The ABC has run a piece that appears to lament the struggling sex industry in Thailand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
It wistfully describes the “buzzing party scene” before the pandemic hit, where “pulsating music filled the air and neon lights flashed until the early hours” in the country’s red light districts. Now “bar stools sit atop dusty tables, the odd light bulb flickers and ‘For Rent’ signs hang on bars, nightclubs and restaurants up and down the infamous red light district” of cities like Pattaya.
It recounts stories of prostituted women who are now struggling to support themselves and their families and who weren’t able to access the government help offered to other “professions” affected by the pandemic. It highlights the fact that the sex industry was a significant part of Thailand’s much relied on tourism industry, contributing about $8 billion a year to the country’s economy before the pandemic. And it notes that “sex workers worry it will be years before their industry recovers”.
Despite their contribution to the economy, the article explains that “sex workers have been forced to work in the shadows because prostitution is technically illegal” and that “with COVID-19 having decimated the tourism-reliant economy, some sex workers believe the time is right to push the government to recognise an industry that may be crucial to the recovery”.
Similar sentiments from sex industry advocates have been circulating since the beginning of the pandemic across the globe, with many using it as an opportunity to push for greater liberalisation of prostitution laws.
President of Sex workers support charity Service Workers in Group (SWING) and Thammasat University political science professor Chalidaporn Songsamphan is one of those advocating for such change.
The experiences of sex workers during this pandemic showed us that this ambiguous status of sex workers obstructs them from getting help from the Thai bureaucracy, from the Thai state. So maybe this is a good time to actually think about this decriminalisation of sex work, because the criminal status of sex work here has hurt so many people in this society for quite some time. They cannot negotiate, they cannot bargain with anyone at all, and they have been exploited by so many groups of people because of the status of sex work as a crime.
But hold on a second.
Are the ABC and Professor Chalidaporn really advocating support for an industry that has made Thailand a go-to source, destination and transit country for sex trafficking?
Where child sex trafficking and prostitution are rampant, and foreign migrants, ethnic minorities and stateless persons are among those at greatest risk?
Are they really suggesting that it is the “criminal status” of prostitution that has brought about this exploitation and that deregulating the industry will keep criminals at bay?
Is the vile abuse of women and children seriously what they’re advocating should be used to boost the country’s economy?
As we wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, governments should make every effort to support their citizens – including prostituted persons – during these difficult times. However, “instead of simply keeping them afloat during the pandemic so that they can ultimately return to a life of violence and exploitation, [governments] must do more to provide them with real and enduring support”.
Pioneered in Sweden more than two decades ago, and adopted by countries like France and Canada, the Nordic Model of prostitution legislation has proven to be the most effective legal approach for protecting prostituted persons.
By only criminalising the buyers and pimps rather than those being exploited, and providing social and economic support for those wishing to exit the industry, it has also shown to dramatically decrease the incidence of trafficking (which is inextricably linked with prostitution).
Having recently published on how “Women [are] subjected to ‘racist and demeaning’ Asian fetishes” and about “Australia’s history of outsourcing sexual abuse to Asian women” in countries like Thailand, the last thing the ABC should be doing is showing any support for an industry that trades in the abhorrent exploitation and abuse of women and children.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia
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