Sitting outside her bar in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, Mai Janta tells me that she has regrets about sex work: She wishes she'd done it earlier. "I worked in a bakery, I worked in a restaurant, I ran a small business, I worked on a government nature reserve programme," she says, emphasising how much she hated the bakery in particular. "Sometimes I think I just wasted my time doing all these other jobs before I did sex work. I should have been doing it a long time before."
Malee Van Derburg, who has been a sex worker for decades, as well as a prolific activist and advocate for sex workers' rights, interjects. "In my career, I have built four houses, I've put three people through university, and I've got my two kids in expensive private school in Thailand," she says proudly. "I've done more to contribute to the infrastructure of my village and the basic needs of my family than any government, INGO [international non-governmental organization], or NGO ever has."
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"It's not just the money," Janta adds, "you also have a lot of free time, you can study in the day time, you have more freedom than in other jobs. And we learn about human behavior. It's very interesting. We get to learn other languages, meet people from all over the world."
I ask Janta what she would change about sex work—"but what are the drawbacks?"—and she answers quickly. She wants sex work decriminalised in Thailand so that all sex workers are covered by existing labor laws, because that would be the end of exploitative working conditions in the industry. And she would like the customers to be more rich and more handsome.
Both Janta and Van Derburg are members of Empower, an organization that advocates for sex workers' rights in Thailand. Janta is also the manager of Can Do, a small, faded bar on a quiet street, to the south-west of Chiang Mai's main red light district, Loi Kroh Road, which extends like an artery out of the east side of the picturesque old town.
As we talk other women, who are also sex workers, come and go, occasionally they join in, but mostly they're busy—absorbed in chatting, laughing and carefully assembling a shared supper of fresh spring rolls.
One day a group of sex workers in Chiang Mai said, 'Actually the government doesn't get it… We're going to have to build it ourselves.'
The stereotype of trafficked Asian women exploited by sex tourists means that few people in the west expect Thai sex workers to be at the forefront of a radical push for sex workers' rights, but despite its slightly shabby, unassuming exterior, Can Do bar represents just that.
According to Liz Hilton, an Australian woman who originally joined Empower as an advocacy volunteer and has now been working with the organization for 23 years—so long that she sounds more comfortable speaking in Thai than in English—Can Do is the only bar in Thailand, if not the world, that is owned and run by a collective of sex workers, and designed to model exemplary working conditions in the industry.
"The Can Do bar came about because sex workers had been advocating for [workers' rights] and working under shitty conditions for years," Hilton explains. "One day a group of sex workers here in Chiang Mai said, 'Actually the government doesn't get it, nobody understands what we're talking about, we're going to have to build it ourselves, we can't wait anymore.' And so they pooled their money and raised a million baht [almost $30,000] between them all and created the bar."
When you consider the size, history and conditions of the Thai sex work industry, it is unsurprising that sex workers here are mobilising and demanding change. Thailand has an estimated 300,000 sex workers. As well as considerable domestic demand, sex tourism is massive—it has been since the 1960s, when the country was identified by the US Army as an ideal 'rest and relaxation' destination for soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. Yet the laws surrounding prostitution remain vague: Depending on your reading of Thai law, it's either illegal or at least extremely restricted. While bars that employ 'bar girls' simply pay the notoriously corrupt police force to turn a blind eye, women working in the industry are not formally employed and their profession is not recognized, leaving them with no legal rights or access to social security, such as healthcare and pensions.
The bars—which are usually run by men seeking to turn a profit— exploit sex workers' precarious position through their bar rules. Janta explains that bars make money from expensive 'lady drinks', which male customers must buy for women they want to spend time with inside the bar, and from bar fines, which men pay when they want to take a sex worker away from the bar.
We're the only organization that works with sex workers, not on top of sex workers.
Sex workers are usually paid a small salary by the bar owners of anywhere between about 3,000 baht ($82) and 13,000 baht ($357) a month. But in order to actually receive this salary, women working in bars must meet a certain quota of 'lady drinks' and bar fines. If they fail to meet this quota, they lose part of their salary. They can also lose money for an array of minute offences, facing fines for tardiness, missing staff meetings, and even every kilo of gained weight. The numerous fines mean that it is possible, and quite easy, to go into minus figures and actually owe the bar money at the end of the month.
Despite this, the women at Empower believe that exploitation is not inherent to sex work. Taking a similar stance to Amnesty International, they argue that exploitation results from a lack of legal protection, backed up by Thai society's pervasive negative attitude towards sex workers. While Empower campaigns for social change, Can Do seeks to model the working conditions sex workers' want.
[NGOs] use sex workers as volunteers to do little jobs, but you can't be the manager, you don't own the budget… You're just a pity doll.
"We work according to the Thai labor law," Janta explains. "We only work an eight hour shift, we're paid according to the labor law, there are no salary cuts, we have a safe, healthy workplace, we have four days off per month, and also paid sick leave. And we have access to the social security scheme."
Unlike in other bars, at Can Do sex workers are not forced to drink alcoholic 'lady drinks' either—they don't have a drink quota at all, but if they are bought a drink they can choose whether they want: Alcohol, juice or soda. There is also no bar fine, leaving women free to come and go as they please.
In the daytime, the rooms behind and above the bar are used for meetings, gatherings, lessons, and workshops. Thanta Laowilawanyakul, a witty, smiling woman who tells me to call her 'Ping Pong,' points out that Can Do is a vitally important space because it brings together people who wouldn't usually mix: sex workers from different parts of the industry—from bars, massage parlours, and brothels—and from different countries. It's a place where people can meet, socialize, relax, exchange information, and organize.
It's Friday night when I visit Can Do, so at 6 PM Fah Sang-Hut, the youngest of the group at 22, opens the bar, bringing Hilton and I the first beers. Janta disappears, returning soon after in dark red lipstick.
In other bars—in Loi Kroh and Thailand's other red light districts—sex workers often look bored and stressed, spilling out into the street, under pressure to entice men in or lose part of their salary, but at Can Do there seems to be plenty to do and little to worry about. While they await customers, two women play pool, Sang-Hut tries to teach her friend Peung to pole dance, and a group of women make and share an icy blue cocktail, which gives me a terrible hangover the next day.
When a customer comes in, no one seems interested in him. As the women start to disappear one by one, Janta reluctantly admits he has a bad reputation—he's too stingy. Eventually he's left alone at the bar and finally he leaves, rejected.
Later I cycle home and see him picking up a woman from another bar. I wonder if she has to fill her quota.
Back at Can Do, I foolishly start sipping the blue ice cocktail and ask Hilton more about Empower. She tells the women inside to turn down the blaring pop music, and tells me that the organization was set up in 1985 in Patpong, a red light district in Bangkok, by a Thai activist called Chantawipa Apisuk and a group of sex workers. Empower began informally, as a group of women chatting, and then as an English class, and later it became an advocacy organization promoting sex workers' human rights. The intention was to provide a space for sex workers to own, belong, organize and assert their rights to education, health, access to justice, and political participation.
Today, Empower has bases in several Thai cities, including Chiang Mai, Phuket, Bangkok and Mae Sot on the Myanmar border. In Chiang Mai alone the organization does outreach to 239 different bars, massage parlours, brothels and other places where sex workers are employed, offering support to about 3,500 women.
In 1985, HIlton says there were no other organizations particularly interested in sex work in Thailand. Today I suggest the landscape must have changed—there are reams of organizations dedicated to working with sex workers. But Hilton is adamant Empower is still unique. "We're the only organization that works with sex workers, not on top of sex workers," she says, explaining that Empower is led and guided by sex workers, and the agenda has always been set by the women. Hilton claims that other organizations set their own agenda, usually starting from the premise that sex work is bad, and that sex workers are victims of either poverty or trafficking. Many of these organizations even explicitly oppose sex work on religious grounds.
Sometimes you hear or you read about Thai students selling sex—we say, 'No, no it's just sex workers going to university, don't worry.'
According to her this renders the work of many NGOs unhelpful: As well as perpetuating stigma, they're simply not interested in engaging with the practical problems that sex workers face.
"They say they are working for sex workers," Van Derburg tells me, "and we might want to go and learn English with them, but then they want to change our job and change our religion, so we're really only their victims." Ping Pong agrees. "They use sex workers as volunteers to do little jobs, but you can't be the manager, you don't own the budget, you don't design the programme, you're just a pity doll."
"In other places you can't sell sex and work for that organization, they make you stop work," Van Derburg adds. "Some of them have rules that you can't go to your old work place or associate with your old friends."
Many of the women I speak to have ambitions outside of sex work, but that doesn't mean they want to stop sex work entirely. Instead, they see it as a potentially lucrative and flexible part-time job, a choice that Empower supports. "There are over 100 women in Chiang Mai who are now at the university and colleges after finishing studying with us," Hilton tells me. "Sometimes you hear or you read about Thai students selling sex—we say, 'No, no it's just sex workers going to university, don't worry, it's the other way round.'"
Eventually I broach an especially sensitive subject with the women: Sex trafficking, and the numerous initiatives in Thailand to stop it. In 2012 Empower published a damning report arguing that, "we have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry who are being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women being exploited by trafficking."
I ask Hilton to explain. "There was a massive problem [with trafficking], until about 1998," she tells me. "Empower worked through that, we were in the locked brothels, we know exactly what trafficking looks like and we looked for it when it ended." She insists that in Empower's experience, sex trafficking in Thailand is now almost extinct.
Why is the world so afraid to have young, working class, non-English speaking, and predominantly non-white women moving around?
Besides, she says, the strategies employed by anti-trafficking organizations are deeply flawed. "The women that we knew that were in forced labor, the strategies that they're offering now, [the women] didn't want then either," she tells me, arguing that what the Thai authorities call 'rescuing and repatriating' trafficking victims is actually a forceful and violent process, better described as "arrest, detention, and deportation". Rescue and repatriation operations are often indiscriminate, Hilton says, aggressively targeting and forcefully removing voluntary migrants without documents, rather than trafficked women.
In the report, Empower describe one incident in which 50 armed police officers raided a karaoke bar and detained eight women who worked there, all Burmese migrants, locking them in bathrooms when they attempted to escape. The women were ordered to place their thumbprints on statements written in Thai, which they could not read. Their phones and personal belongings were then confiscated and they were detained for over a month.
Empower's stance on trafficking is controversial—it directly contradicts organizations like the United Nations, which believes that sex trafficking is still a significant problem in Thailand—but it's difficult to disregard the voices of migrant women who have witnessed and experienced both trafficking and anti-trafficking initiatives.
Van Derburg is particularly informed on the subject: She travelled voluntarily to Thailand from her village in Myanmar when she was 15, or 16, at a time when sex trafficking was commonplace. She strongly rejects the mainstream trafficking narrative and the 'victim' label.
"I decided to set out on an adventure and if I was lucky, build a better life for me and my family too," she writes online, "It was natural for me to become the head of the family. No one else was going to provide… Millions of us young girls around the world have been in this situation and made the same decision."
When she arrived in Thailand, Van Derburg, like Janta, did a succession of menial jobs which she found boring, before being encouraged to try sex work by a friend when she was 21. She found she could make more money as a sex worker than she had ever made before.
We are forced to live with the modern lie that border controls and anti-trafficking policies are for our protection. None of us believe that lie or want that kind of protection.
Altogether 206 Thai and migrant sex workers, including Van Derburg and Janta, were directly involved in conducting Empower's research and many more were interviewed. In the introduction to the report, they write eloquently and scathingly of the sexist double standards experienced by female migrant sex workers, asking: "Why is the world so afraid to have young, working class, non-English speaking, and predominantly non-white women moving around?"
"We are forced to live with the modern lie that border controls and anti-trafficking policies are for our protection," the report continues. "None of us believe that lie or want that kind of protection. We have been spied on, arrested, cut off from our families, had our savings confiscated, interrogated, imprisoned and placed into the hands of the men with guns, in order for them to send us home… all in the name of 'protection against trafficking.'"
In Thailand, as in the rest of the world, it seems that many people are still unwilling to listen to sex workers. But the women at Empower are resourceful, tenacious and determined to change this by continually finding new ways to communicate their message, until eventually they are heard.
"We have our performance with our new theatre, and a book, and a movie," Mai says. "We try and make sure we have a place in different social spaces and on different stages and forums, so that whatever people are talking about they're talking about sex workers' point of view too."
As Ping Pong leaves the bar, she says she has one last thing she wants to tell me. She suggests a simple solution for people grappling with the issues surrounding sex work. "People talking about, 'sex workers this or that, whatever', they don't need to be asking other people anymore," she says. "It's 2015—tell them, go ask a sex worker!"