Thanks to the hit biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi on Netflix, the plight of Thai sex workers and their needs for legal protection are back in the spotlight.
Their demands are simple — stop treating us as criminals. Sex workers are workers, give us our labour rights like other professions. We are equal human beings. Give us back our human dignity.
Indeed, change is long overdue.
Gangubai Kathiawadi, based on a true story, depicts the story of a vivacious young girl who faced a hellish life when her boyfriend sold her into prostitution in Mumbai, India. Despite her painful experiences and social stigma, Gangubai rose to prominence as an influential brothel owner and a social activist fighting for sex workers’ rights and human dignity.
Gangubai fever has taken Thai social media by storm. Inspired by her fearlessness and fortitude, women across the social spectrum posed their photos in white saris and red dots on their foreheads like Gangubai in the movie to celebrate women’s power.
Undeniably, the popularity of Gangubai Kathiawadi reflects more open social attitudes towards sex workers. The social values in Thailand have changed. Yet the laws governing sex workers remain stuck in the dark ages.
Despite being a trillion-baht industry, the sex trade remains an underground business. Sex workers are treated as criminals although many of them are lured into the flesh trade and subjected to exploitation and violence. Apart from suffering social stigma, they do not have access to labour rights and social welfare benefits.
Thailand is known worldwide for its huge sex industry. Yet there are no official statistics on sex workers for proper policy-making.
According to a 2015 study by Havocscope, a research company that studies black markets, there were about 13.8 million sex workers around the world. Thailand had around 250,000 sex workers, ranking No.8 in the global sex industry.
The research company estimated the Thai flesh trade to be worth about $6.4 billion a year (about 231.3 billion baht a year). It was about 3% of the country’s gross domestic product, a huge economic contribution, yet it was not counted and recognised in the Thai economic system.
Since prostitution is illegal in Thailand, the main labour force in this economic activity — sex workers — are treated as criminals and subjected to fines and imprisonment.
The crux of the problem is the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act.
Under this law, sex workers are fined for loitering in public places. If they advertise their services or gather at a prostitution establishment to sell sex, they face fines and/or imprisonment.
Given the country’s huge sex industry, the police should be very busy rounding up sex workers. From January-June 2021, however, only four sex workers were arrested. This is evidence that the law to criminalise sex work is not functioning and, therefore, unnecessary.
Maintaining this futile law costs dearly. Making sex work a crime costs taxpayers’ money to pay the police and court to enforce the law that does not work. Importantly, keeping the sex industry underground creates plenty of opportunities for corruption.
Meanwhile, women in the flesh trade are robbed of access to get legal protection, labour rights, and the opportunities to improve their quality of life.
If this law is an investment, then it is a losing venture.
We should learn from how other countries regulate commercial sex.
In India, the home of Gangubai, the government aims at eradicating prostitution. Yet, private sex work is not illegal. Soliciting sex publicly or owning a brothel is. The government also has a policy to support sex workers’ occupational training so they can quit and start life anew.
Like Thailand, France wants to stamp out prostitution, but the law does not view sex workers as criminals. Instead, it treats sex workers as victims of human trafficking who need social and financial assistance.
The countries that support the registration of prostitution as a legal profession share a similar standpoint: freedom to choose an occupation and the right to engage in work. The state authorities may not support an individual’s choice to do sex work, but they will not suppress it unless he/she engages in the crime of human trafficking.
Germany, for example, allows consensual sex work and provides legal protection from the state government. However, sex workers must register with the state authorities and pay taxes as independent workers.
Prostitution in Singapore is also legal, but commercial sex operations must be in specially designated zones. The government prohibits sex workers from running and owning a brothel unless they receive legal permits from the government.
Thailand, too, should move forward to decriminalise prostitution.
First and foremost, the government must amend the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act.
If this bill aims to reduce the size of the sex industry, there are many ways to achieve this goal without resorting to legal penalties and criminalisation. Law is not the only tool to tackle crimes that stem from social inequalities.
Instead of punishing the smallest fish in the sex industry food chain, the state authorities should protect sex workers’ rights and safety, prevent exploitation, improve their health, and create new and sustainable work options for them.
Importantly, the government must collect real data and statistics on sex workers and the sex industry for effective policy-making. Sex workers are not women only. Many of them are males and LGBTIQA+. Accurate databases are crucial to meet their different needs.
During the 2022 Bangkok Nuruemit Pride festival recently, apart from the calls for respect for gender diversity and same-sex marriage law, sex workers’ rights are also another important demand from the LGBTIQA+ community.
Thai society has moved forward. The laws should no longer be tied to traditional moral frameworks to justify the conservatives’ moral superiority at the expense of compassion and human rights.
Moreover, the law based on traditional values ends up aggravating corruption and intensifying sexual exploitation.
Sex workers are not criminals. Sex work is work. Sex workers are entitled to have labour rights, occupational safety, and sexual well-being. To curb the sex industry, reduce disparity. Tackle gender discrimination. Give people in need the skills to have better life opportunities. Empowerment is the answer. Not draconian laws. Stop criminalising sex workers.
Article by Chattrika Napatanapong and Ratsameechan Saowakhon are researchers at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
First published in Bangkok Post on Wednesday, July 20, 2022
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