Prostitution is one of the areas of cultural history where issues of people’s private life are subjected to public opinion. The practice is illegal in Thailand although it is openly practiced throughout the country. For a long time, trafficking in children and women for prostitution has been a serious problem in this country. The fact that prostitution is illegal makes it difficult to determine the exact number of girls who engage in this commercial activity in Thailand.
Perceptions and attitudes towards prostitution among Thai girls are also shaped by the society’s cultural norm whereby tolerance of other people is encouraged, especially the downtrodden. It is this acceptance that has made prostitution flourish without social stigma that is found in many other countries. Stigma has not taken root because, among other reasons, the prostitutes provide support to their parents with the income that they generate.
Jackson (2004, p. 22) notes that in the modernization process of Thailand, which has lasted for one and half centuries, political power has not necessitated the creation of an essential Thai personhood or national subjectivity. Rather, emphasis, emphasis has been on monitoring surface effects, public behaviors, images and representations. Jackson adds that a relative disinterest in controlling the people’s private domains of life can also be noted (p. 22). The result of this cultural feature is a situation whereby the main criterion of proper citizenship is performance. In this type of a modernizing regime, interior phenomenon of desire and thought are rarely monitored whereas external performances, shows and public discourses are vigorously monitored and policed.
Modernity in Thailand is founded on fetishism of appearances and on the demand for a surface that has representational significance in politics. Therefore, it is not surprising that anxiety over appearances tend to build up among the political class, especially when issues of moral uprightness such as prostitution are concerned.
During Thailand’s modernization process, many cultures that relate to Western capitalism have played a rather influential role. The role is evident in the manner in which the country’s modern cultural changes are characterized by a relationship between outward appearance and inner truth; between value and a corresponding sign. However, the underlying cultural make-up in this south east Asian country have continued to be distinct as far as the radically disjoined relationship between truths and appearances are concerned.
According to Shryock (2004, p. 7) many problems arise during ethnographical analyses in today’s age of public culture. Some of these problems include moral ambiguity, mass mediation, and difficulties in defining public and private spheres in rapidly changing societies. These issues have lately formed a core element in global discourses on public policy, cultural criticism and theory and models of citizenship.
The changes that take place in both the public and private spheres of life in Thailand can also be appreciated through an in-depth analysis of cultural tourism in the country. Many Thai cultural traditions and identities have been reinforced through cultural tourism (Smith 2003, p. 18). However, cultural tourism education is a relatively new field that does not give scholars of cultural studies enough information on the nature of public and private spheres of life in Thailand, particularly with regard to the issue of prostitution.
In view of Goodman (1992, p. 16), Thai modernity has been built upon a power model which operates laterally rather than vertically, across surfaces, in an ‘all-seeing’ mode that characterizes Western cultures. The implication here is that the modernizing power in Thailand, while being authoritarian in shaping normative public presentations, it remains rather tolerant of people’s private diversities. Therefore, a sexual act is regarded as an inappropriate self-disclosure only when a person’s character is injured or inappropriate ‘rippling of the calm that exists on the surface’.
The uniqueness of the modern society in Bangkok and other Thai urban environment lies in two parallel logics, one being expressed in private situations and the other being expressed in public contexts. No cultural pressures exist for solving the inconsistencies that arise from these two domains. Cultural commentators have argued that dual public and private field of Thai regimes are discernible, as clear evidence of the existing structural contradictions of the country’s social fabric. The contradictions can be appreciated in the best manner through reference to the patterns that arise out of contextualization and multiplicity.
On the other hand, from an ethnographer’s perspective, this notion of contradiction is best understood in the context of multiple forms of power that transcend the cultural spheres of both private and public lives. This has a profound influence on the way new experiences and the sight of modern impact influences the practice of prostitution by girls in Bangkok.
Cultural history of public and private life in Thailand
Official concern over the manner in which the ‘Thai contradiction’ influences policies relating to prostitution have been expressed both locally and internationally. The main area of contention has been whether this is a private issue or a public one. As far as practices are concerned, it appears as if prostitution is not an illegal activity, though it is a morally unacceptable one. This is evident in the fact that although the practice is disproved of in Thailand, prostitutes are rarely stigmatized.
The changing position of prostitution in different parts of the world has been explored by Sanchez (2004 p. 865) using different frames of analysis, one of them being a historical reading of a figure of a prostitute as defined in the Western law and culture. This frame of reference is important since it is a reflection of the prevailing forces of modernity. This frame of reference is also critical in synthesizing an accurate understanding of perceptions that people in Bangkok have towards girls who engage in commercial sex.
A strong reactionary force of resistance against prostitution exists in Bangkok, although this resistance is not explicitly spelt out. Crucial steps have been made by the Thai government in moderating the manner in which the controversial issue is addressed. Reference is often made to legal subjects who are rights bearing, although historically, conventions of sexual labor have been reconfigured several times. This reconfiguration has been made in order to reflect the changing circumstances in today’s social setting in Bangkok. Incidentally, similar changes have been taking place in other parts of the world. These changes have influenced the way in which law enforcement agencies enforce the various policies and laws that are already in place.
According to Sanchez, the reconfiguration of a society’s social setting plays a profound role in determining the extent to which globalization influences prostitution practices in a city like Bangkok (867). Using the theory of differential inclusion, Sanchez describes the situation of sex workers relative to the existing constrictions of legality (868). This theory is based on the notion that groups are often organized hierarchically and differentially through various notions of power, depending on the relative value attached to their labor at a given moment in history. In a cultural perspective, emphasis is on the critical importance of conceiving various novel strategies and discourses for the achievement of worker status and human rights for men and women who work in the sex industry. In Bangkok, there is no segment in the sex industry whereby local activism on human rights and worker status thrives. Perhaps this is because of the contradictions that exist between what the society permits in private life and public presentations.
The normality of prostitution in Bangkok
In Bangkok, discourse on prostitution among girls touches on many issues, including the influence of modernity, cultural setting, sexual exploitation and trafficking. According to Berger & van De Glind (1999, p. 5) many South East Asian governments have often tended to be open to these issues, whereby some positive lessons have been learned through collaboration with NGOs.
Prostitution in Bangkok, like in many other cities around the world, has always been a perennial problem. It is difficult to determine the actual number of girls who engage in prostitution in this city, mainly because of the clandestine nature of the work. The dynamic nature of this practice also makes it difficult for the government as well as NGOs to maintain accurate logistical facts. However, these agencies have recently been working towards improving knowledge on the issue (Berger & van De Glind 1999, p. 8). The main problem that the ministry of public health (MoPH) officials face in Bangkok while trying to determine accurate prostitution figures include under-reporting and the problem of foreign prostitutes who are intertwined with the tourism industry.
Girls are easy targets for prostitution in Bangkok for two main reasons. First, girls and women enjoy a low status in Thai society. Although this perception is changing with the onset of modernity and Western values, deeply entrenched cultural practices still exist. Secondly, this women and girls are denied access to information and education, plunging them into the harshest ends of poverty.
By the time girls finish their compulsory education, they usually aged between 12 and 14, during which time they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. At this age, they tend to have fewer occupational options compared to their male counterparts (Berger & van De Glind 1999, p. 8). Certain industries have employed a high number of women, such as textile and entertainment and prostitution. Of these, prostitution appears to be the most viable option for poor young girls with numerous debts, responsibilities and obligations.
Ethnographers often acknowledge that the problem of prostitution in Bangkok, and indeed the whole of Thai society, is based on a moral double standard for women and men. The problem is also aggravated by the sense of responsibility that young people feel towards their parents. They feel obliged to go to any lengths in order to provide them with financial assistance. The social value of providing parents with economic support has become so ingrained in the Thai society that the notion of todtan bunkhun (repay the breast milk) is conventionally used (Sanchez 2004, p. 882).
Over the years, various legislations enacted in Thailand have influenced the prevalence of and attitudes towards prostitutions among girls in Bangkok. The Thai constitution states that youth and children have a right to state protection against sexual abuse. The state is charged with the responsibility of providing custody to youth and children who have nowhere to go, including those who have been rendered helpless following the disintegration of their families.
Recently, the Thai government passed the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act (1996), which is aimed at punishing stakeholders in the country sexual exploitation businesses. These stakeholders include venue owners, procurers, customers, guardians, patrons and guardians who facilitate the trade. However this legislation has faced many challenges, chief among them the unwillingness by girl prostitutes to reveal information that may lead to arrest of close family members.
In a highly dynamic society such as Bangkok, it is often difficult to draw the line between girls who are in prostitution through personal choice and those who have been trafficked, abused and exploited sexually. However, the special circumstances in which women and children find themselves in have been appreciated through the passing of Women and children Act (1997). This law broadens the circumstances in which different people can be charged with forcing both boys and girls into prostitution.
How new experiences and sights of modern culture impact upon individual consciousness and perception towards prostitution in Bangkok
Although prostitution is an age-old problem in Bangkok, new experiences are continually arising, bringing with them new identities that shape the modern culture. these new experiences also influence the level of individual consciousness and perception towards people who work as prostitutes. Jackson (2000, p. 416) discusses the discourse of gender and eroticism with an aim of assessing the perceptions that shape today’s Thai society in the face of rampant prostitution. Jackson notes that some of the universalist assumptions that dominate discussions on international proliferation of various forms of erotic diversity have been problematized in these discourses (p. 418).
Further, Jackson (2000, p. 411) questions the ability of Foucauldian history of sexuality to show that that Bangkok’s homoeroticisms are converging towards Western models. The Foucauldian model establishes a phenomenon whereby identities on gender and sexuality exist as distinct categories. According to Jackson, it is only when today’s theories of gender and sexuality are integrated through gendering of eroticism and eroticization of gender that Western theoretical models can be used to map non-Western identities in Bangkok (415).
On the other hand, Mills (1997, p. 45) focuses on how margins of modernity have been contested in Thailand, with special emphasis being put on women, migration and consumption patterns. Incidentally, prostitution has a profound influence on the manner in which participants associate with other members of the modern Bangkok society.
Rural women who choose to move to Bangkok in search for employment face severe social and economic hardships, including low-status migrant labor, low wages and workplace exploitation. Additionally, they are faced with the option of engaging in prostitution. The choice of engaging in this practice is influenced by agents of sexual exploitation, the handsome rewards and economic hardships. After putting these issues in sharp perspective, one can come up with new, albeit covert expressions of identity among girls who engage in prostitution. These identities extend to, among other things, the consumption patterns, mode of dressing, and complacency to deep-rooted cultural norms.
New experiences and sights of modern culture have also impacted on the extent to which Thai women engage in or comment on politics. Mainstream political theory is firmly based on the distinction between public and private spheres. In most societies, politics and powers are issues that relate specifically with the public sphere. Women in Bangkok have traditionally looked up to men to lead the way in political issues. However, with the advent of modernity, some changes are discernible, whereby women have tended to adopt more liberal perspectives than before. Such women tend to consider private issues to be beyond the realm of politics. Therefore, those things that take place in the private sphere, such as family life, intimate relations and prostitutions are considered non-political.
The rise of feminism in Thailand has influenced many matters of policy, with the main criterion being the distinction of public and private spheres. Prostitution, for instance, is generally considered being a private matter that comes into the public only when aggrieved parties raise complaints. As long as there is social order at the ‘surface’, the authorities leave matters of social life to the people. This modern construction of individual consciousness and perception has been reinforced by the existing contradictions of private and public images.
Sexuality has traditionally been the main point of focus by radical feminists in many Thai societies. New experiences have taught women how to resist sexual oppression and domination. One of the most outstanding experiences that come with modernization of culture in Bangkok is the scenario whereby women experience ‘politics’ even in their personal lives. In Bangkok, the covert sexual division of labor is self-evident, whereby women are coerced into prostitution by circumstances more readily than men (Suwana 2004, p. 159).
In the modern society in Bangkok, sexuality involves much more than a natural instinct or drive. Conversely, in the case of prostitution, it is much more than a way of earning a livelihood. Rather, sexuality encompasses identities, sexual feelings, meanings, attractions, norms and activities that have been constructed on the basis of social and historic forces (Suwana, S, 2004, p. 159). In the course of such constructions, power and politics come into the fore, with identities being created along the way as part of platforms for making bargains. Suwana adds that the experiences that girl-prostitutes go through in Bangkok are highly likely to propel them into future positions of radical feminism in case they rise to power.
On the other hand, Suwana notes that men have been known to be favored by the existing cultural foundations, whereby male dominance is eroticized through female submission. For instance, pornography and prostitution commodify and objectify women’s bodies for the gratification of men’s erotic desires. However, contemporary discourses have tended to oversimplify the complex issue of gender, power and political relations in Bangkok, and, indeed, the whole of Thailand (Suwana 2004, p. 160). The situation that arises when this happens is one whereby helpless victims of sexual oppression develop resistance towards Western values, which they consider alien. Although the opinions expressed, though, are largely dependent on individual consciousness based on one’s experiences.
Perspectives on prostitution in Bangkok: The role of shock, perception and sensation in transformations in the urban environment
Different people have different perceptions about prostitution depending on the experiences that they have gone through. The transformations that take place in people’s minds with regard to the place of prostitution seem be in tandem with situations of shock, perceptions and sensations encountered by individuals. Cohena (1987, p. 226), examines the dynamics of prostitution in Thai society from the viewpoint of Schuetzian perspective. Cohena offers the example of the changing images of farangs (white foreigners) who engage in tourist-oriented prostitution with young Thai girls, especially in cities (p. 228). For most people, the activities of these young girls and farangs lie on the gray area between ‘straight’ sexuality and ‘full-fledged’ prostitution.
People who are not used to prostitution that takes place in tourist settings often refuse to label the girls involved as tourists, mainly because they have not grasped a complete image of the activities undertaken by these girls. However, as their experience grows, they slowly start constructing a cognitive map, whereby they can easily differentiate between girls who practice prostitution and those who engage in ‘straight’ sexual-related fantasies in tourist attraction sites. Additionally, an in-depth knowledge of the culture of the people involved in these activities plays a critical role in developing an accurate understanding of the environment in which prostitution takes place. It is against this backdrop that (Cohena 1987, p. 233) carried out a cross-cultural study on how prostitution is defined and identified cross-culturally in Bangkok.
According to Brummelhuis & Herdt (1995, p.115) wholesale sex tourism in countries such as Thailand and Philippines has become a key channel for the spread of AIDS. One of the most shocking realizations for prostitutes in Thailand was the defeat of the myth that AIDS was a foreign disease for farangs, and not the local people. Since the 1980s, the myths about the disease have undergone a drastic transformation. The drastic change appears to coincide with the anthropological studies carried out by Brummelhuis & Herdt between 1989 and 1990 in Bangkok. The study revealed that most girls who engage in prostitution in Bangkok understand the dangers to which they expose themselves to in this era of AIDS. Nevertheless, the prostitution problem did not show signs of subsiding with the onset of the deadly HIV virus. If anything, the disease ushered in a new era, whereby girls started doing their best not to be perceived as prostitutes. This is because many Bangkok citizens started perceiving prostitutes as the most lethal avenues of contracting AIDS. Though dressed glamorously, nudity is conventionally unnecessary in the Thai society and girls do not undress unless it is extremely necessary. In this regard, Thai cultural norms are seen to play a strong role in a society that is being transformed by globalization.
The relative ease with which girls go about their business of engaging in commercial sex raises many questions among many ethnographers with regard to the interplay between modern culture and indigenous Thai values. The closest that these ethnographers get to solving this puzzle is the assertion that the Thai culture makes it difficult to determine the extent to which prostitution has been institutionalized. In principle, though, sex workers can end up in prison. However, the sheer visibility of many sex work circuits makes the government seem to be operating in a double standard.
Girls who migrate from rural areas to work as sex workers in Bangkok are often influenced by culture shock in the way they adapt to their new environments. The stigma that they are subjected to is sometimes dependent on where their status as sex workers is perceived on a ‘formal’ or ‘actual’ perspective (Brummelhuis & Herdt 1995, p. 118). Their formal status is often at the bottom of the society’s social ladder while their actual status is defined by virtue of recognition of their contributions by both the state and their respective families. This latter status is responsible for more tolerance behind the scenes that one would ordinarily expect.
The culture of modernity has transformed the Bangkok urban environment a great deal as far as prostitution is concerned. It has forced them to lead a double life; according to their parents, relatives and families, they are relatively well-paid hotel and restaurant workers in the city, which is partly the truth. The acquisition of city ways and making frequent acquaintances with foreign people and languages is one side of life that these girls like narrating. The other side of their lives is that their core business is to provide sexual services for a living.
The formative influence of sex work circuits constitutes one of the earliest things to which most Thai girls from rural areas are acquainted once they start transacting in sex work with farangs. The impression of Brummelhuis & Herdt is that most of these girls are from disintegrated families, are divorced and/or have children.
Furthermore, the restyling of modern subjectivity is evident in the findings by Peracca & Knodel (1998, p. 257) that the public believes that sex workers can marry. This is an indication of a relative absence of a lasting social stigma. This plays a crucial role in facilitating recruitment of more girls into sex work today than in the past. It also allows prostitution to exist on a large scale both within Bangkok and many towns across Thailand. Although Knodel’s research was largely comparative in nature, it underscored the need for more ethnographic research on how the interplay of indigenous culture and modern practices influences the prevalence of prostitution among girls in Bangkok.
Role of modern culture in prostitution of girls in Bangkok: a restyling of modern subjectivity.
According to Aoyama, (2007, p. 2), there is a need for a hermeneutic understanding of the nature of involvement in global sex trade among Thai women. Such an understanding can best be appreciated through a proper understanding of how macro and micro conditions interact and how these women subjectively perceive their trade. In Aoyama’s opinion, ambivalence is at the core of the perceptions of Thai girls and women who practice prostitution.
Furthermore, the experiences of Bangkok prostitutes should be viewed in light of various issues, including the deracinating influence of industrialization within the past four decades, through which the Thailand has undergone social engineering. Additionally, in all communities that form Bangkok’s social fabric, gendered social expectations are always shouldered on women and girls. This puts them under intense social pressure to help their families while at the same time, retaining uprightness in terms of character and reputation.
Over the last four decades, notions of happiness have changes. Collective values have been transformed into individualistic ones, which are expressed mainly through romantic love. These issues, when cross-cut with modernity, reveal many fascinating dimensions on ambivalence and how it will shape Bangkok commercial sex landscape in the future.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Thai women were brought into focus on the global sex trade. This phenomenon was brought about by many factors, including labor force migration, international commerce, foreign policy, economic growth of the newly industrialized nation, commercialization of sex and imbalances in gender and sexual relations.
The idiosyncratic culture in Thailand sexualizes women, a factor that adds potency to sexual imbalances. Thai women are portrayed in a simplistic way. This has resulted in heated debates, mainly stimulated by feminists, on the post-colonial awareness of the representation problem, which brings about contradictions. Feminists have been on record many times calling for recognition of women as equal partners in all areas of social sphere.
Modernity, though a subjective concept, is an important one, both practically and theoretically, for the development of progressive nation. Modernity has arisen because ofboth internal and external pressure. Internally, the need to pursue the country’s development agenda has been urgent in the process improving the lives of Thais. Externally, the country had to move at par with the development goals envisioned by the United Nations as well as development partners such as the UK, Japan and the U.S. The value of modernity would not have been internalized were it not for pressure from within; members from all segments of the social strata were eager to pursue well-intentioned development policies that would improve the quality of life of all citizens. This means that all projects that would bring about the material and social wealth were welcome to Thailand. These projects included not just money and goods, but also health, cultural exchange and education for the nation in its entirety. The main problem arose from a scenario that made the good intentions fail to meet the needs of people in the lower strata. In fact, some projects led to further deprivation to the impoverished masses. The experience of many prostitutes in Thailand today is embedded in this disturbing context (Aoyama 2007, p. 2).
In its theoretical conception, modernity embraces many contesting values that constitute the elements people use to define its existence. This is where the issue of subjectivity and ambivalence arises. Whereas modernity is meant to benefit all people, it ends up plunging some of them into further impoverishment and suffering. Auyoma (2007, p.3) defines it as ‘an obsessive march forward, not necessarily for wanting more, but because it never seems to get enough. Although modernity grows ambitious and adventurous by the time, its adventures end up being bitter and ambitions frustrating (Aoyama 2007, p. 3).
There are two main ways through which the concept of modernity can be applied in understanding the circumstances in which Bangkok sex traders find themselves. First, there is a need for one to adopt a historical perspective when assessing the situation. The second way is through envisioning its various causes, which are entwined into each other, often in a conflicting and contradictory manner.
The causes of prostitution of girls in Bangkok constitute the root of all the ambivalent feelings of lost self-esteem, confidence, certainty and social support. On the other hand, these causes open up opportunities such as new knowledge, individuality and economic rewards. These benefits may be in sharp contrast to past engagements in the society. Paradoxically, the sex workers, as social deviants, feel that they have no control over their circumstances in a society that is being transformed rapidly by modernity. Again, they can count on a continued sense of autonomy. For instance, they are able to negotiate with the prevailing social conditions in order to end up with a condition that is suitable for their contexts.
The historical praxis to the problem of modernity and prostitution makes an objective position extremely difficult to attain. In terms of history, modernity can be traced to the European history of political, economic, intellectual and cultural transactions that culminated in the industrial revolution and the era of Enlightenment. The material and philosophical support systems that came with the onset of modernity are at play in Thailand’s problems today as they did in Europe at the beginning of modernity. It is not surprising that during the European industrial revolution, there was an upsurge in social problems such as prostitution and crime. These are the same problems that are being experienced in Thailand today. However, it is not proper to draw a parallel between the European rise to modernity with that of Thailand without paying any attention to the interactions that took place between Europeans and people of other cultures.
In Thailand, the pursuit of modernity was based on the concept of social engineering towards development. In most cases, these development projects were idealized on the European and American ‘successes’. Therefore, modernity was understood and pursued as a process of development, whereby all implementation efforts by the government were aimed at attaining economic wellbeing for the citizens. In such a scenario, the element of subjectivity presents itself in the fact that modernization is not the same thing as development. In the 1990s, the Thai achieved to reach the goal of development, but that goal was achieved at the expense of people at the lowest and of the social strata, whose quality of life was negatively affected (Aoyama 2007, p. 7). The social engineering efforts that had been adopted on a national scale were doomed to fail the poorest people, because of the ambivalent that was inherent in modernity. Although the government tried to control and bring about order upon the entire population, new categories of people who did not fit in were created. Additionally, attempts at modernity uprooted people from their original places where they had a sense of belonging.
It is not surprising that some people had to resort to deviant practices (such as prostitution, crime and drugs) in order to establish a place in a new society that was excluding them from all social, economic and cultural engagements. Industrialization has had a deracinating effect on the process of Thai National Social Engineering, which was unveiled with the drawing up of the First National Economic and Social Development Plan (1961-1966).
Since 1978, a gendered perspective was adopted in the National Social Engineering efforts. In this regard, women were encouraged to be active participants in the country’s economy. However, this appeared to be yet another effort of achieving the goals of modernity without first appreciating the subjectivity and ambivalence of the problem. In fact, adopting a gendered approach only entrenched the sense of subjectivity in the
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