A Bangkok girly bar in the days before Thailand's hotspots went cold. Photo: AFP

No Asian government will admit how much its economy depends on the sex industry, and perhaps ironically, it is the country that until recently had the most open sex trade in the region that has been one of the most guilty of obvious denialism.

As Asia Times has reported, the Covid-19 panic has closed the doors on bars, “karaoke” joints, massage parlors, brothels, and everything from the sleaziest watering holes to the swankiest nightclubs all over Asia.

As the disease itself, with the exception of a few small pockets, has infected relatively tiny numbers of people in this region, it is the fear-inspired response to the coronavirus that has caused the most damage, and as with all prohibition campaigns, “lockdowns” have hit all sources of entertainment, legitimate and otherwise, especially hard.

And that has been devastating for Thailand.

While it is true that Thailand has been successful in diversifying its tourism industry over the years, making the country more attractive to families and other “moral” travelers – and indeed, the manufacturing sector overtook tourism long ago as the main contributor to the economy – the sex trade has remained very important to national and regional GDPs.

In Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin, Chiang Mai and other centers the availability of women, men, and everything in between “on the game” is legendary.

Or it was. But over the past few months a combination of government measures, some sensible and others less so, have dimmed the red lights all over the country, and the tens of thousands of people, many from rural areas, who depended on the sex industry have left the former hotspots, now chilled into stagnation.

Well, isn’t that a good thing, you ask? Isn’t it better for the nation’s youth to find meaningful, rewarding, clean jobs instead of selling their bodies for a quick baht, risking disease, abuse, and worse?

Perhaps. But leaving aside the evidence that Thailand has for the most part brought the worst elements of the sex trade – human trafficking, child exploitation, the spread of STDs – under control, decent jobs are not easy to find, especially for the unskilled. And they are very likely to get even more scarce as manufacturers, especially in the automotive sector, scale back just as the labor pool scales up.

But apart from the boring numbers, GDP forecasts and jobless figure, the merits of the sex industry, or lack of them, are difficult to analyze objectively, because very few of us can distance ourselves from our personal prejudices, religious and/or moral values, and cultural norms. That is especially so when examining a mysterious, exotic, alien country, which for most Westerners Thailand is.

In that light, the following anecdote – based on a true story, told by someone who would prefer to remain anonymous – might, well, shed some light.

It was a bar much like hundreds, maybe thousands, of others in pre-pandemic Bangkok. Small and unremarkable, it was nonetheless popular with some older expats, as the bar girls didn’t pester the customers much for “bar fines” (the standard pimping fee, which ran from the equivalent of US$10 and up), and the DJ played old rock instead of techno-crap.

One day a young woman, apparently a denizen of the place (either a bar girl or waitress, not that there was much difference – in places like this, most were “available,” often including the cashier and sometimes the manager), entered with a little girl in tow. The child was apparently her daughter, and as it was not a school day, Mom was off work to care for her. They brought in with them a birthday cake, complete with seven candles.

The candles were lit, everyone gathered around, and the DJ put on a rock version of “Happy Birthday.”

To moral, law-abiding Westerners, it might seem inappropriate to bring a seven-year-old into such a Den of Ill Repute, but Bangkok, despite its latter-day status as a world city, is still firmly in the East. In this environment, it was just a mom giving her kid a birthday treat, and sharing it with friends in her place of business.

A place of business in a country that has one of the highest income disparities in Asia, and where the minimum wage is $10 a day.

A place of business, that is, where this young mother and thousands like her knew they could make more from a quick roll in the hay with a Westerner taking a respite from his moral, law-abiding, incorruptible homeland than she could make in a week cleaning rooms and making beds at his four-star hotel. And maybe use some of that money to give her kid opportunities that were never given to her in her youth.

Back then, before all we heard about was “social distancing” and “PPEs” and horror tales about mass graves, “the game” was so open and prevalent in Thailand that it was more difficult than in the moral West to ignore the question: Why is it that while we honor Wall Street tycoons, usurers, corporate-bought politicians and exploitative employers, we sneer at people, mostly women, who earn their living from giving people pleasure?

People, mostly women, who like the rest of us want nothing more than to care for their families, the very old and the very young especially, and who often do so at great personal risk because they are denied the police and legal protections we moral folk take for granted?

Regardless of whether or not the old raunchy side of Thailand returns to “normal,” those aren’t questions that can be answered, not yet. To attempt to do so would raise too many other questions about the nature of law, of morality, and – scariest of all – of sex.

The little girl of this anecdote will have many more birthdays before any society acquires the courage to take on that kind of self-examination.

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.

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