Thai sex workers: Anti-trafficking Rescues are Our Biggest Problem

We have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers.

This statement comes from the founder of Empower on the occasion of their report Hit and Run: The impact of anti-trafficking policy and practice on Sex Workers’ Human Rights in Thailand. This assessment, carried out by more than 200 sex workers over the course of 12 months in bars, restaurants and brothels across the country and in Burma and Laos, begins:

We travel for days up the mountains, across rivers, through dense forest. We follow the paths that others have taken. Small winding paths of dust or mud depending on the season. I carry my bag of clothes and all the hopes of my family on my back. I carry this with pride; it’s a precious bundle not a burden. As for the border, for the most part, it does not exist. There is no line drawn on the forest floor. There is no line in the swirling river. I simply put my foot where thousands of other women have stepped before me. My step is excited, weary, hopeful, fearful and defiant. Behind me lies the world I know. It’s the world of my grandmothers and their grandmothers. Ahead is the world of my sisters who have gone before me, to build the dreams that keep our families alive. This step is Burma. This step is Thailand. That is the border.

If this was a story of man setting out on an adventure to find a treasure and slay a dragon to make his family rich and safe, he would be the hero. But I am not a man. I am a woman and so the story changes. I cannot be the family provider. I cannot be setting out on an adventure. I am not brave and daring. I am not resourceful and strong. Instead I am called illegal, disease spreader, prostitute, criminal or trafficking victim.

Why is the world so afraid to have young, working class, non-English speaking, and predominantly non-white women moving around? It’s not us that are frequently found to be pedophiles, serial killers or rapists. We have never started a war, directed crimes against humanity or planned and carried out genocide. It’s not us that fill the violent offender’s cells of prisons around the world. Exactly what risk does our freedom of movement pose? Why is keeping us in certain geographical areas so important that governments are willing to spend so much money and political energy? Why do we feel like sheep or cattle, only allowed by the farmer to graze where and when he chooses? Why do other women who have already crossed over into so many other worlds, fight to keep us from following them? Nothing in our experiences provides us with an answer to these questions.

A hundred-page report follows. Excerpts from Sex ‘trade’, not ‘traffic’, a news story on the report include:

The survey determined that more than 50,000 sex workers have been involved with Empower since it started [in 1985] including migrants mainly from Laos, Burma, China and Cambodia…

Migration, it was noted, is part of the “culture” of sex work, and the brokers involved in transporting people are generally seen as helpful. Most don’t charge exorbitant rates for their service…

“We came to build new lives for our families, not to be sent home empty-handed and ashamed,” explained Dang Moo, another Burmese sex worker in Mae Sot…

“Before I was arrested I was working happily, had no debt, and was free to move around the city,” said Nok, a Burmese. “Now I’m in debt, I’m scared most of the time, and it’s not safe to move around. How can they call this ‘help’?”…

For those dropping into this website for the first time and not familiar with the issues except for what you’ve seen on television or in the newspapers, I have put together a list of links to stories about ‘rescues’ not appreciated by those defined as victims. This does not mean the migrants or sex workers or prostitutes were all perfectly happy with everything about their lives; it means they did not want whatever attempt to help was forced on them as part of anti-sex trafficking operations, and in many cases felt their lives had been ruined by Rescue. The Rescue Industry tag on this website includes many more posts with more resources, but here is an array of striking commentaries on what so few people question: the efficacy of Rescue operations.

And just to make it clear this problem of imposing victimisation and Rescue on women who sell sex is quite old, consider

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

19 thoughts on “Thai sex workers: Anti-trafficking Rescues are Our Biggest Problem

  1. Dan

    “For those dropping into this website for the first time and not familiar with the issues except for what you’ve seen on television or in the newspapers, I have put together a list of links to stories about ‘rescues’ not appreciated by those defined as victims.”

    That’ll be me, then. Thanks for the links. I look forward to reading them later.

  2. Pingback: Dr Laura Agustín and Thai sex workers: Anti-trafficking Rescues are Our Biggest Problem « WoWasis TravelBlog

  3. Sarah

    I really enjoed reading these great links that provide a different and fresh perspective on the topic. I have read and utilized your book, Sex at the Margins, during my studies and am always inspired by your work. I hope to pursue my Masters in Women Studies focusing on these very issues, human trafficking, red light districts, migration for sex work, etc. Thank you!

  4. Maxine Doogan

    Great resource links. Thanks so much.
    yes I read the report. Great job Thailand.
    I love that it was done with cooperation amongst sex workers something you don’t see here in the US.

  5. Aphrodite Phoenix

    As the author of They Bad Girls or Brilliant?, you can easily guess from the title that my reaction to your article is grateful and admiring! And just like everyone else is saying, thanks so much for those great links!

  6. Rachel

    I was particularly interested to read the articles whose titles suggested that trafficked women had rejected rescue attempts. Those articles are about women who have freely chosen to migrate for sex work.

    So why are you using the word ‘trafficked’ to describe them? You rightly criticise the rescue industry for doing this, but you do it too. It trivialises the suffering of women who have genuinely been trafficked just as much when you do it.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      I don’t believe there is a clear line to be drawn between the fully free and willing worker who knew everything beforehand and the enslaved person. A couple of those stories are about people who were deceived and may qualify as victims of trafficking. That doesn’t mean, however, that they welcomed Rescue to whatever they had landed in. I do not use the term ‘freely chosen’ and people like some of these do not think of themselves as ‘migrant sex workers’.

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