country may be offering more than the conventional sexual need. Removed from the more stringent mores of their countries of origin, sex tourists are more likely to engage in unconventional (if not warped) sexual practices in Thailand; has the availability of this opportunity had any effect on the male sexuality of other countries? Unfortunately, this leeway has also led to the increase in pedophilia as the Thai environment is more willing to look away as out rightly evil and illegal practices such as pedophilia and sex enslavement are happening. Sex criminal whose practices would land them in jai for a very long time can find a safe haven in Thailand; has the sex tourist industry in Thailand fuelled the increase of sexual offences impunity in the world?

Anyway you look at it, the sex tourism industry has left its mark on the world; and by extension the women who are either caught up or preferred to join the industry have left their mark o the world.


The Thai’s are even willing to export their commercial sex industry to the world, in the book Sex traffic and prostitution it is reported that Denmark had at the time over one hundred Thai massage parlors; many Thai women are migrating or are trafficked to this countries to man these parlous that are popping up everywhere. The biggest question about the attempts to stem the tide of the sex tourism in Thailand is how to fight a vice whose major allay in not the lack of laws or machinery to tackle it, but the lack of political will, corruption and a generally accepting attitude.


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