Thailand – A Country of Sexual Hypocrites?
Less than a week ago, the “shocking” (sic) incident of a public blowjob where an alleged Pattaya bar girl was caught on camera fellating a Korean tourist at a disco on Walking Street caused an “uproar” not only among Thai commenters on social media like Facebook but also the police and tourism officials who went like: “Oh my gosh! A blowjob in Pattaya? No way!”
An indecent act like oral sex in a public place – the upholders of moral standards argued – wasn’t just “damaging” to Thailand’s image but also offended the country’s Buddhism-inspired “good culture and tradition”.
What can we say? While we agree that a blowjob should preferably be carried out in the privacy of one’s hotel room this surely wasn’t the first time that a sex worker was seen giving head in Pattaya. In fact, we’ve witnessed more “shocking” stuff (not just) on Soi 6 over the decades. We would also assume that the police are well aware of what’s going on in many massage shops and short-time bars in Pattaya – so what’s really the big deal?
Think about it: The big deal was obviously not the blowjob itself but the fact that some disgruntled eyewitness in the club captured that “moment of lewd candidness” (as James Austin refers to it in his related piece at Siam Voices) on camera and uploaded the footage to Facebook. No, it wasn’t just a bit of oral sex in a dance club somewhere on Walking Street (where we assume not many clubbers felt offended by watching the girl go down on her John) but – much worse – also on Facebook, an uber-public place so-to-say.
In other words, not the act itself was so “shocking” but the fact that someone recorded it with his/her camera and published it on Facebook where the media were quick to take notice of it. At this point, denial and face-saving didn’t work any longer.
Thai society is hypocritical in more than one way. In Thai culture, virtually anything goes (including uncles raping their underage nieces, drunk Buddhist monks in karaoke bars etc.) as long as the “dirty deed” is done in private and it’s possible to simply look away and pretend it never happened. When things go public, on the other hand, the damage to the collective “face” has been done and everybody is “shocked” (sic).
We have described Thailand more than once as a “land of sexual hypocrites” where prostitution (same as gambling) is virtually illegal but still exists in every one-horse town; where sex education virtually doesn’t exist and premarital sex is “culturally not correct”, yet underage pregnancies are continuously on the rise.
We’ve also pointed out several times that modern-day sex tourism didn’t appear from nowhere in Thailand or was “imported” by US soldiers during the Vietnam War era – they were but a catalyst.
Thailand was well prepared for the requirements of international sex tourism and had all the “infrastructure” in place before the first foreign tourists even set foot on Thai soil. In fact, prostitution – in spite of not being “strictly legal” – has a lively and much longer tradition in the country than modern-day “sex tourism” and has been deeply ingrained in its culture for centuries. And without prostitution, let’s face it, where would Thailand stand now as a tourist destination?
Sex Tourism & Thai-Style Prostitution
Inspired by the current public blowjob brouhaha in Pattaya, James Austin, a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand, has now written a brilliant piece on Prostitution – Thailand’s Worst Kept Secret, which is well worth reading in full.
As a first-time visitor, Austin notes,
You could be forgiven for thinking if you were new to Thailand that prostitution was a market aimed solely at foreign tourists and fund-dumping expatriates. The garish lights, garish hook-ups, and garish whispers in the night have become iconic, a thing of holiday myths, books, films, and for many who don’t live here deceitfully representative of an entire culture.
Sure, in the eyes of the average Western observer who may have never visited Thailand before but relies on media accounts and media-inspired preconceptions, a holiday in Thailand and its sex industry are intrinsically tied to each other, to the extent that many seem to think that only the US soldiers stationed in the region during the Vietnam War kick-started the “bar girl industry” in the country. They will think like: If you go on a holiday to Thailand you’re a sex tourist and sex tourists bring prostitution to Thailand, which is bad.
But nothing could be further from the truth: While the US soldiers of the early 1960s surely kick-started modern-day sex tourism in places like Bangkok and Pattaya (here’s, for example, our brief history of Pattaya and how it evolved from a sleepy fishing village to “sin city”), prostitution itself had long been part and parcel of Thai culture by then, and the new emerging “sex tourism industry” was nothing but a market extension so-to-say to cater to a larger international customer base.
Off-the-record figures indicate that an estimated “US$16 million from Vietnam War foreign soldiers’ pockets went towards the Thai sex industry, the catalyst of what gave Thailand its seedy image. But,” as Austin correctly notes, “the industry, apropos tourism, is hardly even the tip of the iceberg.”
According to some estimates, Thailand’s “extended” sex industry involves up to 2.8 million people, most of them women, and goes far beyond the scope of beer bars catering to Western tourists. In fact, prostitution in Thailand, despite being virtually illegal since 1960, is
But Thai men, other than Farang sex tourists, usually don’t frequent beer bars or A-GoGo clubs as we know them from Pattaya. Instead, Thai males will visit karaoke bars (many of the girls working in those venues are effectively prostitutes catering to Thai customers) or traditional body massage parlours (arb ob nuad in Thai language) that have reportedly been around since the 1940s.
Austin further mentions “Siamese 50 satang brothels [that] were popular in the early half of the 20th century”, the tradition of Dok Kaew (the “practice of selling off a daughter at a young age to a male buyer” which was reportedly evident until the 1990s) and the rising number of Internet-era “sideline girls” (เด็กไซด์ไลน์ or “dek sideline”). These are basically young freelance prostitutes, often college or university girls, who offer sexual services online and cater nearly exclusively to the Thai market.
Believe it or not, according to this report by the Kinsey Institute from the early 1990s, as many as “90% of the [Thai] male participants had had sex with a prostitute and 74% had lost their virginity with a female sex worker.” So if you think that it’s Western sex tourists who fuel Thailand’s diversified sex industry – nah, you couldn’t be much further from the truth.
Facing The Facts – Poverty & Prostitution
Thai tourism and those that profit from it have banked on Thai women being poor enough to become part of a diaspora leaving the fields and doing the epitome of physical work in the city, and the fact there are enough virile, and non-virile, tourists coming to abate their sexual frustrations. There is a niche, and Thailand, like many other countries, fills it. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The shock is not because something has happened that we thought didn’t exist, it’s because the worst kept secret, for a lurid minute, was captured on camera and has caused some folks to blush.
Really, blush over what? Blush over the fact that a large number of Thai women still have to sell sexual services – in a country that otherwise likes to portrait itself as being on par with Western economies? Fact is that many people in the countryside (and that’s where the lion’s share of Thai sex workers hail from) still lack economic opportunities. As a sad result, Austin argues, Thailand “needs” prostitution and the revenue generated from sex tourism, simply “because a lot of people are reliant upon it.”
Authorities in Pattaya have responded to the “public blowjob scandal” by requesting the club where the action took place to close for 10 days – the usual “crackdown” bullshit that makes a mountain out of a molehill without actually targeting the mole. Austin concludes (and we can’t help but agree):
Perhaps if a crackdown is deemed necessary, then it should not be a crackdown on sexual morality, but on capitalist morality; a crackdown on the police cracking down; a crackdown on hypocrisy. Thailand must start to accept what it has become. (…) Prostitution was born out of poverty; if there’s anything that requires the great leader’s attention, it’s just that: lack of money for the majority.
In other words, what Thailand needs is a crackdown on the root cause of prostitution – which is poverty and lack of economic opportunities, not a crackdown on prostitution and perceived vice – which will always exist.
READ MORE: Prostitution: Thailand’s worst kept secret