Sex workers in peril
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Sex workers in peril

Fear of police silences assault victims

Sex workers in Bangkok say they feel unsafe as they cannot report cases of assault to the police without fear of being prosecuted for prostitution.

In Thailand, according to the Criminal Code, anyone over the age of 16 who "subsists on earnings as a prostitute" will be imprisoned for seven to 20 years and fined from 14,000 baht to 40,000 baht. Those who coerce others to work as prostitutes may face life imprisonment.

Tanapat (surname withheld), a sex worker and company employee based in Bangkok who creates online sex content, said many of his peers have been assaulted by clients while working.

"Friends of mine in the industry have been punched and hit by clients," he said. "Clients have even taken off condoms."

However, he said none of his peers have reported the assaults to police, fearing they would be arrested.

"I feel very vulnerable," he said.

Mr Tanapat said when he is in public and recognised by people who have accessed his online content, he has also been groped and asked for his services.

"People assume they can do anything because I'm a sex worker," he said.

Online bullying and discrimination are also common, he said.

"It has reached a point where I've had to normalise it."

He said other sex workers who face cyberbullying have turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with criticism.

Mr Tanapat said sex work should be decriminalised in Thailand, and sex workers should have the same rights as others to report issues to the police without being arrested.

"Sex work is work," he said.

The Labour Protection Act protects workers from issues that may arise at work and aims to protect young workers' welfare.

However, sex workers in Thailand are not considered under the act, meaning there are no legal protections if they are assaulted or have issues with an agency they are working under.

Thanuch, or "Oscar" (surname withheld), a student and sex worker, said sex workers not only face the risk of being assaulted while working but can also be exploited if they work under an agency.

"An agency I used to work for withheld 75,000 baht from me," he said, adding he did not file a police report as he feared he would be arrested for prostitution.

Oscar said if prostitution was decriminalised, there would be fewer instances of workers being exploited.

There would also be benefits to the economy: "If sex workers were considered under the labour laws, they would have to pay tax."

After leaving the agency, Oscar now uses the online platform OnlyFans, where 20% of profits go to OnlyFans, and the rest to him as a content creator.

"Being able to create online content, I am better protected and treated well by my clients."

Noom, a personal trainer and sex worker based in Bangkok, said the stigma around sex work persists in Thailand.

He said engaging with online pornographic content allows people to fulfil their sexual desires, and sex workers can keep themselves safe.

"I enjoy my job, as I love to have sex and make money at the same time," he said.

Call for decriminalising prostitution

Surang Janyam is chief executive of Swing (Service Workers IN Group), a non-profit organisation that advocates for a better deal for sex workers in Thailand.

"Decriminalising prostitution is just one step in paving the way for social change, as the issue is complex," she said.

Swing's clinics also advocate for universal access to health services, including primary health care, HIV and sexual and reproductive health services.

Ms Surang said she knows of many sex workers who have been assaulted while working.

"If clients pay money, they think they can do everything," she said.

One night, she received a call from a sex worker who was afraid to speak to the police, fearing she would be arrested. "A client had put a glass beer bottle inside her vagina."

In 2023, according to the Public Health Ministry, 31,866 cases of rape were reported.

However, Ms Surang estimates the actual number to be much higher due to sex workers being unable to report assaults to the authorities.

The figures also do not include cases of rape against males and people who identify as transgender.

Ms Surang said LGBTQIA+ men and transgender people are often excluded from their communities and face a high level of stigma, violence and discrimination. "They are human beings. Why should they be treated differently?"

She said older people were also at risk of being assaulted. While working, many meet clients in person rather than offering online services.

"We are particularly concerned about older sex workers in Thailand, particularly in rural areas, as they do not have the resources and technology to create online content," she said.

Ms Surang said not being able to create content means the sex workers are at further risk of being assaulted as they are meeting in person with clients they may not know.

She said one of the reasons why many people choose to go into sex work is a lack of job opportunities and low-paying wages. "How many jobs are there that will fully support someone and their family?"

In 2008, the government estimated there were 250,000 sex workers in Thailand.

However, Ms Surang believes the actual number to be over 2 million. This number also includes tens of thousands of migrants from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Surang Janyam

The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act bans prostitution in public places and brothels. Along with the Criminal Code, it classifies prostitution as illegal.

Penalties for people supervising sex workers, such as brothel owners, are higher, as this act is focused on preventing the exploitation and abuse of children.

New Zealand was the first country to decriminalise the sex industry after passing its Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in 2003.

Research that undertook a review of the act showed decriminalisation has been successful in making the sex industry safer and improving the rights of sex workers.

According to research, the act also had little impact on the number of people working in the sex industry.

In 2023, a bill to make prostitution legal in Thailand was proposed; however, it has yet to pass into law.

The bill allows individuals aged 18 or older to voluntarily enter the sex industry. The Minister of Social Development and Human Security did not respond to questions seeking comment.

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