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Asia's Best & Worst Places to be a Sex Worker

Asia's Best & Worst Places to be a Sex Worker

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand and New Zealand sound like the best places in Asia to be a prostitute because repressive laws, religions, traditions and other controls make sex workers' lives miserable, dangerous, violent and victimized elsewhere.

The worst countries to be caught possessing a condom while appearing to work as a prostitute include China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

In those countries, an unused condom can be used as evidence that a person is an illegal sex worker.

Renting bodies for money in Asia also involves niche demographics.

On the Indian subcontinent, for example, so-called "flying" sex workers are people, such as students, who work part-time.

Organizations focusing on prostitution, HIV-AIDS and legal problems discussed these and other issues at a meeting in Bangkok on Thursday (October 18) while releasing a new United Nations study titled, "Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific."

"Nearly all countries of Asia and the Pacific criminalize some aspects of sex work," said United Nations Development Program (UNDP) spokeswoman Cherie Hart.

"Criminalization increases vulnerability to HIV," she said, describing the dangers of contracting the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

"There is no evidence from countries of Asia and the Pacific that criminalization of sex work has prevented HIV epidemics among sex workers and their clients," said the report which called for "decriminalization."

English words should also change.

"The terms 'prostitution' and 'prostitute' have negative connotations and are considered by advocates of sex workers to be stigmatizing," said the 210-page report, authored by human rights lawyer John Godwin.

"The term 'sex work' is preferred," said the report, issued by UNDP and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), in partnership with the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and several non-governmental organizations across Asia.

New Zealand, and Australia's New South Wales, are models of how decriminalization of prostitution boosted condom use and slowed the spread of HIV, resulting in "extremely low or non-existent" transmission among sex workers, said the report.

"I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand," said the UNDP's HIV, Health and Development Practice director Mandeep Dhaliwal when asked which countries in Asia were the best places for them to earn a living.

Thailand is also a relatively decent place to be a prostitute because though illegal, authorities usually turn a blind eye, enabling many upmarket Thai and foreign sex workers to enjoy higher wages, cleaner environments and less hassle compared with elsewhere in Asia, said Chantawipa Apisuk, who directs Empower, a Thai foundation led by sex workers.

"I want to live and work in Thailand," said Ms. Chantawipa.

"I don't want to work in a country and be called a 'social evil.' In some countries they still call sex work a 'social evil'.

"In Thailand, although it's illegal, it's still open and a lot of people, my friends, are working."

Sex workers should enjoy the same labor conditions as factory workers or entertainers, said Ms. Chantawipa, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with her favorite slogan: "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere."

Ms. Chantawipa, who is a married mother and is not a prostitute, told the meeting, "I'm doing sex work at home, but unfortunately I don't get paid."

Her audience laughed with appreciation.

During 1996-97, she was a Harvard Law School Fellow in their International Human Rights Fellowship Program.

"Empower has just recently received a small grant project program, which started on September 1, 2012, from the U.S. Embassy, Bangkok," she said after participating on the panel and launch of the UN report.

The report also studied three categories: "sex work in private, soliciting, and brothels."

In many Asian countries, the results were "illegal, illegal, illegal," said the report.

Problems are exacerbated when do-gooders and authorities voice shrill warnings about human trafficking and forcibly "rescue" prostitutes who do not want to be "saved."

"The language of some international and regional instruments have either implied a strong link between trafficking and sex work, or conflated these concepts," it said.

Anti-trafficking laws should focus on people who have been coerced or deceived into prostitution, or minors, and not target voluntary sex workers, it said.

"Often, sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all workers are trafficked, denies the autonomy and [choice] of people who sell sex."

Prostitutes "rescued" against their will, often suffer an immediate and devastating loss of income.

Their colleagues, also working voluntarily, then often hide from authorities and end up in worse conditions where they are exploited and more vulnerable to HIV infection, the report said.

Arresting customers is also a failed strategy.

"The UNAIDS Advisory Group on Sex Work has noted that there is no evidence that 'end demand' initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life of sex workers," it said.

"Compulsory detention of sex workers, for the purpose of 'rehabilitation' or 're-education' is a highly punitive approach" used in China, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, a country also known as Burma.

"In some countries, centers are used as a source of free or cheap labor," it said.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are

(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)


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