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Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, socially responsible tourism, Thailand

Sex Tourism in South East Asia

 What is sex tourism?

 ‘I ordered Beer Lao. Then he said “I have lady for you”, I said “sure”. That’s how easy it was.. I only paid about $20-$25 a day to the lady!’ 

Sex tourism is the act of travelling to procure sexual services. It involves a lot of different scenarios, countries, nationalities, ages, and sexual preferences. However it has one common denominator. It, without question, subjects a huge number of people to intolerable abuse, the vast majority of them women and children. It is inextricably linked to trafficking of persons, physical and mental abuse, specifically child abuse, slavery and organised crime. It can be generally divided, but by no means isolated, into two types, adult sex tourism and child sex tourism. These activities are carried out by the same people and organisations. By engaging in either ‘type’ you are directly economically and culturally reinforcing the perpetuation of all of the evils listed above.   

There are few activities older and more universally ingrained in industrialised society than the demand for commercial sex. Globalisation has played its part in the massive increase in the age old profession of prostitution and countries in South East Asia (S.E.A hereafter) are cashing in. We must clarify that when we talk of S.E.A here we are referring to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma inclusively as these countries host a large amount of sex tourists.  

What is child sex tourism?

Child sex tourism as you may have guessed is the act of travelling to procure the sexual services of children. Over 2 million children globally are involved in the sex industry. It strikes a particular nerve as the exploitation of children in especially repulsive to main stream society. The fact that children are more easily manipulated, mentally and physically controlled, innocent and vulnerable magnifies the horrendousness of their use in the sex industry. 

Why does it take place?

There are numerous reasons as to why sex tourism occurs and they subsist on different levels. At an anthropological level they include global wealth imbalance, patriarchal tradition, increasing sexualisation of women in popular culture, and a loosening of sexual ethics. 

At an economic level prostitution is essentially a poverty trap. Little education, no prospects in other forms of employment, a family to sustain, homelessness and the thought of outright destitution, forces most women into the sex industry. Some women are given to money lenders as payment of a family’s debt; they are then taken to a city to work. Thailand’s northern regions are particular notorious for these deals. Global Breakthrough, an NGO working in the area, state that ‘two thirds of families who had sold a daughter could afford not to do so, but instead wanted colour TV and video equipment’. 

Other economic factors perpetuate the sex industry; the sheer scale of profit to be extracted through the abuse of women and children provides enough for even governments and their agents to become interested in enriching themselves by it. This takes place in two main ways, the first is supposedly legitimate tax revenue achieved through legalising the industry, and the second is clandestine payment of bribes to local police or government officials.

At a more base level, sex tourism takes place because there is a demand from men to have relatively cheap, no strings attached sex, and travelling to a poorer country is a way to satisfy their demand. It has always been a demand-supply phenomenon with the former outweighing the latter. It is the desire of men to engage in commercial sex that causes the industry to exist.

What is trafficking?

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person for the purpose of exploitation. (UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime)

Sex trafficking is the process that delivers victims into prostitution. It includes the recruitment, harbouring, movement, and methods by which victims are compelled to stay in prostitution, whether by violence, coercion, threat, debt, or cultural manipulation.

Who is involved?

Those who procure sex, prostitutes, exploiters, including traffickers (those who deal in the movement of people), pimps, brothel owners, organized crime members, and corrupt official’s make-up what is known as the sex industry.

Estimates as to how many sex tourist visit Thailand each year (the most popular S.E.A sex tourism destination) are around 5 million. Official estimates put the number of prostitutes in Thailand to be at least half a million, while 1 in 20 is enslaved.  In Cambodia around 40% of prostitutes are under 18, Vietnam estimates its prostitute population to be around 70,000. It is estimated that around 20 to 30 thousand Burmese prostitutes operate in Thailand.   The total estimated number of adult prostitutes in S.E.A  is around 1 million.  

An importation of sex workers from other countries takes place, with women and children coming to Thailand specifically from Uzbekistan, China and the other S.E.A states.  Women are also exported from Thailand to Australia and the Middle East to work in the sex industry.

It must be stressed that nationals of S.E.A countries make up the vast majority of those engaging as customers in their domestic sex industries. For example 80% of sex industry customers in Thailand are Thai men. The use of prostitutes in Thailand is customary, one study by Yayori, Women in the New Asia, found that 90 % of Thai male University students had used prostitutes.  

Who benefits?

Those who benefit economically from the sex industry in S.E.A are the traffickers, pimps, bar owners, the police and government. There are also those who benefit from the often unbelievably cheap services (as little as £4 for intercourse): the customers. 

Who is exploited?

Those who provide sexual services are, almost without exception, those who concede the largest disadvantage. It is a much heralded myth touted by those who pay for sex that women in the sex industry are acting upon free will, that they choose with some consideration to perform sex acts for money. The actual situation is that a small minority are enslaved, meaning that they will be beaten or killed if they try to escape a bar or brothel in which they are employed. The large majority of sex workers are economically trapped, needing the money to pay for often large families in rural areas. Girls are sold to brothels for an average of $2,000.

The prevalence of AIDS in the S.E.A sex industry is alarming, for example in Burma 32% of prostitutes are infected. Thailand and Cambodia have initiated safe sex programs in their sex industries so rates are lower but still generally high.


What’s being done to stop it?

In most countries in S.E.A prostitution is illegal, yet the act of prostitution is largely tolerated. The vast wealth that can be extracted from those exploited demotivates any real efforts to outlaw it. Failures in successfully prosecuting cases of abuse are also too common Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT) reported in 2003 that ‘an in-depth documentation of 65 cases

found that only 25% of the offenders were actually imprisoned for the crimes that they committed, another 25% received suspended sentences, 18% jumped bail, 12% were dismissed and 15% were excused on non-prosecution orders’

Western countries have over the last decade moved to create law which allows child sex tourists to be prosecuted in their home country thought extradition treaties. The US government has been especially active in hunting child sex tourists in Cambodia, prosecuting 85 offenders in the last ten years.

NGOs play a big role in rescuing women from enforced prostitution. Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT) has been pivotal in Thailand’s organised tourism response. A voluntary code of conduct has been developed to give support to those businesses comprising tourist infrastructure.  Those involved in the code of conduct for tourism related industries includes International Hotel and Restaurant Association, Federation of International Youth Travel Organizations, Tour Operators’ Initiative for Sustainable Tourism Development,  but these institutions and business groups generally work outside of the world of organised child or adult sex tourism, so there impact can only be limited. 

Small initiatives from ECPAT, World Vision and international governments created films and posters that have been shown on flights to S.E.A reminding people to be vigilant for child sex tourists and provide points of contact for those who wish to report suspected abuse. 

Our experience of the sex industry is minimal in that we have watched old men grope young Asian women as they buy them trinkets and desperately hold on to the falsified feeling of a blossoming relationship. We attended an infamous ‘ping-pong’ show in Bangkok that brought home the reality of a much hyped, rose tinted sex industry. As the last punters of the night we sat alone, isolated as women degraded themselves with blow darts and razor blades. As their ‘piece’ finished they would leave the stage and sit, dormant, dejected. There were no howling crowds, no chauvinism, only dead eyes and broken dreams.

When the smoke screen of tourists having a good time, women earning good money for work they ‘enjoy’ and win-win situations is removed you are left with a grim reality:  women and children are abused for a good time and a profit. 

What can we do as tourists?

The change starts with tourists, we should not engage in sex tourism of any kind from a moral standpoint. By using these often illegal services we create a demand which is filled by trafficking women and children. It is largely understood by all international organisations working in the area that prostitution cannot be separated, they are inextricably linked.

As tourists we should be aware that child sex tourism is taking place in the destinations we visit and  be prepared to take action against it when we are aware of it. Below are some actions you can take:

  • Be vigilant when you travel to high risk countries. Avoid bars and hotels and other places where you suspect child sexual exploitation might be happening
  • Don’t visit red light districts. This encourages the proliferation of child sexual exploitation. Even the most innocent of purchases provides indirect financial support for this crime.
  • If you suspect child sex tourism when you are abroad, report it to the local police inform the nearest  or access www.cybertip.ca to report it. Tell your tour guide and hoteliers. Encourage them to inform tourists that sex tourism is a crime.
  • When you return home, let your travel agent and tour operator know of your observations and encourage them to take action.
  • Visit http://www.thecode.org/ to find out the tour operators and travel agencies that have committed to fight against child sex tourism by signing on to an international code of conduct for the tourism industry. if you can use their services, then do.


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