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Welcome To The Land Of Smiles

Posted by BigDummyKenny on August 8, 2014

Underneath the shiny surface of “post-card perfect Thailand,” with its “lithe coconut trees lazily swaying under a lapis lazuli sky” lies a deep, dark secret – one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist destinations is also known as the “Sin City of Asia”. Thailand’s racy nightlife, where almost all bathhouses, massage parlors, and bars offer prostitution services, has led the nation to be characterized as “the world’s sex tourism capital,” attracting wealthy, mostly male clientele from all over the world – America, Europe, and Asia. To demonstrate the extent to which this conception of Thailand has been embedded in society, in 1993, the “Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture” defined Bangkok as a city where “there are a lot of prostitutes”. The success of Thailand’s tourism industry, which generates 6% of the nation’s GDP, has largely been fueled by the exploitation of local Thai women. Consequently, Thailand has consistently failed to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goal #3, which strives to promote gender equality and empower women. The lack of governmental incentive to create equal job opportunities for Thai women has consistently forced them to pursue work in the informal sector as sex workers. Simultaneously, the dominant narratives of the First World place the blame entirely on Thailand itself in order to absolve themselves of any complicity in exacerbating Thailand’s development problems. These narratives need to be challenged.

The Prostitution Prohibition Act of 1960, introduced in Thailand during the military rule of Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat, officially outlawed prostitution [1]. It defined prostitution as the “indiscriminate acceptance of sexual intercourse…or the performance of any act for the satisfaction of the sexual desire of another for hire” [2]. On the surface, this definition is indiscriminate because it punishes both the perpetrator and recipient of prostitution, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. However, this legislation clearly singled out prostitutes as the source of the problem, revealing the inherently gendered biases within the legal system, since prostitutes are overwhelmingly female [3]. This also set a precedent for future policies that similarly pushed the blame on the victims.

More than fifty years later, prostitution is still rampant in Thailand; in fact, it has gotten significantly worse. To provide some perspective, back in June 1992, there were approximately 120,000-150,000 people involved in sex work., But according to Huffington Post by 2009, the number of prostitutes in Thailand had increased to anywhere between 800,000 and two million. This unequivocally begs the question: why does prostitution continue to pervade society? One contributing factor is the government’s complacency and complicity in the practice. For example, many Thai law enforcement officials are involved in running prostitution rings, so they often turn a blind eye to prostitution to preserve their economic and legal interests. Furthermore, Thailand has an international reputation as a sex tourism destination, and tourism is its top source of revenue, so government officials have little incentive to change the status quo. This has led to a myriad of health and social problems that are undisputedly consequent of its “economic growth,” including rising rates of HIV/AIDs, the commodification and exploitation of Thai women, and unequal power relations between Thailand and the rest of the world.

Policy options proposed by the Thai government in the past were marked by a hesitation towards assuming formal institutional responsibility for the problem of prostitution. For example, even as the paranoia surrounding the AIDs epidemic grew to a fever pitch in the early 1990s, the Thai government remained silent on prostitution. This spurred Europeans and Americans to threaten to boycott buying Thai products, as well as visiting Thailand [4]. It was this potentially devastating drop in tourist-generated revenue that finally propelled the Thai government to break its silence, resulting in stricter legislation in the mid-1990s that for the first time mandated the punishment of clients of prostitution, especially those who engage with child prostitutes [5]. However, it is important to note that this was proposed with an ulterior motive: helping Thai men (and the nation-state) reclaim their masculinity. Government officials subscribed to the patriarchal thinking that “a properly masculine state must protect and provide for the (feminine) nation by protecting Thai culture and national identity…rather than selling them to foreigners or abusing them” [6]. Thus, part of the reason the policy failed was because the government did not have the right intentions. Instead of creating structural change that would empower women and provide them with viable job prospects other than prostitution, their main concern was to salvage the remnants of their emasculated national reputation. The reforms they implemented, such as punishing offenders, were merely a slap on the wrist intended to appease international watchdog groups. The reforms did not address the larger, systemic issues at play, such as the complicity of police officers who refuse to enforce anti-prostitution laws or the investment of the government in maintaining the tourism industry and preserving their image.

The response of the international community has been equally abhorrent, and an article in a 1991 issue of Rolling Stone perfectly exemplifies this. The article posed the question: “Why is Thailand the whorehouse of the world? The ‘land of smiles’ is famously compliant, a crossroads country that has survived and kept its independence by accommodating itself to the vagaries of power” [7]. While it is true that Thai government is guilty of facilitating prostitution, such an overly simplistic prescription ignores the forces of globalization that undergird international industries like sex trafficking and tourism. The basic contention of many Western critics has been that Thailand “lacks the strength to stand up for itself” and what is worse is that it has been willing to subject itself and its female citizens to feed the sexual fantasies of men in First World countries [8]. What we have to ask ourselves is: what is missing from this picture? This explanation completely ignores the direct role that First World countries play in the exploitation of Thai women. After all, those citizens are the main contributors to and benefactors from this commodification of women. Consequently, blaming the entirety of the prostitution problem on Thailand’s alleged disregard of human rights and inability to protect its citizens is a blatantly lazy prescription that allows complicit foreign powers to blissfully ignore the realities of their own involvement. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango”. There would not be such an extensive market for prostitution if there were not a market for such illicit sexual services. It is imperative for Western governments to start taking responsibility for the actions of their citizens and critically thinking about both the consequences of the unequal power relations between white males and racialized, gendered others.

Read the entire story here.


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