Published on The Daily Femme – Friday, Feb. 11, 2011
Contributed by Annamarya
It’s no secret that I am a proponent of decriminalizing prostitution and working to legitimize an industry that’s often seen as salacious, immoral and taboo. It’s about building a sex-positive society. It is about, as I’ve written before for The Daily Femme, a legalization that, while in no way will stop the exigency, violence, and profiteering of the sex trade industry, will allow workers to practice it “without the fear of being reprimanded, thus allowing them to enforce safer practices amongst themselves and within brothels.” This is not to ignore the harrowing reality of sex trafficking, but just to say that not every sex worker is a statistic.
It’s an idea that Thailand’s Can Do Bar has put into practice for the last five years. According to Global Post’s article, Thailand: Can sex work and ethics mix?, Can Do is an unassuming pimp-free establishment where profits are split among the “rotating cast” of 30-odd female sex workers/bar operators, who dress in modest clothes like jeans and a t-shirt. It was opened in 2006 with help from Thai-fluent Australian Liz Hilton of Thailand-based sex workers’ rights coalition, Empower Foundation, and the rest of Empower’s sex worker membership, who used $300,000 of their own funds to do so after becoming exasperated from working to have sex work recognized under Thailand’s social security scheme and labor laws. Can Do’s “sex workers-turned-entrepreneurs,” 80 percent of which are single moms in the 18 to 66 age range, call the place “experitainment.” Unlike the country’s other sex work establishments, at Can Do, the industry’s “cutthroat practices,” like being laid off for gaining weight, are eliminated. In addition, employees receive one day off per week and two weeks of vacation time, cannot be forced by customers to consume “lady drinks” (watered-down, overpriced cocktails), and aren’t punished by slashed pay if “monthly quotas of ‘lady drinks’ and customers paying to take them away” are missed. The “bar fine,” which is paid to the owner for “his employee’s time” spent away from the bar (where sex occurs) is also non-existent.
More so, it’s a matter of urging others in Thailand’s sex industry, which includes anywhere from 77,000 (says the Thai government) to over 300,000 sex workers (say regional non-government groups), to “expect more from their employers.”
Of course, Can Do has some opponents, like Thai feminist scholar and founder of Thailand’s first women studies program at Chiang Mai University, Viranda Somswasdi, who remarked: “If they’re promoting prostitution as work, well, that’s still commercializing women. They’re still submitting their bodies to becoming objects for a man’s sexual desires. Do women deserve that? After all the contributions we’re made to society?” It’s easy to see where Somswasdi is coming from–after decades of battling sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse, and rising above the expectation of beauty and body to work in industries reliant on one’s intelligence, why would any woman work in a field that is riddled with all three? But asking that question, and assuming most, if not all, sex workers are forced into the trade is problematic. It removes the power and strength women have over their body and choices. It is, by all means, asserting that women are not responsible for themselves, especially when sex is involved. Why is it not possible that a smart, bright woman with a degree (or multiple ones) can choose the sex trade of her own free will? (It is–a close friend of mine is proof). As Mai, a 25-year-old sex worker at Can Do, puts it: ”Most of Thai society says we’re prostitutes and body sellers. Why can’t they see it like selling cars? We’re just here to offer a service.”
While Somswasdi does not see these women as “wrong-doers,” she says they are still exploited. But to that assertion, I ask how? How are women who choose sex work “exploited” any more than women who choose other professions that rely on the body, such as lingerie modeling? When you consider how often women who model lingerie are regarded more for the beauty of their physique rather than the apparel they are advertising, what is, then, the fundamental difference between the two?
But what I really want to know is: Why do we see women as so incapable of being in control of themselves, their actions, and their bodies?