Chantawipa Apisuk is tired of hearing the same sentiments about sex work. Again and again, she listens to people claim that what she calls "free sex" with their lover is morally better than an encounter with a professional sex worker. But to Apisuk, it's all just sex, whether money exchanges hands or not.
"Sex at night, in the condominium, on the beach, in the car—that's not 'dirty,'" exclaims the 68-year-old founder of Empower, a charity that supports women working in Thailand's sex industry. "But if you sell it, it's 'bad sex.'"
For three decades, Apisuk has challenged conventional beliefs about the sex industry. Through educational services and international summits, Empower provides support to the 250,000 women estimated to work in Thailand's infamous sex trade without pressuring them to leave it. One day, Apisuk hopes to see sex work treated with the same respect as other professions.
"We want people to understand equality, and [make] space for sex workers to stand up nicely in society," she says.
Now, she has opened This Is Us, an appointment-only museum that celebrates Thailand's centuries-old reputation as a hub for brothels. Housed in an innocuous building on the outskirts of Bangkok, it "brings a different perspective to the issue of sex work."
As we walk through the dimly-lit room, Apisuk's refusal to patronize or pity the sex industry is shown through the cheeky irreverence with which she often treats it. In one corner of the museum, a fire-red toolbox holds paraphernalia typically associated with sex work: condoms, lubricant and lingerie. "We are trying to promote that women in sex work should [carry] condoms like a mechanic carries a screwdriver and hammer for his work," says the Harvard Law Fellow, reaching into the toolbox for a lacy red bra to slip over her baggy t-shirt. "They should be proud of their uniform."
A moment later, she stresses the professional importance of knowing your clientele. "[A] big, fat guy probably needs small condoms," Apisuk says, picking up a carrot from a bowl of fake, phallic-shaped vegetables that represent the male anatomy. "Sex workers must prepare for different colors, different sizes." She rummages through the vegetable basket and selects a large, plum-colored eggplant for my inspection. "Some white men have this color!"
According to placards dotted around the museums, sex work has played an integral role in Thailand's economy since an elite brothel was first opened and placed under royal control in 1680. The fee for services started at 50 satang, a single coin that would be worth $28 today. As Apisuk notes, "it costs about the same" now.
By the 20th century, an influx of Western soldiers meant that the sex industry was catering to a new clientele. A contract with the American government to provide "rest and relaxation services" to approximately 700,000 American soldiers cemented Thailand's reputation for "sex, sun, and sand." Subsequently, the range of entertainment offered evolved to include pole dancing and coyote girls dancing atop bars. An influx of Japanese expatriates over the last few decades has seen karaoke bars with a side business in sex flourish.
The museum takes a playful approach to much of Thailand's sex industry, but the tone sobers when it comes to the issue of regional migration, a source of labor for the industry. "They travel mountain to mountain, river to river, just to come to Thailand. They dream of a better life," says Apisuk, referring to the stream of rural woman from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos who journey to Thailand in pursuit of potentially lucrative employment within its sex industry. But at the border, they are confronted with hostility. "When they come to immigration, they [are] suspected as body-seller, drug-seller, disease-spreader," Apisuk sighs.
In protest, she crafted a series of papier-mâché dolls named kumjing; each doll symbolizes a real girl who is working in Thailand's sex industry. In 2004, a kumjing doll made at an appearance at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. Since then, they have shown up at political rallies and migration meetings across the country.
"[Immigration authorities] don't know me, but they know kumjing," says Apisuk, who also lugs the dolls on sightseeing trips around the country, each one bearing a passport with stamps. As illegal migrants, the women remain at constant risk of arrest and deportation; these dolls can act as a symbol for pursuing their own hopes and dreams.
"Kumjing is a representation of the migrant people who are living along Thailand's borders, unable to go anywhere freely. But when these people turn themselves into dolls, they can travel anywhere they want. These dolls can be taken on buses, trains, airplanes to wherever they dream of going to," reads a sign.
Back in her office, Apisuk considers the effect of this destructive attitude towards sex work. Because prostitution is seen as a moral issue, it is criminalized, leaving the women who work in it excluded from benefits like labor laws. And while the sex industry accounts for $6.4 billion in annual revenue, sex workers still face systemic discrimination, from laws that deem their work illegal to police who demand hefty bribes each month, she says.
"Sometimes the world discusses human rights and equal rights, but we have to think about how we respect people, " she points out.
It's not just the Thai legal system that is guilty of casting stones. In an acerbically written book titled Bad Girl's Dictionary, Empower defines a documentary as "sneaky-cam footage of sex workers, bars, brothers and sometimes customers; interview with sex worker filming her in dark or blurred face or just her hands for her sad story; film her poor rural home village and interview with greedy or stupid or tragic family member." To Apisuk, journalists' tendency to cast sex workers in the role of victims maintains the dominant narrative that sex work is undesirable. This perpetuates the myth that women can never be sex workers through choice.
"A lot of [journalists] are not open to new perspectives," she says, looking pointedly in my direction as she pushes a collection of newspaper clippings across the table. "Are Thai women victims of tourism?" blares one headline. It's precisely the type of sensationalism that she is fighting against. "We want to move forward—we don't want to repeat the same thing," she says.
Apisuk's open-mindedness sits at odds with many societal beliefs, and she spends her days advocating a cause that many find distasteful. Born to a rich family and educated abroad, she could have chosen to spend her days very differently. But the Bad Girl's Dictionary makes it clear that Apisuk isn't one for convention. "A 'bad girl' is "any woman who behaves or thinks outside the space society maps out for women," it declares. As she's proven, there are many ways to do that.