Is Thailand the Sex Capital of the World? Only If You Want it To Be

Soi Cowboy, Bangkok – copyright JJ Harrison – Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License

As a long-time resident of Bangkok, Thailand, and one who loves the city and the people who live in it, I’m sick to death of hearing westerners talk about Thailand as “the sex capital of the world” and of all Thai girls as “prostitutes”. In reality, most of the people who say this have never been to Thailand, so how on earth would they know?

The rest who say this, of course, have been to Thailand and, what a surprise, they actually are sex tourists — so yes, to them, Thailand is the sex capital of the world. My great aunt Mildred, who just had a lovely vacation here, however would beg to differ.

One reason why Thailand has such a bad reputation about its sex industry is, unlike in the United States – which also has a large prostitution industry — in Thailand the girly bars, the strip joints and the go-go places are not hidden. They’re out there for everyone to see. Particularly the ones targeting tourists.

But, in reality, the World Health Organization estimates there are no more than a total of 150,000 to 200,000 sex workers that have worked in the sex trade in Thailand, or about one quarter of one percent of the entireThai population. (And mustn’t that put the kabosh on those western men who still insist “all Thai girls are prostitutes” – however the ones they meet at the bars they frequent, yep, I’m sure they are).

In the US meanwhile, believable estimates say more than 1 million men and women have worked as prostitutes (about the same one quarter of one percent of the population, just like Thailand), with the prostitution trade bringing in more than $14 billion a year. Arrests for prostitution alone in the US are at more than 100,000 and climbing annually.

In the US though, much of the prostitution industry is hidden from view, so Americans are often fooled into believing it’s not there. The sad reality is, even the women who are trafficked for sex in south east Asia often end up America, as indentured slaves in the US sex industry, stuck until they can afford to pay off their pimp the money they “owe him”.

Meanwhile, in Bangkok, at any time of the day or night, I can take the sky train downtown and walk around Patpong, Soi Cowboy or Nana — the three notorious places where every sex tourist in Bangkok spends 90% of their time. They’re full of bars with open doors beckoning you in, bar girls sitting on bar stools outside touting for customers or, in many cases, just eating dinner and laughing with their friends, and touts who try to persuade you to go to their bar.

It’s not scary, it’s actually not that sleazy, unless you go inside one of the bars or pay the “bar fine”, so you can take a girl back to your room. And it’s no more dangerous than most other places in Bangkok. It just……is.

Thailand too has done a good job of making sure prostitutes use condoms, which are distributed free by the government, so customers have a lower chance of catching a sexually-transmitted disease, including HIV, than they do in many US cities, where Americans often prefer to think promoting “abstinence” will do the job. (The HIV/AIDS rate in Thailand is actually falling every year, whereas in the US unfortunately it’s increasing).

The sex industry for Thai men in Thailand is hidden, and it’s a larger industry than what foreigners see of the one aimed at them. But this is also included in the 150,000 to 200,000 sex worker figure.

Many Thai men, of course, use the services of prostitutes. But, in a recent poll in the US, 35 percent of American men admitted they had too. Not much difference there, either.

In Bangkok, when you move away from the sex tourist areas and off into the other 99.9% of the city, you’ll never see a bar girl trying to find business, a go-go bar, a pimp, or sleaze — it’s just a city like any other and, in many respects, it’s a heckuva lot nicer.

Bangkok is full of world-class shopping malls, five-star hotels, gorgeous stores, beautiful spas, stunning temples, cool museums, amazing handicrafts and art, massive outdoor markets, upscale movie theaters, incredible restaurants, and some of the best food in the world, and the Thais are lovely.

In fact, in ten years of living in Thailand, I’ve seen evidence of the Thai sex industry probably less than a dozen times, and that’s because I’ve been in the Patpong, Nana or Soi Cowboy areas of the city, where it’s actively promoted. In my neighborhood though? Just like any neighborhood in any other large international city — nada.

As for the tourism industry in Thailand, the vast majority of tourists (I’ve read figures saying upwards of 90 percent) don’t come to Bangkok or Thailand for sex tourism, and don’t seek it out when they’re here. They’re moms, dads, grandparents, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, business men and women, all in Bangkok and Thailand to enjoy an amazing, exotic holiday, just like they would in any other parts of the world.

So, the next time somebody goes on about Thailand being the sex capital of the world, remember two things. They’re either ignorant because, never having been to Thailand they’re just reeling off a commonly and mistakenly held opinion, or they’re one of a number of western men who do come in droves to pay to have sex. Sex they don’t seem to be able to get back home and, for them……………. it probably is.

In reality however, Thailand is no more the “sex capital of the world” than is London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires or Johannesburg — all of which have thriving sex indusries — and Thai girls no more prostitutes than British, French, Dutch, American, Brazilian or South African girls.