Thailand is well known for its sex industry. From gogo bars, to massage parlours, karaoke joints, and brothels, the land of smiles is also very much the land of sex. And "ladyboys,” as they’re known to foreigners, are seen as a culturally unique part of Thailand's sex trade.
But who are these people? Most foreigners rarely question how trans people get into sex work, or why.
To find out I headed for Bangkok's bars, where I found a trans woman named Earth willing to talk. Earth is a 22-year old who describes sex work as liberatingly lucrative, despite the significant stigma and danger attached.
“I went to university and graduated with an accounting degree,” Earth explained beneath the pulsing lights of the bar. “But even then I still couldn't find a job anywhere. Even with my degree, employers kept rejecting me almost immediately. It became clear that I didn’t have a lot of options, so my mother sent me to hairstyling school.”
After working at the salon for some time, Earth decided she simply wasn’t making enough money and began contemplating making a shift to sex work. She had friends who'd transferred to sex work and they encouraged her to do the same.
For many transgender people in Thailand, the question is this: why work eight to 10-hour days in a cafe, salon, or restaurant, only to struggle to make ends meet? It’s hard enough to find work as a trans person in Bangkok, even when you're earning peanuts. So Earth decided to give sex work a shot.
“I got into this type of work to provide for my family. Not just my parents, but for my grandparents as well. It’s important for us to know that we can provide for ourselves. We don’t need to rely on anyone else anymore. We make our own money. This job allows that to happen.”
It's clear Earth is intelligent, but even with a strong work ethic and smarts, transgender people have a hard time making a liveable wage in Thailand. And as in most countries, simple economics turns them to prostitution, even if the sex industry is completely unregulated.
Ryan Figueiredo, Founder and Executive Director of Equal Asia (EQUAL AF), an inclusion advocacy organisation, says it’s incredibly important that the rights of trans sex workers are not overlooked, even though sex work is illegal. “The biggest challenge for the LGBTQ community in Asia is ensuring that no one is left behind," he told me. "This includes transgender persons, refugees, persons who sell sex, persons who use drugs, the disabled, the elderly, and others. Our call for action shouldn't be limited to a small set of civil rights for the privileged in our community, but a broader push for sexual citizenship."
In 2016, a study titled Same Same But Different was the first to properly unpack the experiences and dangers for thousands of trans sex workers operating in Thailand. The study compiled material through 60 interviews with transgender sex workers, providing a basis for understanding the unseen vulnerabilities, exploitation, and often physical and sexual abuse transgender sex workers endure on a regular basis.
Researchers found that 81 percent of interviewees turned to sex work due to financial desperation. They also discovered that transgender sex workers were uniquely vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, finding two-thirds of interviewees admitted to being victims of sexual violence within the past year, and one in four had been raped.
When I raised these stats, Earth told me about an experience she'd encountered. It was a guy she agreed to meet who already had a bad reputation in the community. The client wasn’t known to use physical violence, but was instead suspected of intentionally spreading HIV by nipping the top of condoms with a knife. “He would fold and then cut the tips of the condoms to spread the disease, ” she explained, demonstrating how he made the cut with a paper receipt. Then, after sex, she noticed the condoms they'd used were neatly cut across the top. Terrified, she quickly left the room.
After the incident, she immediately visited an anonymous clinic to get the pre-HIV exposure prophylaxis known as PrEP. Since then, she’s become incredibly cautious and inspects every condom before use. “It was really scary, because I knew he would get away with it. I couldn’t go to the police without fear of them coming after me for my work,” she explained.
It’s important to note that it’s not only transgender sex workers who experience marginalisation in Thailand. Transgender people in general are persecuted, despite Thailand’s image of being a LGBTQ safe haven. Thailand is often seen as a beacon of inclusivity for the LGBTQ community, especially in comparison to places like Brunei—where the death penalty was recently implemented for anal sex, then rescinded due to international pressure—or in parts of Indonesia—where they still carry out whippings and canings for breaking Sharia laws. But the trans community in Thailand still say they are not truly accepted, just tolerated.
The stigma and marginalisation that accompanies working in the sex industry effects boys and men as well, said Celeste McGee, founder of Dton Naam, an organisation that focuses on boys and transgender sex workers. “Many cultures view females as 'more vulnerable', whether that implies a belief that girls have a weaker physique, a more timid logic, an expected sensitive persona, or some other contrived fragile flaw,” she told me. But she said this isn't the case at all—and that boys, men, and LGBTQ sex workers are just as susceptible to abuse.
“In a way, boys and transgendered people are actually more vulnerable than girls because they are both so ignored,” she said. But despite the stories of abuse, Earth doesn’t want that to be the image of her work, and she doesn’t want to be pitied either. Although she has plans to save money and open up her own beauty salon one day, she recognises that sex work as an important mode of survival; a temporary phase where she can be proud to not only support herself, but her entire family.
“I know a lot of foreigners look down on us and don’t like what we do," she says. "But I want them to know that we’re also trying to provide for our families as best as we can. Our work shouldn’t be looked down on. We do it to support our ourselves and our families.”
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