New Internationalist

Sexploitation

March 1980

…Thailand is a world of extremes and the possibilities are unlimited. Anything goes in this exotic country. Especially when it comes to girls. Still it appears to be a problem for visitors to Thailand to find the right places where they can indulge in unknown pleasures. Rosie Travels has done something about this. For the first time in history you can book a trip to Thailand with erotic pleasures included in the package…” (Travel industry advertisement).

Sex tourism is a growing form of exploitation of Third World women as more and more agencies advertise pleasure vacations - particularly to Thailand. Bangkok, the Thai capital, has become the Mecca of eroticism - helped by the film Emmanuelle and by magazine descriptions of South East Asian girls as being ‘without desire for emancipation but full of warm sensuality and with the softness of velvet’.

Something like a million-and-a-half tourists visit Thailand every year, many for the sex alone. The Dutch development magazine ‘Onze Wereld’ quotes one European visitor as saying: ‘This is the third time I’ve come here and 1 swear 1 haven’t gone outside the hotel door. It’s a lot better than lying on your back in Spain - there you get just the sun. You’re king here and all for a few rotten pennies’. Indeed, of the city’s quarter-million working women, 100,000 are estimated to earn part or all of their income as prostitutes.

Venereal disease, which afflicts 70 per cent of the prostitutes, is a joke for the clients on the ‘Clap Trap Express’, as the Frankfurt-Bangkok run has been nicknamed. They can be quickly cured back in West Germany. For the girls, it is not so funny.

Although prostitution is illegal, the Thai Government officials are turning a blind eye to the explosion in the sex-holiday business. ‘Can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs’ is the unofficial attitude - encouraged by the amount of money flowing in. In 1977 tourism brought $220 million to the country, challenging the top traditional exports of rice ($290 million). And while agricultural exports are stagnating, tourism looks to be a growth industry which will become Thailand’s biggest source of foreign exchange in the eighties.

Behind the city of Bangkok is an impoverished countryside where most of the nation’s 44 million people live. Nearly all the city’s girls have relatives in the rural areas whom they help to support with earnings from their trade. Agricultural productivity in Thailand is amongst the lowest in South-East Asia and land reform is a sickjoke. The deprived North-East of the country, where three-quarters of the families earn less than $300 a year, is the source of most of Bangkok’s prostitutes. The region is also the most politically militant area of the country.

During the Vietnam War, more than half-a-million women in Saigon were catering to the needs of the American GIs and their allies. Of course, theywere dealing with foreign soldiers, not foreign tourists. But the use of Vietnamese women provided strong motivation for the national liberation movement. Whether the use of Thai women by foreign holidaymakers will eventually provoke the same revulsion remains to be seen.

This column was published in the March 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 085

New Internationalist Magazine issue 085
Issue 085

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