Introduction

Between Thailand’s cultural background, and the massive industry growth sparked by the Vietnam war, by the 1970s it was clear that prostitution in Thailand had become problem. It is not just after this time, however, that efforts to reduce or at least regulate the sex trade took place. Legislation to regulate prostitution occurred as early as 1908. The problem was that the legislation did a terrible job when it came to protecting women, and an amazing job when it came to protecting brothel owners. Judicial wheels were turning, just in the complete wrong direction. This post will outline the major acts of legislation Thailand saw in the 1900s, and why they did more harm than good.

Abolition of Slavery 1905

What It Was

Thailand had always been a slave-based nation. From the early beginnings of the country, slavery was common, used as means of debt repayment, a punishment for crimes, sexual exploitation, and as treatment for POWs. King Rama V abolished slavery officially in 1905.

Why It Didn’t Work

Many women still owed debts, and without another means of earning money to repay them and to support a family, they had to remain prostitutes just to survive. The abolition of slavery was done in an effort to sort of appease western governments, and to civilize Thailand in the eyes of the world. To further this effort, the Thai government financed public education and military training for men, but not women, which widened the already large inequality gap.

The Disease Prevention Act of 1908

What It Was

This was implemented in response to the increasing spread of venereal disease in Thailand. Prostitution remained legal as long as the prostitute registered herself. Every brothel was required to hang a green lantern from the front door to identify itself as a place offering sexual services. This led to the introduction of the terms, “green lantern houses” and “green lantern women.”

Why It Didn’t Work

Brothels had to pay a tax to remain legal, though many women still worked unregistered in bars and gambling locations, which created a sort of legal grey area. When brothels saw that women would work “under cover,” picking up clients at bars and providing sexual service elsewhere, it became difficult to really enforce much of a tax or any regulation. And there is still the fact the prostitution at this time is technically legal.

Venereal Disease Act 1909

What It Was

A prostitution businesses needed to hold a license to remain legal, and needed to renew this license every three months. Police had the right to shut places down without proper licensing.

Why It Didn’t Work

This was ineffective for the same reasons as the 1908 act. Many police would simply turn the other way, and there were too many loopholes for this to successfully regulate the industry. Prostitution was present in locations whether they had licensing or not.

Anti-Trafficking Act 1928

What It Was

Seducing or coercing a woman into prostitution was illegal and could be fined.

Why It Didn’t Work

“Seducing” and “coercing” were very loosely defined terms. The Thailand justice system heavily favored men if there was even an instance when a woman was able to make it to court to challenge a man. Typically, these situations would stop at police involvement, and would mostly end with nothing more than a warning.

Prostitution Suppression Act 1960

What It Was

Prostitution was now made illegal. The UN had been pushing Thailand starting in the late 1950s to enact more prostitution reforms, as Thailand was at the time the only Asian UN member to endorse brothels. Thailand began receiving U.S. military aid at this point and was making efforts to “civilize” more like the western world.

Why It Didn’t Work

“Sex entertainment” became a growing industry, and Thailand saw the introduction and continuation of sex tourism infrastructure like nightclubs, massage parlors, and bars. While brothels were prohibited, the exploitation of women through this infrastructure increased, referred to as “entertainment” and not as prostitution.

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An advertisement for a gogo bar in Pattaya in 1967.

Entertainment Places Act 1966

What It Was

This legislation was enacted in an effort to regulate the sex tourism infrastructure. These locations became known as “entertainment places,” and this act basically recognized the fact that prostitution did not end with the 1960 Suppression Act, and aimed to reduce and regulate the occurrences of prostitution in these places. Police had the right to shut down any place that offered sexual services, owners of entertainment places were required to have a license to run, and the prohibition of prostitution was reaffirmed. The category of “special service girls” was created, referring to the women who worked in entertainment places.

Why It Didn’t Work

The Thailand police force was incredibly corrupt. Many profited from business owners, accepting bribes in return for legal lenience. Many officers would tip off business owners the day before an inspection, allowing them time to close for the day or go out of town. When a police officer would follow through legally and shut a place down, he would typically only arrest the women involved. If a pimp was prosecuted, he would likely face no more than a fine, while the women who were prosecuted faced arrest and forced rehab.

The Act also created a major loophole with the “special service girls” category. This allowed entertainment places to hire women under the titles of masseuses and waitresses, and as long as the actual sexual servicing occurred off-site, it was not considered the business’s responsibility. In the case that the police would catch someone with a prostitute, the majority of the time the officer would let it slide, and protect his financial interests with the bar or nightclub owner.

Where Are We Now?

There is still a great deal of gender inequality in Thailand today, even though legislative effort began over 100 years ago. This effort has always been, and still is, left in the hands of men, as women do not have nearly the same political rights or influence as they do. Therefore most of these laws have had a more protective effect on the male population of Thailand than on the female population. Women were not granted equal rights legally until 1997, and sexual harassment in the workplace was not made illegal until 1998, though no harassment cases have ever faced prosecution. Most domestic violence cases are still viewed by the police today as “private family matters” and are typically left for the husband to deal with. While Thailand has come a long way, there is still a long way to go, and based on the historical pattern of the 20th century, progress can be a very slow moving thing.

 

 

 

Sources:

Jeffrey, Leslie A. Sex and Borders: Gender, National Identity, and Prostitution Policy in Thailand. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2002. Print.

Old Pattaya Pictures & Videos 1950s – 1990. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from http://pattaya-funtown.com/old_pattaya_pictures_videos/#

Tarancon, Alicia. Thailand’s Problem With the Sexual Exploitation of Women     in the 21st Century. Georgetown University: Dissertation, 2013. 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.