The Cultural Conundrum of Sexuality in Thailand

During her time as Thailand’s first female Minister of Tourism and Sports (2014-2017), Ms. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul was extremely vocal about the need to end sex tourism in the country. Her desire was to see “Thailand be about quality tourism” without the seedy draw of the sex-trade [1].

Minister KobkarnRecently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has expressed similar views. These views were expressed in response to a slight from the Gambian minister, Hamat Bah, who indicated that any wanna-be-sex-tourists should bypass his country and head straight to Thailand [2]. Interestingly enough, the Prime Minister’s response conveyed a certain amount of sympathy that had not been as apparent during Ms. Wattanavrangkul’s term, stating:

“We have to accept that some people make a living from this kind of occupation. Therefore, we have to help solve the problems both in the careers and income of these people. More importantly, we have to look into whether these people are happy to change their occupation or not” [2].


Poverty.jpgWhile Ms. Wattanavrangkul’s desire to see the sex-trade abolished is understandable, even admirable, many critics were quick to point out that her law enforcement approach overlooked a major reason many women chose to enter the industry in the first place. The increased police raids appeared to be a heartless attempt to quickly clean up the country’s image without addressing one of the foundational reasons for the issue: poverty. Essentially, it was the social equivalent of hacking off a branch but ignoring the roots. It has been estimated that in Thailand there are hundreds of thousands of sex-workers, with Pattaya holding an estimated 27,000+ just by itself [1]. Many of the current female sex workers explain that they feel they have no other choice; the money to be made on the streets is more than double what they can expect to receive from other unskilled occupations [3][4].

So, if Thailand truly wants to makeover its image, it needs to start with the inequality among its citizens. Find a way to offer viable, alternative occupations to the women and it appears that many of them would choose to leave the sex industry. The crackdowns on the bars seem to target a mere symptom of Thailand’s public image issues. Thailand is known for sex tourism partly because the vast majority of women are so impoverished that they are willing to do almost anything to support their families. This impoverished state creates the supply of sex workers, while sex tourism provides the demand.

Sex Capital

Along with the issues of financial inequality, Thailand must take a long, hard look at the sexual hypocrisy that is rampant within their society. It is no surprise that many eyebrows are raised by Thailand’s double-standard when it comes to sexuality. Consider that Thailand, a country which still widely considers itself stanchly conservative, traditional, and moralistic, hosts the “world’s neon-lit sex capital” in the resort-city of Pattaya (italics added) [1]. Pattaya, and its accompanying sex tourism trade, continues to flourish despite the fact that prostitution is completely illegal in the country and the increasing number of police raids within the city (IRP-LAW-1)[3].

And yet, in this same country, public displays of affection greater than hugging and hand-holding are essentially taboo, sexual education within schools is a mere cry for abstinence all around, and the ideals of purity, chastity, and virginity are deeply impressed upon young girls [5]. Women, obsessed with maintaining a reputation of being a “good girl,” have begun engaging in health-jeopardizing activities in order to provide dry sex for their male lovers; the underlying assumption that natural lubrication indicates a lustful temperament that is not present in a truly virtuous woman [5]. But, more confusing still, men are free to engage in sexual exploits from a young age. Their “sexual abandon is accepted or even encouraged,” as long as it takes place behind closed doors [6]. In fact, one source indicates that young men are encouraged to have their first sexual encounter be with a sex worker [6]. This obviously feeds into a vicious cycle.

Male sexuality is allowed to run rampant, while women are expected to remain reserved and basically non-participatory in sexual relationships. Women are told to be chaste and virtuous, to be understanding when their husband or lover needs extra attention from additional women (DSFMF-PRACTICE-2). And if that man leaves his faithful woman? Well, she may shortly find out that being chaste and virtuous will not keep her family from starving. And it is often in these heartbreakingly common scenarios that a single mother is introduced to the sex trade, one of the few occupations available to her that pays the bills and then some.

As with any multi-faceted issue, there is no “quick fix”. Thailand wants, understandably, to change its image into a more family-friendly vacation destination. But if it truly wants to do this, it needs to understand everything that is feeding into the sex trade. Inequality in both monetary terms and gender roles/sexual expectations play a much larger role than I believe has been adequately addressed by current policies, if at all.

It’s time to stop whacking off the branches and start targeting the root causes!

—By AA



[1] Hodge, Mark, Jon Lockett and Luke Williams. 17 February 2017. “Vice City: Inside the World’s Sex Capital Pattaya, Thailand Dubbed the ‘Modern-Day Sodom and Gomorrah’ Where 27,000 Prositutues Offer Services to Over a Million Tourists.” The Sun. Accessed 10 April 2018.

[2] Bangkok Post. 28 February 2018. “PM Calls for End to ‘Sex Tourism Image’.” Accessed 11 April 2018.

[3] Trayner, David. 20 April 2017. “‘Sin City’ Prostitutes REFUSE to Obey Sex Trade Ban for THIS Key Reason.” The Sun. Accessed 10 April 2018.

[4] The World Post. 17 February 2017. “Sex Workers Face Poverty as Thailand Announces Image Makeover.” Huffpost. Accessed 11 April 2018.

[5] Farrell, James Austin. 4 February 2015. “Why Some Women in Thailand Aim to Have Dry Sex.” Asian Correspondent. Accessed 10 April 2018.

[6] Tayawaditep, Kittiwut Jod, Eli Coleman & Pacharin Dumronggittigule. Late 1990’s. Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai). Accessed 10 April 2018.

Panyalimpanun, Thitipol. 6 March 2015. “Opinion: Sexual Hypocrisy is Alive and Well in Thailand.” Asian Correspondent. Accessed 10 April 2018.

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