Thailand’s Illegal Sex Toy Market Is Booming

Thailand’s underground red-light economy is thriving but remains an open secret.
April 16, 2021, 1:11am
thailand law bans sex toys but they are thriving in the black market
Image: VICE World News

While Thailand is widely known for its red-light districts and friendliness towards LGBTQ tourists, it’s also home to some very conservative laws. Certain drugs, gambling, prostitution, and vaping are illegal in Thailand. Sex toys are banned too. 

According to Wisit Piemjai, the director of the Postal Customs Service Division, the customs department confiscated over 4,000 sex toys in 2020 alone. The penalty for anyone caught peddling, buying, or possessing sex toys is up to three years jail time or a fine of up to 60,000 Thai baht ($2,000), or both. The Thai government refuses to amend the law banning sex toys because it goes “against the view of Thai society,” but many activists say this is hypocritical, especially for an economy that is, in part, driven by red-light districts. 

“The phrase ‘Thailand is a buddist country’ means nothing,” a sex toy seller who goes by the name Natasha, told VICE World News. 

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Natasha is one of Bangkok’s busiest underground sex toy dealers and an advocate for sexual privacy rights, a movement that’s been growing steadily over the years. Selling sex toys is not her main job, but she said she has a passion for it. It’s profitable too. According to her, the COVID-19 pandemic has made sex toys one of the hottest selling items online.  

Thailand’s black market benefits the most from these conservative laws; despite being illegal, Thailand’s underground sex trade flourishes. Bangkok’s red-light economy is estimated to be a $6.4 billion dollar industry, making up about 4 to 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Sex toys are sold openly in Bangkok’s red-light districts, like Nana, Silom, and Patpong. In June 2020, the police raided an adult toy warehouse in a province just south of Bangkok and seized about 1 million Thai baht ($32,000) worth of illegal goods.

Despite the prevalence of illicit activities, the Thai government maintains its stance as a deeply conservative society. A 2016 UNICEF report on sex education in Thailand noted that many students hold attitudes that reject sexual rights, and that institutions approach sexuality from a view that “emphasizes the negative consequences” of it. 

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“Thailand is a Buddhist country and this is a generational issue. Older people still cannot accept sex toys and nothing can be done to change [that]. The law will remain in place for now,” Customs Director Wisit said. 

There have been efforts to change Thai society’s perception of sexual wellbeing. In 2018, activist Nisarat Jongwisan pioneered the movement to legalize sex toys when she spoke out publicly against the Ministry of Culture in a TV program, sparking a debate about sex toys in the country. The most popular argument among those that oppose it is that the legalization of sex toys would lead to an increase in sex-related crimes

But some argue that decriminalizing the sale and possession of sex toys could empower women to have more agency over their sexual desires and reduce the stigma around the topic. Teenage pregnancy rates are an ongoing concern, as many of these cases are attributed to the lack of access to contraceptives, related to the negative perceptions associated with teenage girls who use birth control. 

Meanwhile, keeping the law as it is only benefits the black market. 

“The government’s refusal to legalize sex toys is driving the black market to grow because humans will always have sexual desires; this law doesn’t stop people from buying. They will [simply] find a different way,” Natasha, the sex toy seller, said. 

The global sex toy market was valued at $33.64 billion in 2020, and COVID-19 is only pushing that figure higher. If the government chooses to regulate the sale of sex toys, it can at least protect those who are buying them by imposing product quality checks and fair prices. 

“Black market profits from this law tremendously. Anyone can make a quick buck because there’s no rule, no regulations. Sellers can profit 10 times in a single sale if they want to, because they’re above the law. This is why it must be changed,” Nisarat said. 

In 2018, Nisarat launched a petition asking the government to legalize sex toys. She plans to launch a new petition following the Thai parliamentary mechanism wherein she’ll have to gather 50,000 signatures to submit a bill for a parliamentary vote. 

“What would happen if we don’t change this law? Well, nothing,” Nisarat said. “But in our case, nothing [is] bad because [that means] we are stuck. We can’t remain in the same place even for just five or 10 more days. It’s time for us to move forward.”