A Korean Perspective on the Future of the Thai Bar Scene
For a while now, Stick has been saying that the quality and cost of working girls in Thailand are doomed to decline. The logic is simple: Thailand is becoming more advanced with more economic and educational opportunities, so why would women still resort to being whores? In a recent weekly column, Stick says: “Recruiting used to be easy, but with Thailand's economy now more diverse, more developed, with compulsory education increased from 6 to 9 years and the country experiencing full employment, girls have more options these days and don't have to resort to bar work.”
This makes intuitive sense and I hate to disagree with Stick who is perhaps one of the world’s experts on Thai prostitution. However, I think he’s dead wrong on this. The logic rests on one faulty assumption: prostitution is one of the least desirable professions in the world.
That’s certainly true in a Christian culture where sexual guilt is at the core of concepts of morality, but I don’t think this necessarily applies in non-western societies. And to argue this point, I’d like to bring up the phenomenon of South Korea.
I am not Korean but my wife is, and she has been more honest and detailed about the seedier sides of Korean culture than most Koreans are. Of the many discussions we’ve had, she’s told me stories about classmates who were working girls, room salons (clubs with private rooms where men hire women to entertain and fxxx them, often in groups), and so on. From what I understand, prostitution revolves around a few establishments in Korea:
1. Room salons (the best quality and most expensive girls are here)
2. Walking streets with rooms where women stand behind floor-to-ceiling glass windows to sell themselves (not unlike Amsterdam—I’ve seen this in person; very low quality girls)
3. Massage rooms
4. Kiss rooms
5. Karaoke (noraebangs in Korean)
7. Coffee shops (you order coffee and the girl who delivers it is a prostitute)
8. Freelancers online
This is a pretty varied and large industry, and a short walk in Seoul will uncover many of these establishments in just about every neighborhood in the city. Many of these services are also easy to find in the countryside.
Plus, the women are very beautiful. I haven’t ever paid for sex in Korea, so a lot of this is unfamiliar to me. But I did see a few room salon girls in Korea and my experience confirms what my wife has said about prostitutes she has known when she lived there: the women are gorgeous. Very slim, feminine, well-dressed, well behaved, and professional women are the norm, not the exception.
We can make two conclusions from these phenomena. Firstly, employers can choose from the cream of the crop when hiring working girls. This means there is no shortage of beautiful women willing to join the trade, no matter how it’s perceived in South Korea. Secondly, the industry itself is still very much booming, despite prostitution being illegal and South Korea being one of the richest economies in Asia or, really, the world.
Thailand is not Korea, of course, so its prostitution industry may evolve differently. But we shouldn’t hasten to conclude that prostitution will get smaller as an industry and the girls will get uglier and/or more desperate as they get more empowered by education and job opportunities. That hasn’t happened in Korea (or in Japan, from what I’ve heard). It may happen in Thailand for some reasons specific to Thai culture that I’m unaware of, but I wouldn’t be hasty to conclude that the women are eager to leave the industry because sex work is so undesirable. It smells like a very Christian, western, white idea.
I can think of a few ways in which Thailand is different from Korea and that will impact its prostitution industry in different ways and directions:
1. Ethnic diversity. Thailand is a country of different peoples who, let’s be frank, manipulate and abuse each other. There is constant political tension that is largely drawn on ethnic and racial lines, with people who speak different languages and who have very different skin colors fighting one another for power and resources. For now, the Thai Chinese are on top, and that is likely to remain. So it’s also likely that the majority of people entering the bar industry will be originally from Upcountry and have Isaan/Laotian origins. For those who like a more East Asian look, this is not good—the financial incentives for girls of that style to find their way to the bar have never been strong, and will only decline. Korea is different—it’s culturally homogenous, so the girls in the sex industry look the same as girls outside of the sex industry, at least racially. But the fact that Korean girls in the industry are still very beautiful suggests that Thailand should still be able to get the best of the Isaan/Laotian style.
2. More Buddha, Less Confucius. Korea is dominated by Confucius and is really only Buddhist in name only, and even then a growing part of the country is agnostic or Christian. I don’t really know or understand Buddhist sexual mores, but this is going to have an impact on the bar industry for obvious reasons. In a way, Confucianism is conducive to a paid sex industry—men are at the moral center of the universe, women are there to serve, and a man’s duty is to provide for his family and respect his elders; as long as he does this, he has the freedom to play. Plus, it enforces a patriarchy in which older men can condone sexual play outside of marriage, which makes it more moral for the younger generation—hence the group visits to the Room Salon allow the younger generation the moral thumbs up from authority (their managers) to get sucked off by a prostitute even when wifey is waiting at home.
3. Post-Internet Economic Development. I’m not sure what this means for Thailand, but it is developing into a first-world nation after the internet, and Facebook, internet dating, and mobile phones comprise a much greater part of modern Thai culture and dating than they did in Korea when that country made its first breakaway into wealth back in the 1980s. I think this will offer Thai girls more opportunities to ply their trade or find a husband. Thus I am bullish on internet-based agency sex work and bearish on the go-go bars themselves, which are inefficient and inconvenient relics of the 20th century relative to what a girl can do with just a phone. Stick’s repeated and eye-opening articles on the agency industry and how easy it is to run suggests to me that this is going to explode and come to dominate the world of Thai sex work in the future.
4. Greater Foreign Exposure. Again, the impact of this isn’t clear and its manifestation is a bit confusing, but clearly modern Thai culture is exposed to more modern influences than Korea was in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was an embargo on Japanese culture and American influence in the form of movies, television, and so on was heavily regulated and filtered through media conglomerates and government filters. Modern day Thailand is influenced by Korean drama fantasies, Japanese movie plots, American blockbusters, Chinese music, European sports, and so on. The impact this will have on the sex trade is unclear, but surely it will influence it somehow.
In conclusion, I am confident that Thailand’s sex industry will evolve on a different trajectory from Korea’s, but I am not confident that Thailand will see its sex industry slowly fade as it becomes “modern”. That’s a western narrative that relies on Christian morality and western demographics. In all likelihood, Thai gogo bars will evolve in a new manifestation that resembles nothing like Korea’s upscale room salons or America’s depressing skid rows, and will neither be something inbetween nor a compromise between the two. But whatever it becomes, it won’t be what it is today, and a bit of understanding of how Buddhism, imperialism, the internet, and Thailand’s ethnic makeup influence the culture will help us foretell the fate of Baccara, Patpong, Cockatoo, Devil’s Den, and all the haunts that make Thailand’s sexuality so unique, monetary, and interesting.
If you were to extrapolate your argument that in Thailand prostitution is not an undesirable profession, and we consider that prostitutes can earn 5, 10 or even 20 times more as a prostitute than they would in those jobs available to them in Thailand, then why are bars (and massage parlours and other establishments where sex may be available or the staff may be available for sex) struggling to get staff?!
There are many possible answers to this question but there is one which is simple. In the past, unskilled Thais earned a pittance. In 2002 I can remember waitresses in Korat City getting 2,400 baht per month (plus tips) which was well below the minimum wage but hey, that's what they got. The economy wasn't booming, there wasn't a lot of work and they got what they could. It's not that long ago – perhaps only a couple of years – that there were factory workers in parts of Thailand earning a day rate of less than 200 baht and making around 5,000 baht per month, again barely enough to live on, let alone raise a child or two or kick back a little to their parents or other family members less fortunate. With the government increasing the minimum day rate to 300 baht, salaries so much higher than they used to be and full employment seeing significant wage inflation, now Thais can earn more than enough to live on without dropping their knickers – and that is absolutely a good thing. You have 7 Eleven employees with new iPhones, security guards buying new (admittedly lower spec model) cars and consumption has been going through the roof (although so has household debt!).
Finally, as to your assertion that Thais don't see sex work as undesirable, if that was the case, why aren't they so open about what they do?