Girlie bars and everything in between

Prostitution in Patong Beach, Thailand is openly available and accepted Just this past July, I was there on a holiday with my sister and her two friends. As the plane was landing, all one could see was beauty. You are surrounded by crystal clear blue water and welcomed by friendly Thai faces. Once we decided what area we wanted to stay, with the help of our guru, the Lonely Planet book, we were off to experience Phuket.

We all decided to stay in Patong Beach, the tourist attraction of Phuket. “The steamy streets seethe with souvenir shops, girlie bars, pricey seafood restaurants, dive shops, travel agencies, hotels, and everything in between,” according to Lonely Planet. Little did we know that the “girlie bars” and “everything in between” mentioned were actually filled with young Thai girls and old foreign men wanting to have a “good time,” but only through the exchange of money. It was revolting to see how proud these men were holding on to these beautiful, petite Thai girls.
The fact is that the majority of the prostitutes were young girls who have a lack of education because of the many responsibilities put upon them at such a young age. The average age Thai girls complete their education is 14.

What I witnessed in Patong Beach was disgusting, but more than that, it was sad. It opened my eyes to the issue of prostitution among Thai youth and the way the socio-economic situation in Thailand pushes more women to consider sexual tourism as employment. At one point, I even saw a prostitute who was wearing overalls and had braces, just as you would see a young teen enjoying playing outside with her friends. It made me question how common or easy it is for young Thai girls to fall into the world of sex tourism and prostitution.

Thailand, one of the leading destinations for sex tourism, according to a 2004 study from Chulalongkorn University, had an estimated total of 2.8 million sex workers, including 800,000 minors under the age of 18. Another 2003 estimate suggested that prostitution in Thailand is responsible for 3 per cent of its total economy, placing the trade at US$ 4.3 billion per year.
Over the years, prostitution has increasingly become accepted and lucrative, not only for the women practicing this activity, but as well for the overall economy for such cities like Phuket, one of the primary tourist prostitution areas.

However, prostitution has been illegal in Thailand, since 1960, and it is also outlawed to hire prostitutes under the age of 18. It seems that there is an obvious lack of effort and will from the Thai government’s part to enforce these regulations. It also seems that prostitution in Thailand has become a cultural routine, where everyone agrees on benefiting from it and subconsciously turns prostitution into a mainstream activity among the Thai society.

After all, according to a CIA Factbook the rate of women who were literate is quite high (over 90 per cent) while the unemployment rate hovers under 2 per cent. Based on this information, one can only assume that prostitutes in Thailand have other options than their current occupation. Why, then, is the sex tourism industry so welcoming to young Thai girls? The truth is, since prostitution is a form of extremely lucrative economic activity widely accepted in Thailand, popularly practiced and consumed, there is little reason for a Thai girl not to find this form of employment appealing and forgo a proper education.

Nevertheless, many questions remain. How do these women feel when they get home to their families? Do they feel accomplished, sad, sick, hurt? Regardless of the answers, money is what keeps these women going. Since prostitution in Patong Beach is so relaxed and open, what measures need to be taken so that positive change can occur for these women? Is prostitution really a choice for these women and girls in Phuket, or simply a long time tradition that is considered a way of survival in this day and age?

Though the questions remain, I have to say that I have some admiration for these girls. Despite the resentment and disgust they might themselves have for their customers, they are still putting on smiling faces, and making these lonely men feel loved.

Unfortunately, this admiration eventually turns into sadness and pity. The fact still remains that these women and girls will not have the same opportunities that we, the majority of Canadian youth, get. They will never be able to enjoy the innocence of life, since it has been snatched away from them. Perhaps if the money made from prostitution was spent on educating these women, they might realize that prostitution will get them only so far in life.

Priya Tandon is graduating in October from the Women’s and Gender Studies program at the U of M.