Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

‘Sweet, smart, strong and sexy’: the sex workers taking a stand in Thailand

Sex workers aren’t asking for you to approve of sex work, they’re asking for equal protection under the law.

Empower Foundation
19 February 2020
Sex Worker Networking Zone at the International AIDS Conference 2018 in Amsterdam.
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juno mac/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

The term ‘decriminalised’ in Thai is directly expressed as ‘not against the law’. It is the process of removing specific criminal laws. Around the world there are many examples of decriminalisation: homosexuality, bikinis, adultery, interracial marriage, and abortion to name a few. Most of these activities were once banned in order to govern sexual behaviour and bodily autonomy, especially of women. The laws were there to uphold the moral codes of the day and campaigns to remove them faced strong resistance from state and society alike. Yet moral codes are not evenly held or applied in society. They change over time. Laws must also change accordingly.

Thai attitudes around sexual conduct, including sex work, have shifted over the last twenty years. The Thai Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act (1996) is fast becoming an orphan law running counter to the moral code of modern Thai society. No one reports the crime of prostitution. Reports may be made about noise, underage drinking, and child abuse, but not about the buying and selling of sex. It has reached the point where police must instigate the transactions themselves in order to make any prostitution arrests at all. The application of the law and the impacts on sex workers are well documented in Empower reports such as “Hit & Run” and “Moving toward Decent Sex Work in Thailand”, which are based on more than three decades of sex worker-led organising, advocacy and community research.

We're not asking Thai society to approve of sex work, but rather to approve of the state giving equal protection to those who do sex work.

Despite significant expenditure and 60 years of criminalisation, the Thai law has spectacularly failed to end ‘prostitution’ in Thailand. Instead it has filled the pockets of corrupt authorities, who use it as a tool to extort money from the country’s sex workers. It has become an insurmountable wall standing between sex workers and access to justice and human rights. In 2017 Thailand was reviewed by the UN Committee for the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The legally binding recommendations included reviewing the prostitution law to decriminalise sex work, ceasing entrapment operations and violent raids, and extending the Labor Protection Act to all workers in the entertainment industry without exception. The committee’s recommendations reflect the growing acceptance that the criminalisation of sex work fuels discrimination, violence and other social problems. This acknowledgement of the need for decriminalisation began with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s recommendation for decriminalisation in 2006 and has been endorsed by a growing list of UN agencies and leading global human rights organisations.

How Empower argues for decriminalisation

Generally we do not expect that everyone will, or even needs to, condone sex work. We're not asking Thai society to approve of sex work, but rather to approve of the state giving equal protection to those who do sex work. Supporting decriminalisation means to agree that human rights are inherent and inalienable, and that no one should be persecuted for what they do with their own bodies. It is to take a stand against male violence, especially violence institutionalised by the police and state. It is to want to remove one layer of the stigma which sex workers live and work on top of.

Though many Thai people still disapprove of sex work on moral grounds, it seems clear that the majority of people no longer feel that selling or buying sex is a source of social harm significant enough to deserve its own legal framework. We emphasise that decriminalisation of sex work does not mean there are no laws. Sex workers and sex work will still be accountable and protected under the multiple laws and regulations that apply to all workers in Thailand e.g. the Penal Code, Labor Protection Act, Entertainment Place Act, Migrant Worker Act, Human Trafficking Act, Child Protection Act, Social Security Act and so forth.

We try to remind society and law makers that when they are discussing sex workers they are talking about mothers – the heads of families and the main foreign exchange earners for Thailand. How should we treat such people, as criminals or as valued members of society?

Our advocacy strives to include the four elements of sweet, smart, strong and sexy, so we have something for everyone!

Most feminists in Thailand seem to be resistant to the Western mutant strain of feminism which refuses to recognise sex workers’ agency and lobbies against sex workers’ right to safety and justice. In a recent example of the lobbying power of mutant feminism, UN Women committed an outrageous betrayal by choosing to abandon all support for sex workers confronting police/state violence. UN Women claims to have taken a “neutral position” on the decriminalisation of sex work. We argue that ‘Decriminalise Sex Work’ is not a debate position, political viewpoint or an ideological argument any more than ‘Black Lives Matter’. Both are urgent imperatives. Decriminalising sex work is directly connected to the quality of life and livelihood of tens of millions of people globally.

Empower uses many different tools to advocate for decriminalisation such as theatre, documents, artworks, film and performance. Our advocacy strives to include the four elements of sweet, smart, strong and sexy, so we have something for everyone!

Decriminalisation is not a panacea or the end of the struggle, however it does remove the biggest barrier to sex worker’s organising and asserting all their rights. In the Thai context at least, the decriminalisation of sex work is not something that can be done on paper in parliament alone. Sex work must be decriminalised in the minds of people first. The decriminalisation of sex work will be the result of society acknowledging that times have changed, and that everyone’s right to safety must take priority over individual moral and ideological preferences. For 35 years the sex workers of Empower have been encouraging people to consider decriminalisation. We believe Thai society is reaching a point of critical mass that will embolden politicians and law makers to repeal the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act to decriminalise sex work.

Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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