A Global debate: Should Prostitution be Legalized?

© Copyright Nichakarn Kuphirun. All rights reserved.

Human Trafficking, one of the world’s greatest violations of human rights, remains one of the most important issues of the 21st century, earning some billions of dollars a year at the expense of millions of our world’s poorest citizens. Human trafficking is defined as the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, or receiving a person in position of vulnerability, with force, coercion, deception or other means, for exploiting them. Thailand, Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Laos, Uzbekistan and Russia are among the most common source countries for human trafficking victims. Of the 31.6 billion dollars human trafficking brings in annually, $9.7 billion or 30.6% is generated in Asia. In Thailand, trafficking for sexual exploitation in the form of prostitution is the most prevalent form of trafficking. Under the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act (1996), “prostitution” is “Sexual intercourse, or any other act, or the commission of any other act in order to gratify the sexual desire of another person in a promiscuous manner in return for money or any other act in return for money or any benefit, irrespective of whether the person who accepts the act and the person who commits the act are of the same sex or not.” (2) Despite prostitution being outlawed in 1960, prostitution is not strictly legal in Thailand; it is seen as a financial transaction and widely tolerated. Countless massage parlors, go-go bars, and karaoke bars are veiled fronts for prostitution, where sex workers are employed as servers, masseuses, and dancers. However, there are still unendless debates on whether or not prostitution should be legalized in Thailand.

Many Thais and religious NGOs in particular want prostitution to stay illegal because it’s dehumanizing nature that violates human rights and legalization would only make it worse. Rehab Ministries, a Christian NGO working to take thai women out of prostitution and provide them with alternative jobs, believes that prostitution is “inherently damaging and exploitative to women, ” putting women at the risk of bodily harm and mental trauma.(3) They also believe that legalizing prostitution puts “more money and power in the hands of procurers, pimps, and brothel owners” and lead to younger girls becoming involved. (4) So far,there is an estimated 60,000 children under age 18 are involved in prostitution in Thailand. (5) Further, Janice Raymond of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International, asserts that legalization in would increase the demand for prostitution Thailand, giving men a symbolic permission to abuse women, reduce women to sexual commodities, and view prostitution as “harmless fun.” (6) Based on her observation on other countries such as Netherlands, the sex industry expanded by 25% since its legalization. Finally, she also thinks that legalization would only fulfill the corrupted Thai government’s motive to “snatch the economic benefits reaped by the underground economy of an estimated $4.3 billion per year, or 3% of the Thai economy.” (7) Tourism ministers also pledge an end to prostitution because it taints the country’s reputation; Thailand is always in headlines involving human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. (8) In 2001, the Thai government initiated the Branding Thailand project to restore the country’s damaged reputation. Krittinee Nuttavuthisit, a marketing specialist who worked on the program, stated that the country’s notorious sex trade overshadowed its positive side such as the friendliness of its people according to 30 in-depth interviews in the US and 120 online surveys, which asked about their first impression of Thailand. (9) Thus far, Thailand still doesn’t meet the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” but it has seen positive social changes such as higher levels of education, greater wealth distribution, and more access to knowledge and communication technology. (10) The 100% condom use campaign and AIDS education campaign in the 1990s increased condom use among sex workers from less than 25% to 90%. (11) In addition, Thailand gave more importance to human rights and gender rights. As a result, its status in the US human trafficking report have been upgraded from tier 3, the lowest ranking on the list, to tier 2 in 2016. (12)

© Copyright Nichakarn Kuphirun. All rights reserved.

Nevertheless, other NGOs and prostitutes in Thailand claim that the current legal system controlling prostitution is outdated and irrelevant; prostitutes claim to work in a totally different context than when abuses such as trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour, and locked brothels were common in the Thai sex industry. Nowadays, a lot of rural Thai women enter sex work voluntarily to escape poverty and view sex work just like any other profession. Becoming a sex worker satisfies rural thai women’s expectations of themselves as breadwinners of their families, “making 8000 baht ($300) per month in the sex trade rather than 200 baht ($8) per month as a domestic worker.” (13) Consequently, the clarification of sex work as work shifts the focus of punishing prostitution for its immorality toward improving the working conditions and quality of life of sex workers. NGOs such as Empower argue that legalizing prostitution would improve working conditions for sex workers, decrease gender violence, and allow for more access to condoms and health and education programmes to combat the spread of STIs and HIV. In other words, criminalizing prostitution increases sex worker’s vulnerability to HIV, making them less likely to get help because fear of discrimination in health care settings by doctors. Indeed, Empower claims that “there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers.” (14) Empower made “Last Rescue in Siam”, a short satire film portraying an anti-trafficking raid to draw attention to the fact that many prostitutes have no desire to be rescued, and are better off and more connected than many thought. In the film, cops descend on a bar where sex workers flirt with their clients. Rescuers managed to nab one women. The women is locked in room labeled “rehab.” Using a sewing machine that happens to be in the room, she sews herself an escape ladder and returns to the bar. She’s greeted with cheers and hugs from other sex workers. The National Human Rights Commission also pointed that greater legalization of migration and the legalization of prostitution could decrease human trafficking by decreasing motives for pimp and brokers to drive sex work underground. (15)

Thais struggle to come to terms about the legalization of prostitution, for the reasons for Thai women to enter prostitution are hard to pin down. The differences between voluntary prostitution and exploitation of prostitution of others are that voluntary prostitutes consent to sex work for money, while trafficked are forced, coerced, or placed under undue circumstances. Thus, the “complexities of [the legalization debate] revolves around whether prostitution is inherently exploitative or can be viewed as conscious choice and right in some cases.” (16) As a result, there is often not enough coordination between such groups to make a serious difference. Ultimately, this ideological divide extends beyond Thailand, as human trafficking is a global human rights challenge; the legalization of prostitution remains an unresolved debate worldwide, including developed countries like the U.S.


Citation :

1) “Human Trafficking/Involuntary Servitude.” FBI, FBI, 3 May 2016.

2) “Current Legal Framework: Prostitution in Thailand”. IMPOWR.org. ABA. Retrieved 9 Dec2013.

3) Derbyshire, Marion. “Body, Mind and Soul .” A Handbook for Christian Ministry to Commercially Sexually Exploited Children and Young People.

4) Derbyshire, Marion. “Body, Mind and Soul .” A Handbook for Christian Ministry to Commercially Sexually Exploited Children and Young People.

5) Patané, Giulia. “Global Monitoring.” The Fight Against Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes: Analysing International & Thai Legislation.

6) Somswasdi, Virada. “Legalization of Prostitution in Thailand: A Challenge to Feminism and Societal Conscience.” Cornell Law School Berger International Speaker Papers, 9 Mar. 2004.

7) Somswasdi, Virada. “Legalization of Prostitution in Thailand: A Challenge to Feminism and Societal Conscience.” Cornell Law School Berger International Speaker Papers, 9 Mar. 2004.

8) Marszal, Andrew. “‘Thailand Is Closed to Sex Trade’, Says Country’s First Female Tourism Minister.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 17 July 2016.

9) Lindell, Rebecca. “The Ultimate Marketing Challenge.” Kellogg School of Management, Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, 2005.

10) “Thailand.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State.

11) “Thailand’s New Condom Crusade.” WHO, World Health Organization, June 2010.

12) Kelly, Annie, and Kate Hodal. “Thailand’s Improved Status in US Human Trafficking Report Sparks Fury.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 June 2016.

13) Simpkins, Dulcey. “Rethinking the Sex Industry: Thailand’s Sex Workers, the State, and Changing Cultures of Consumption.” Https://Quod.lib.umich.edu/, Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library 1997–1998.

14) Team, RATSW. Hit and Run: the Impact of Anti Trafficking Policy and Practice on Sex Worker’s Human Rights in Thailand. Empower University Press, 2012.

15) Godwin, John. Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific: Laws, HIV and Human Rights in the Context of Sex Work. UNDP, 2012.

16) Gangoli, Geetanjali, and Nicole Westmarland. International Approaches to Prostitution: Law and Policy in Europe and Asia. Policy Press, 2006.

Originally published at viewkuph.blogspot.com.