How Many Thai Women Have Worked in the Sex Industry?

Published: 11th May 2008Author: Know Phuket

How many Thai women have worked in the sex industry at some point in their lives? It is a question I found myself asking last week after one of my wife’s friends decided to take her first shot at it, aged 40.

Researchers have published many reports on the subject and estimates vary wildly on the number of women working at any given time. Figures vary from 100,000 to upwards of a million women. One report actually claims the sex industry is 3% of the Thai economy. Another report claims there are 40,000-50,000 prostitutes just in Pattaya and another 10,000 in Koh Samui.

We have to take all these figures with a pinch of salt. The sex industry is part of Thailand’s black economy and is almost impossible to survey accurately. However, there is no doubt that prostitution is widespread. It is estimated that tourists represent only 5-10% of customers. The other 90% of the industry is serving Thai men. All around the country there are small sex venues, providing to the needs of the local male populace.

If we accept there are 40,000 prostitutes in Pattaya, then surely there are at least another 40,000 working in Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui and other tourist resorts. That means 80,000 women just serving tourists. If tourists are only 10% of the customers, that would suggest 800,000 women working nationally. Of course, these figures are total guesswork but you get the idea that at any given time, there are a large number of Thai women working in the sex industry. So my question was, if there are that many working at any given time, how many women have worked in the industry at some point in their lives?

Let’s come back to my wife’s friend. She is 40 years old, divorced with one child. She has never worked in the sex industry. She is struggling to make ends meet so she has decided that selling her body is the best solution. The thing that amazes me is the matter-of-fact way she comes to this conclusion and sets about doing it. Her motive is not just to make money. She wants to find a western husband. That is how she feels she will find long-term financial security.

She wanted to meet westerners so she decided to work in Patong. She quickly found work at a bar in Bangla Road. She does not speak English. She is attractive for her age but she will be competing against girls half her age who already know the game. In some ways, I think she is very brave to try. On the other hand, I also think she is deluding herself and will just end up feeling bad. I can’t help feeling a little responsible. I am the only westerner she has ever really known. I think she looks at my wife’s life with me and hopes to find something similar for herself.

However, what really struck me was the way all her friends accepted her decision. My wife and other friends, who have never worked in the sex industry, still thought her choice was acceptable. They were happy to discuss the subject. They laughed and joked about the idea of this woman trying to pull farang. None of them was shocked. None of them turned their noses up or tried to persuade this woman to change her mind. They have seen so many women make the same decision that the moral dilemma is not even an issue. It is just the practical questions of making it work.

I asked my wife how many of her friends had ever worked in the sex industry. Her friends probably represent a fair cross-section of the Thai female population. My wife comes from a rural background but has lived her adult life in towns where she has been reasonably successful. Her friends are therefore a mixture of lower and middle class Thais.

When she thought about it, she was surprised just how many of her friends had sold themselves at some point in their lives. At least one in ten. Then she threw the ‘mia-noi’ factor into the equation. You could argue that being a mia-noi (mistress) is also a form of selling yourself. It is almost a career for some Thai women. It is what they are. Sometimes you ask what a woman does for a living and Thais may reply, ‘she is a mia-noi’.

The mia-noi is a Thai tradition. It is almost a status symbol for successful Thai men to have a wife and a mistress. It shows they can afford to support two women. If they are very successful, they may have more than one mistress. The mia-noi gets a good deal from the arrangement. She is probably taken out more than the major-wife. She probably gets more presents and maybe even more money. Her only responsibilities are to look good and provide sex. It certainly is a form of selling yourself.

Perhaps another one in ten of my wife’s friends had been mia-noi. So the outcome of this totally unscientific survey is that maybe as many as 20% of Thai women have sold themselves for money at some point in their lives. That is a large percentage, I’m sure much higher than in western countries. Still I am not judging this as a bad thing. It is just a different outlook on the subject. Just like in the west, Thais do believe that selling your body is a demeaning profession. However, they also accept that it is often a financial necessity. They are more willing to discuss it openly. They are less likely to make cruel judgements on those involved.

We went to visit my wife’s friend in Bangla Road. She joked she must be ugly because after a week, a customer is yet to even buy her a drink. I hope she keeps her sense of humour.

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