Monday, October 13, 2014

From Chris Coles Talk at Thammasat University: Some Thoughts on Thailand's Sex Industry

I am often asked, especially by Thais, why my paintings are so focused on Thailand's commercial sex industry and Thailand's commercial sex workers.
After all, every country on earth has some type and scale of commercial sex industry.
So here are some of my thoughts on Thailand's commercial sex industry, based on years of observation, thousands of conversations and making my 2,000 or so paintings.
I think what separates out the Thailand commercial sex industry from many other countries in the world is not merely it's quite large scale (which is clearly not nearly as large as the world's largest-scale commercial sex industries which are probably, in terms of sheer numbers, in India or perhaps China) but also the amount of thought, creativity, marketing, capital investment and organization that go into it.
Unlike in some other countries where the commercial sex industry is a bit "Mom and Pop" or "improvised" or merely "functional", in Thailand, it's not only Big Business, it's "Show Business"...
Not only a multi-billion dollar a year business, but a very well-organized and well-run multi-billion dollar a year business with huge profit margins and a huge foreign currency/balance-of-trade impact, much of which goes to some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Thailand who have a very deep stake in the future prosperity and expansion of this particular industry.
The Commercial Sex Industry in Thailand is also a significant component of Thailand's overall economy (esp. in terms of "hard currency" or "export-of-services" earnings), somewhere between 5% and 15% depending how who's doing the analysis and how much of the "spin-off"/"indirect" economic activity related to the Commercial Sex Industry is accounted for.
As with any large-scale industry, in order to maintain itself and prosper, there must be a constant supply of new labor, probably about 5% of the overall labor force each year to replace those who retire or, for various reasons, drop out.
Estimates of the direct labor involved range from 500,000 to as much as 2 million Thai females working full or part-time, generally speaking between the ages of 20 and 40. 
Which means each year between 25,000 to 100,000 new or replacement Commercial Sex Workers are required to keep this large and important economic sector going.
Clearly, successfully maintaining such a large volume of new recruits each and every year is not simply a factor or "individual morality" or "individual human frailty" so much as a result of a certain type of social structure and social circumstances.
Among these circumstances, the following seem to me to be key drivers in channeling so many young Thai females into seeking employment in Thailand's thriving Commercial sex Industry:
1.  Low and poor quality education levels which reduce potential opportunities and choice for remunerative or hi-valued added employment.
2.  Low wage levels for non-skilled and low-education workers along with huge disparities between so-called "normal" employment and "successful" (in the economic sense) Commercial Sex Work. IE, an average low-skilled job in Thailand might pay a low-education worker 10,000 baht or less a month while a "successful" Commercial Sex Worker with the same education level might earn ten times (or even more) per month. Not a small incremental difference but a really large difference.
3. Thailand has one of the world's highest rates of teenage pregnancy. Abortion is technically illegal as well as culturally frowned on within Thailand's Buddhist/Karma way of thinking. And once a young Thai female (often unmarried) has a baby, she acquires a large multi-year financial responsibility.
4. There is almost no effective Alimony or Child Support system in Thailand, especially in rural Thailand, which means the financial consequences of teenage pregnancy and birth fall almost solely to the young mother and almost none to the father.
5. In the absence of a meaningful government pension system in rural Thailand, many retired parents too old  or sick to work are partially or solely dependent on their daughters to provide them with some form of pension or living expenses. After a lifetime of work, in which they may never have earned more than a few thousand dollars per year (or even less), the parents will seldom have managed to accumulate meaningful savings. Without their daughter(s) sending them money every month, they could not live.
On an optimistic note, I think some countries in the world have managed to successfully re-structure their societies with various political, education, social and economic policies to alter the above circumstances and have seen radical reductions in the numbers of their own citizens who are channeled into their Commercial Sex Industries.
Thailand is already experiencing this trend as each year, more and more commercial sex workers are imported  or trafficked into Thailand from the even lower income/lower education neighboring countries Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Generally speaking, while this does not necessarily reduce the size and scale of a country's overall Commercial Sex Industry (as in Japan for instance where there is a very large Commercial Sex Industry staffed to a large degree by tens of thousands [maybe even hundreds of thousands] female sex workers imported from other, lower income/lower education level countries than Japan such as Thailand and the Philippines), I think it is beneficial to a country's own female citizens (and to the country as a whole) to have more economic, educational and social opportunities for its female citizens and fewer overwhelming financial demands and almost impossible responsibilities that make choosing to be a commercial sex worker the best option among only bad choices.

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