My planned piece on class politics in Thailand has been delayed by this stomach bug that hit me today (why today, of all days??!! :-)).
So instead I have a short piece and a question to ask you all as per the title:
In 1998 the total direct revenue generated by prostitution (i.e. for actual sex services but not drinks, bar fines, etc.) was one hundred billion baht. An estimate at the number of active prostitutes of Thai nationality in Thailand set the number at two hundred thousand. For obvious reasons, this figure is an informed estimate. (Phongpaichit et all , 1998)
Although there is a well known adage in Thailand that 95% of men have hired the services of a prostitute before age 21, this figure is likely to have decreased dramatically following the increase in AIDS cases during the nineties. The latest figure (1993 is the best I can find) puts the ratio at 10 percent. (D'Agnes, 2001) I suspect the real figure may be higher but nowhere near 95%, and this is only my own presumption.
Let me say right away that my outsider's opinion is that yes, prostitution in Thailand should be legalised. Here are my reasons:
1) It ensures greater safety of the workers. By allowing them to legally register and join unions, etc. the sex workers can move towards elimination and exposure of mistreatment such as blackmail, physical abuse, etc.
2) It generates extra revenue. Remember the revenue figure of 100 billion? If we tax that at just three percent we can generate three billion baht, enough to set up a new school in an underprivileged area. With the reduction in illegal fines and kickbacks, the workers themselves should not be deprived of any income due to that tax either.
3) It deprives corrupt authorities of kickbacks which are paid by all massage parlours and similar places (Phongpaichit et al again). Of course it won't become corruption free but by taking the service above ground, subversion will be reduced. It could even have a 'knock on' effect and force law enforcement authorities to reform.
Of course there are many arguments against legalisation and I would like to offer my response to them.
1) "It condones 'immoral' behaviour" . I think this attitude is in decline but still held by many. My feeling is that a) People have the right to do with their body as they wish provided it harms nobody else and b) Prostitution is already here, we all know that. Making it illegal has not made it go away, regardless of anyone's moral principles.
2) "It increases demand and HIV risks". I have never met anyone who bases their behaviour towards prostitution based on its legality. People either do it or don't , they either think it's moral or immoral. The reason legality does not come into it is because we all know that prostitution is widely available regardless of the law.
The HIV risk is a genuine one. Thailand has already seen massive awareness and pro condom campaigns that have significantly reduced the number of HIV infections in the kingdom but this campaign needs to continue. It is not only sex industry workers at risk though, it is everyone.
3) "It will increase the number of child or immigrant prostitutes." Some people seem to think that legalisation will send out the message "It's OK to have sex with anyone". I've never understood this. With registration of prostitutes, surely age and immigration checks would become easier? The problem of child prostitution could be segregated from the adult prostitution issue and targeted by police.
So these are my views. I hope it is clear I am not looking to make judgements of any form on the sex industry or anyone involved in it. I am simply looking at things from a practical and political preservative. I would be interested to hear what others think.