IT IS AN open secret that, despite being illegal, prostitution is widely practised in Thailand. That striking gulf between the law and reality illustrates the need to amend the laws and decriminalise the sex trade, panellists at a recent seminar said.
“The crime control model we use is clearly not working,” Asst Professor and researcher Mataluk Orungrot from Thammasat University said this week. Scrapping the current prostitution laws in favour of legalisation may be one answer, she told in the seminar " Should Thailand regalize prostituion " at Faculty of Social Administration,Thammasart University .
Thailand’s approach to sex work is to criminalise it under the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act 1996 and Article 286 of the Criminal Code. The law forbids selling sex, pimping and running a “prostitution establishment”.
Yet the numbers show the approach has not worked. Estimates put the number of Thai prostitutes at anywhere between 800,000 to 2 million-plus, with many aged under 18.
Moreover, prostitution establishments are flourishing in the guise of massage parlours, bath houses, beer joints, karaoke bars and nightclubs – and are sustained by corrupt law enforcement officials.
According to Jomdet Trimek, a leading criminology professor at Rangsit University, venues can easily rake in up to Bt10 million per month, a fraction of which is used to bribe law enforcers against closure. The bribes start from Bt200,000 a month and can reach a startling Bt400,000 (Bt10,000 for each agency) for venues with illegal sex workers from neighbouring countries, said Jomdet, who has interviewed dozens of sex workers while researching the trade.
A venue’s incomes are derived from deducting a portion of the earnings of the sex workers, he said. One Myanmar professional working in Thailand told the researcher she could make Bt1,000-Bt2,000 just to “sit” with the customers, rising to as much as Bt5,000 for each sexual service. She could make an average of Bt100,000 monthly.
The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act 1996 punishes the sex worker for selling sex (with a maximum fine of Bt1,000) but not the customer for purchasing sex.
This, Mataluk said, may need to be changed.
In the Nordic or French model, selling sex is legal but buying it or running a brothel is prohibited. The sex worker is seen as a victim who should not be further victimised by the law.
The idea in this approach is to decriminalise the sex workers, while making it harder for customers to buy their services. That should reduce prostitution over the long run, Mataluk said, without further victimising the prostitute.
“If we punish the customers or make buying sex illegal, we make them consider: ‘Is it worth it if I have to pay for the sex and offend the law?’ When the investment is risky, do they still want to invest?”
But a sex worker told the panel that the Nordic model could be counter-productive. “Ping Pong”, a 40-year old who plied her trade in Bangkok’s bars and on the streets for 20 years, said the approach could drive prostitution further underground rather than reducing it. “I’m afraid of the quality of customers.
“If buying sex were illegal, only those who are not afraid of the law – like people with criminal records – would be our customers.
“That’s even more dangerous,” she said.
The researchers have also studied the approach of legalising and regulating prostitution.
Here, sex workers would register with the government authorities, undergo regular medical checks for sexual transmitted diseases and may also carry a prostitution |card.
They would be subject to taxation and labour laws, and contribute to and receive social security. Regulation also makes it easier to control the minimum age of those entering the trade.
Prostitution may also reduce marital rape, said Mataluk, a Thammasat University law professor and expert on laws governing women and children.
“Many wives are forced – with or without violence – to have sex with their husbands.
For women in some countries, allowing their husbands to buy sex takes that pressure away.”
The idea of fully legalised prostitution is hailed by Ping Pong, who says it would reduce the stigma attached to her profession. However, the sex worker believed only a few Thai prostitutes would dare to register.
“If someone runs for PM and people discover his mother is a prostitute, how would people react? How many women would be willing to have a record of being in that profession,” she asked.
“In her own case, keeping her profession hidden allowed Ping Pong to put both of her daughters through university.
“A report by German daily Welt found that less than half of the estimated 400,000 to 1 million sex workers in Germany had chosen to register despite the lure of social benefits.
Thailand may need to adopt a system that does not humiliate the sex worker, said Mataluk, but legalising prostitution would not be possible without a registration process.
“We want to protect sex workers, their customers and the society at large.
“So we need to be able to regulate and check.
“The humiliation factor is something sex workers have to consider before choosing this path,” she said.
As in Sweden, France and other countries that have legalised prostitution, the goal would be to eradicate it. But to do this, the government must also support alternative professional training for sex workers to transition out of the industry.
“And it is definitely not teaching them to make garlands, baskets or paper birds,” Mataluk said. It needs to be a sustainable and realistic alternative.
“We must move forward. If we don’t regulate it and instead let the situation continue, things will get out of control,” she said, pointing to the growing trend of Thai |teens selling their bodies as a sideline.