Thailand’s Sex Entertainment: Alienated Labor and the Construction of Intimacy
1.1. Sex Slavery and Liberation
1.2. When the Problem Is Identified as “Stigma”
1.3. What about the Spaces “In-Between” That Offer Intimacy and Caring (Dulae)?
2. Statement of the Problem
3. Research Aim and Methodological Approach
4. Theoretical Framework
4.2. Emotional, Affective, and Alienated Labor
5. The Sexual Entertainment Industry in Thailand—A Review
5.1. Traditional Role of Thai Women in the Household
5.2. Marriage and Sexual Infidelity
5.3. Thai Women, Foreigners, and the Sexual Entertainment Industry
5.4. The Emergence of the Thai Sex Industry
5.5. The Problem of the Victim/Liberated Woman Dichotomy
5.5.1. Freeing the Slaves—Women as Victims
5.5.2. The Empower Approach—Sex Work as Labor
5.5.3. The Thai Feminist Approach
…there is a new value and meaning to the term “Service Worker”. Looking at prostitutes as simply under-educated victims is not enough. It leads us to overlook the value of such work in the context of the very new meaning of the term “Service “Worker”. Prostitution is more than about staring at a body; there is a new meaning, an almost meaning as with an “Illusion” that is indeed the new Service Worker.
The identity created is a new thing, not that of simply “sex worker”. For example, in the case of Wunsen18, she meets her clientele at the snooker table. She does not seek a clientele for sex, she is not building “customers”. It is different because they are seeking a service. Wunsen says, “The customers at the snooker shop are not buying sex”. For the women, it is first a story of “communication”.
The women explain that you are not picking up customers to simply provide sexual services because we know each other. And even if we don’t know each other “we become close in a particular way, by hanging out together, eating together, watching movies. We get money from the men to pay for our rented accommodation and to use here and there”.
[One woman], Wunsen sees it this way, “We do not sell sexual services because the people we go with are our friends, in an uncommitted relationship (kik19), not customers”. And even after work, there is reason that “we go with them because we like them, and the man gives us money to use”. Wunsen explains that she goes off with her beloved, but “every time we go off, it is not only about sex. It might be going to karaoke, eating, and watching movies without ‘sex’ as the main thing”.
5.6. Sex Entertainment—A Cross-Cultural Experience and Othering
Rong: “I heard that some Americans…they get sudden assignments and have to leave—and if they already paid for the month as agreed, then they would transfer [the rental wife] to his friend”.
Rental Wife: “I heard the same thing, too, Pee [older brother]. He probably negotiated —to get something in return. You know that Americans will not give something away that easily”.
Rong: “Have you ever been involved with that?”
Rental Wife: “I’ve never been...whatever their story...if you’re gonna go to hell or wherever...and wants to give me to this guy or that guy —I will never go! Even if I’m bought like an object —like they said. I have honor, too, Pee—crazy! I’m not a piece of soap—use half of it and throw it away by giving it to someone else!”
Rong: “I’m sorry…”
Rental Wife: “You don’t have to be too polite with me, Pee. I’m not a high madam from somewhere —only a madam from a hotel”.
Rong: “You and your friends ever fight over husbands?”
Rental Wife: “We’re women, Pee, and being the kind women we are —there’s gonna be some fights—it’s normal. … Believe me, Pee...if my husband gets bored of me, and gets another girl to be his wife—I lose my honor—I cannot explain it, but I will be so ashamed—I cannot look anybody in the eyes. …
…. Like I told you, “I have 2 small red-headed boys that I left with my mother to take care of. If I think about the future—it is about them. I try to make a monthly savings for them. Saving for them just in case something happens to me. When I came back this time, I went to the temple and promised to Buddha that I will not play [the gambling game] black frog/red frog anymore. I will do everything for the sake of money and for the sake of my sons.”(Wongsavun 1973, p. 111. Translated by Siamrad Maher and Tony Waters)
5.7. Affective Emotional Labor in the Capitalist Marketplace and Feeling Rules?
Alongside the early modern prototype of sexual barter and the modern prototype of organized commercial prostitution, modes of commercial sexual exchange have emerged, diversified, and proliferated to create new forms of domination for many sex workers, but also (at least for some) new possibilities for creative entrepreneurship, intimacy, and community (p. 69).
Bernstein further highlights that these new forms of commercialized sexual encounters with a high authenticity are increasingly demanded by customers. These “bounded authenticities” fulfill the client’s desire for an authentic emotional and sexual relationship within a market-bound exchange (Ch. 5). As per Bernstein, there is a preference for “bounded intimate engagement over other relational forms” by the postindustrial heterosexual man. “For at least some clients, paid sex is neither a sad substitute for something that one would ideally choose to obtain in a noncommodified romantic relationship nor the inevitable outcome of a traditionalist Madonna/Whore double standard” (p. 69). These customers might even have loving and fulfilling sex with their partners at home.
On this basis, the beer bar women learn how to seek out the basic “mood of the man”. They do this after they have gone through a period of adjustment in their new work. Women begin to see that there are different routes to defining relationships with different types of customers. There are at least three different categories of customers; new guest, one-time boyfriend, and sponsor. There are more mix-and-match rules, as well, and different ways to serve, such as short-time traveling, overnight trips, and holidays. The customer can propose to have sexual activity in his room, in the woman’s room, short-time, schedule for another evening, etc., because this is a characteristic of working conditions in the beer bar.
Unlike other forms of prostitution, women learn to sell their emotions. One set of relationships is reserved for western men. A woman learns to see the story in the eyes, and hopes for those men to meet the expectations of the women. Until the woman falls into her own trap, and the emotional attachment increases, and there is hope for a relationship beyond a commercial transaction (p. 190).
6. Discussion and Conclusions: Reframing the Thai Qualitative Data Regarding Intimacy in the Sexual Entertainment Industry
Institutional Review Board Statement
Conflicts of Interest
The Thai language has a number of dysphemisms, euphemisms, and legalisms to describe sex work/entertainment, etc. One of the official words for ‘female sex workers’ is ying khai borikan (Thai: หญิงขายบริการ), women selling service. This euphemistic term captures the variety of skills, activities, and forms of labor these women perform while embedded in the labor market.
Empower is a Thai sex worker organization that has been promoting rights and opportunities for sex workers since 1985. It is led and largely managed by sex workers in Thailand. The organization demands decriminalization of sex work and provides women with legal, educational, and health-related assistance, relevant to their job in the sex entertainment sector.
“Thailand has a greater percentage of women in senior leadership positions than both the Asia-Pacific region and the global average. In Thailand’s mid-market companies, women hold 32% of senior leadership positions, higher than the global average of 27% as well as the Asia-Pacific average of 26%… Despite the fact that Thai women have hold executive roles in public and private sectors, they are generally still underrepresented, especially in the parliament, government, judiciary, and administration both at national and local levels. Women account for only 23.9% of high-ranking civil servants, and gender equality in senior leadership positions has risen by just 3% in the last fifteen years”. (Source: UN Women Thailand https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/countries/thailand (accessed on 17 May 2022)).
“kik” relationships have become more common in the last 30 years or so, replacing brothel-style prostitution. The term refers to short or long-term non-exclusive relationships. Unlike in the past, both men and women can now have a “kik” and be a “kik”.
In Thailand, massage parlors are entertainment establishments under the Entertainment Places Act 1966; in contrast to spas that offer health services.
Women receive a share of the amount from what clients pay for their drinks in the venue.
Customers usually must pay a “bar fine” to the employer or bar owner in order to allow the women to accompany them.
In 1959 Thailand introduced a 10-year development plan that included the tourism sector. It aimed to increase the attraction of mainly Bangkok as a tourist destination. With the increased demand for workers in the service sector, women from rural areas came to the city to serve local and international tourists in bars and other entertainment venues (Ouyyanont 2001, p. 165).
Among the problems with such statistics is that it assumes a discrete “sex worker” category, that exclusively occupies the work–life relative to other activities. However, any one woman may engage in many economic activities throughout the day, and especially throughout the year. Of course, the most important activity is that involves the “double burden” of providing not only cash from the labor market, but also care for family members, dulae, activities that are not part of the cash labor market. For the purposes of this paper, what is important is that it also excludes “grey area” sex work, which crosses over into intimate emotional arrangements. For example, when is a mia chao arrangement between a lonely soldier intimate and emotional, and when is it a commercial service?
In an attempt to quantify the broad economic impact of sex work, Empower Foundation states that approximately 80% of Thailand’s sex workers are mothers and supporting five to eight other adults (Carter 2021). This impressive number was generated in the context of Empower’s advocacy mission; a more nuanced interpretation would be that the Thai sex worker is contributing to a family network which includes 6–8 other adults, many of whom make financial and emotional contributions to the network, realizing their responsibilities to “care” dulae for each other.
Note: This paper specifically deals with Thai women who have civil rights, and recourse to official protection from authorities, and access to families while working in Thai sex entertainment venues. Women from neighboring countries, particularly Myanmar do not have this recourse. They are often in Thailand on no papers, or expired papers, and subject to arrest by immigration police. They are also much less likely to speak Thai. Not surprisingly, it is among such women that the “sex slavery” practice flourishes.
Circumstances include rape, being a single mother who needs to support her family, but also poverty and forced labor, amongst others.
“In fact, with a census of nearly 60 active antitrafficking NGOs, Thailand had, as of 2007, by far the largest number of anti-trafficking NGOs of all the countries in Southeast Asia” (Padunchewit 2010, p. 6)
“A private, non-profit international non-governmental organization, The Asia Foundation (“TAF”) was established in the year 1954 in Thailand to advance the mutual interests of the United States and countries in the Asia-Pacific region. At that time, much of its funding was routed via the CIA, with the military and political interests of the United States in mind. The Asia Foundation receives annual appropriations from the U.S. Congress and is also financially supported with contributions from corporations, foundations, individuals, and governmental organizations in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia.” (Padunchewit 2010, p. 9).
Although many NGOs operate within Thailand, their combating “sex slavery” results are sparse as their operation is not centralized. Most depend on sensational marketing demands to attract donor funds through churches or US government agencies. Many organizations operate independently and have Christian mission agendas (Padunchewit 2010). Furthermore, the self-identified good deeds of these NGOs should be taken with a pinch of salt because a primary point in generating data is to convince financial supporters in the United States to continue funding (see, e.g., Willis et al. 2021). This often means offering testimonials of “rescued” women on websites who attest to being victims of human trafficking. Left out is that such testimony is often in a context where testimonies help women to avoid jail terms, and are a quid pro quo for placement in NGO social programs (see, e.g., Empower Foundation 2012; Hoang 2015; Law 2000).
A dramatic example of idealized traditional Thai norms regarding sexuality and romance is found in the epic Thai tale Khun Chang, Khun Phaen, which was created in the seventeenth century, and is still important in popular Thai culture, and school curricula. The tale interweaves the tale of two high-status men, with that of a younger woman they both loved intensely and whom she loved in-return. These love affairs exist in between the battles, jealousies, infidelities, and marriages which rocked the ancient Thai Ayutthayan society. The story is one of deep commitment, love, jealousy, and intimacy.
Muangjan’ s research was conducted with women working in the “Can Do Bar” within the Empower network. The bar is used as a model under the “sex work is work” framework and advocates the decriminalization of sex work in Thailand.
Again, “kik” is the modern Thai word for an uncommitted but intimate sexual relationship. The word can be applied to a male or female.
Some research shows that having commercial sexual relationships entails a disconnection, detachment, or alienation from and dislike for the bodies—something of a reaction to the existence of intimacy rather than a denial of its significance (Coy 2009; Ślęzak 2018; Warr and Pyett 1999). This is seen as a strategy to protect the worker’s mental well-being and to be able to maintain relationships outside of work. But this only makes sense in a market where labor is routinely alienated from the worker, which even Marx pointed out is a modern concept. Intimacy for some is reserved for their private lives, which they highly separate from their work life. However, even some women in more disconnected sexual scenarios report sexual pleasure during encounters with their clients, some of whom they felt attracted to (Carbonero and Gómez Garrido 2018; Ślęzak 2018; E. M. Smith 2017).
With the change in work structure and the demand for immaterial labor also grew new demand for a form of authentic intimacy within professional sexual encounters. One option to find this intimacy that goes beyond the simple money-for-sex transaction offer hostess services, as Carbonero and Gómez Garrido (2018) showed in their study in Spain. Aspects of intimate relations such as intimacy and romanticism are framed as commodities and “objects of consumption” (p. 385), mixed with the transactional nature of the cash for the commodified sex act. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that “[E]ven if prostitute’s sexual pleasure was a part of commercial sex, it is not the determining criterion” (Kontula 2008, p. 611).
Drawing from a binary atomistic theoretical point of view with individual countable cultural traits when talking about affective labor does not work to evaluate the role of intimacy in sex work. This would seem common in a group-focused society like Thailand, where individualism is relatively low (see Hofstede et al. 2010).
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Lemberger, P.; Waters, T. Thailand’s Sex Entertainment: Alienated Labor and the Construction of Intimacy. Soc. Sci. 2022, 11, 524. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11110524
Lemberger P, Waters T. Thailand’s Sex Entertainment: Alienated Labor and the Construction of Intimacy. Social Sciences. 2022; 11(11):524. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11110524Chicago/Turabian Style
Lemberger, Petra, and Tony Waters. 2022. "Thailand’s Sex Entertainment: Alienated Labor and the Construction of Intimacy" Social Sciences 11, no. 11: 524. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11110524