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 Global Perspective

April 15, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 2

global perspective
Gemma Tulud Cruz is a doctoral student in feminist theology at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her email address is



What does it mean to be legally free when one is denied one's very dignity?

Coming to grips with prostitution

By Gemma Tulud Cruz

PATTAYA, Thailand -- "Land of the free" is the classic translation for pratet-thai or Thailand. Across Thailand and especially in its tourist-populated cities, however, there is a contradictory occurrence that reeks of slavery. This phenomenon, which Thai society is grappling with, is the prevalence of the world's oldest profession: prostitution.

Next to the Philippines, the country of my birth, and the Netherlands, my current country of residence, Thailand is like a third home to me, not so much because I have been to it and gone around it so many times but because the climate, the culture, and the people are not so different for another Southeast Asian like me. The people especially make one feel that one's sense of belonging and identity is not dramatically reduced as happens in traveling to a different country. And I am sure the tens of thousands of tourists who visit Thailand annually will agree with me. A tourist attraction it truly is. With its grand temples, beautiful countryside, numerous cheap goods, and friendly gentle people, Thailand is a natural attraction and destination for tourism -- the only acceptable human form of restlessness. And indeed Thailand has become a magnet for restless human beings. It has a thriving tourist industry that contributes a significant portion to the country's economy. Yet, it has also fallen prey to tourists of a certain kind: those in search of not just fun in the sun but also cheap flesh entertainment and cheap sex at the expense of the young men and especially the young women of Thailand.

Pattaya, which lies southeast of Bangkok, is an example of this. It is a beautiful coastal city but its picturesque scenery is marred by blatant and rampant sex trade. One whole stretch of a road is even closed to traffic. And what is special in this road? It is composed mostly of bars that feature live shows that leave very little to the imagination. Here, scantily clad high-school looking girls and young women act as its "beacons" to foreign men. Even its restaurants have scantily clad women as waitresses and PR girls. When one walks by the beach one sees and overhears negotiations for a quick and cheap tryst. Once while I walked with a friend, a tout mistook him for a Japanese tourist and -- speaking in Japanese -- offered to set him up with a girl. All this happens, despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and even when police stations are nearby.

Pattaya hosts so many foreigners that when walking along the beach, one can get the impression that tourists outnumber the locals. The sight of shirtless male tourists roaming city streets and topless women tourists lounging on beaches incenses the Thais, who are by culture modest, and there are frequent calls for the government to keep undressed tourists out of the public eye. In Pattaya, one also commonly sees middle-aged or older male Westerners, the usual customers, with one or two girls or boys in tow, some shockingly young. They walk the streets of Pattaya freely and nonchalantly. Imagine how this offends Thai sensitivities.

Some Thais have either resigned themselves to or willingly accepted the promise of quick money by the flesh trade. A lot of them capitalize on it. A highly established network of human traffickers, which includes some families as conspirators, ensures that prostitution lives on.

Prostitution seems to have inserted itself in the very fabric of Thai society. The Dec. 8, 2003 issue of Time magazine reported that Thailand's sex industry generate $4.3 billion annually and accounts for an estimated 3% of the country's economy. The flesh trade has become a central problem in Thailand to the point that the Justice Ministry recently held a seminar on "The sex trade: Which path should Thai society take?"

Thailand has a standing Anti-Prostitution Act that criminalized prostitution in 1996. Academics and women's rights advocates argue, however, that traffickers, mafia conspirators, brothel owners and corrupt law enforcement use this very policy to oppress women in the sex trade. Now the government is mulling over the registration of prostitutes to stop their oppression. But public opinion is against this.

Some say that Thai society should take a practical instead of a moral stance. They argue that the health and welfare of the sex workers should be the priority and not their seeming sinfulness or immorality. They point to rising incidence of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Others rebut this saying that the rights to freedom and human dignity are being sacrificed on the altar of greed daily. They argue that the issue is slavery. The need is to free the enslaved sex workers (literally and figuratively) and to stop the flesh trade. This will go a long way to dealing with other vital social issues, like the transmission of HIV.

Prostitution, especially with the onslaught of globalization, is an international bone of contention. Thailand's situation is mirrored in most Third World tourist spots and entertainment districts and even in First World's red light districts. In Asia, U.S. military bases, e.g., in Japan and South Korea, are magnets for the flesh trade. Human trafficking for prostitution is also on the rise across the globe. In Central Asia, especially from Uzbekistan, up to 10,000 young women are forced into the sex trade by international crime syndicates. This multi-billion dollar industry also accounts for the trafficking of Filipinas and Russian women to U.S. military bases in Korea; the illegal movement of 400 Bangladeshi women monthly to Pakistan; and the undocumented entry of 300 Thai women annually to Australia.

How Thailand -- and the rest of the world -- deal with prostitution leave us with a number of questions:

Is the decriminalization of prostitution, e.g., government registration of prostitutes, a stop-gap solution?

Does decriminalization tackle the deeply-entrenched root causes like poverty, the feminization of poverty, and the objectification and exploitation of women?

What good is legislation that diminishes but does not stop oppression?

What does it mean to be legally free when one is denied one's very dignity?

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