hen the client discovered that I am a transgender, he hit me. There were bruises all over my body, but when the police came, I was the one who got charged because I am a sex worker,” said Anna, 36, a transgender sex worker in Pattaya, located on the east of Thailand.
“I was both the plaintiff and the offender.”
No matter how much sex workers are hurt or suffer, they will always be offenders in Thailand as section 286 of the criminal code stipulates that sex work is illegal.
Anna joined the sex industry in Pattaya when she was 20. She started working in the local bar without knowing that she was expected to provide sexual services to customers.
When she realized how much money she could make, she decided to continue as a sex worker to support her family.
Over a span of more than 16 years in the industry, she has experienced many instances of physical and mental abuse. Rather than remain silent, she joined a non-governmental organization seeking to reform the Thai sex industry.
She is not alone. Her story is representative of many transgender sex workers in Thai society. The industry, which produced more than 6 billion baht (US$ 171.15 million) in 2021, is still not legal in Thailand.
Harsh working conditions
The best-known places for LGBTQ sex workers are centered around Nana, Soi Cowboy, and Walking Street in Pattaya. These places have agents or pimps who are responsible for scheduling sex workers’ working hours and making sure they get their pay. Some sex workers are freelancers who take control of their own working hours to reduce the risk of exploitation.
Freelancers have to sit in front of the bar, entertaining and conversing with bar customers. They also make deals with customers under conditions stipulated by bar owners. The customers buy “drinks” to spend an evening with the worker. The rate is calculated by the number of hours they spend together.
Payment for sexual services is based entirely on the agreement between workers and their customers.
“During the pandemic, all bars were closed. Many sex workers could not pay their bills and did not have a place to stay. Some became homeless,” said Anna.
When freelancers do not go out to work, they have no income. After COVID-19 hit Thailand, the entertainment sector was one of the first to be ordered closed. Transgender workers were tremendously affected as most relied on the day-by-day income.
No social status, no safety, no pride
Anna has been fighting discrimination and social stigmatization. As her family’s breadwinner, she has four family members to take care of: her parents, a sister, and nephew. It is this responsibility that keeps her going.
Like Anna, many sex workers have families to support. This is based on conversations with NGO and sex workers.
“Some are afraid to tell others that they are sex workers because of the social stigma attached to their job — it is inferior, dirty, and worthless,” Anna said.
Although there is no statistical data on the percentage of LGBTQ sex workers who experience physical abuse or sexual assault, a number of the workers interviewed claim to have been mistreated by their clients.
In such instances, it is nearly impossible for them to receive compensation since sex work is not recognized as work under the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act of 1996.
“I used to provide services to a BDSM customer. Later the customer called the police and accused me, a transgender sex worker, of physically abusing him,” Anna told Prachatai.
She explained that the customer did that to avoid paying her the agreed upon 3,000 baht service (US$ 86) fee.
She couldn’t do anything. There were bruises on the customer’s body. She did not receive any compensation and got into trouble for doing her job.
Sex work is legal in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. In Thailand, sex workers are treated as criminals and the sex trade remains underground.
Decriminalizing sex work
Service Workers in Group Foundation (SWING) is a non-governmental organization that aims to protect Thai sex workers’ rights. It has offices in many locations around Thailand, from Bangkok to Pattaya. The organization provides a range of services from sex education to HIV test services.
Surang Janyam, 57, SWING’s director, used to work for the Empower Foundation. In 2004 she noted the increasing number of transgender sex workers that were seeking help.
“Back in the day when we talked about sex workers, most people would picture only female sex workers. I did not see any organizations helping with same sex education,” she said.
SWING foundation also played a vital role in helping transgender sex workers during the pandemic. The foundation provided shelters and sent out survival bags to sex workers and their families.
“Most sex workers have to take care of their families, so during the difficult times, their families were affected as well,” said Anna.
SWING foundation also provides HIV rapid testing and prophylaxis medication like PrEP and PEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis and post-exposure prophylaxis) to transgender sex workers to improve the security of their work lives.
According to Surang, SWING funding mostly comes from international sources, and partly from embassies and from the National Health Security Office. The institutions which fund SWING are mainly focused on human rights and believe that all human beings are equal regardless of their gender, race, or work.
“Sex workers have been taken advantage of for a very long time. They should be recognized as citizens with full rights and be protected under the laws,” Surang explained.
She added that there is a common misunderstanding that supporting the decriminalization movement means inviting more people to join the sex industry.
“SWING has been trying to get the government to see that criminalization of sex work does not help anything. Worse, it amplifies problems and opens doors for people to take advantage of sex workers,” said Surang.
The government’s response has been to suggest a legal amendment protecting the rights of sex workers. The foundation disagrees; it wants sex workers to have equal rights with other workers.
“In trying to promote the legalization of sex work, we have received support from different sectors and political parties,” said Surang.
Corporate support from different sectors has increased tremendously in the past three to four years. Many educational organizations and private firms have campaigned and offered to assist in pushing for a Constitutional amendment.
“Initially, I almost lost hope … that sex workers could have access to education and health care, but now I can see some light at the end of the tunnel,” said Surang. ●
This article was originally published by Prachatai English on March 13, 2023. Reprinted with permission.