THAILAND: A new model for the sex business
CHIANG MAI, 22 January 2007 (PlusNews) - Amid the karaoke bars and beer pubs of a 'designated entertainment area' in Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai, the 'Can Do' Bar stands out for its brightly-coloured décor, large open windows that that allow passers-by to peer inside, and a sign describing it as an "experitainment" venue.
The distinctive look hints at a more profound difference from other businesses in the district: the Can Do is a bar run by sex workers, and its mission is to prove that it is possible to run a profitable 'girlie' bar in Thailand without exploiting young women - a point that Can Do's backers say could help in the battle to protect sex workers from HIV infection.
"It's clear to us that among these girls there is a link between HIV/AIDS, and better and worse working conditions," said Liz Hilton, an advisor to Empower, a Thai nongovernmental organisation providing services and support, including English classes, to sex workers.
"To have safe sex, you need ... knowledge, skill, equipment - like condoms - and the confidence and power to use these three things," Hilton said. "Everybody knows about HIV, and how to protect themselves. But the question is, do they have control over their sex? Your working conditions give you control over sex."
Thailand, which draws an estimated 13 million foreign tourists a year, has thousands of pubs, karaoke bars, massage parlours and other entertainment venues catering to a demand for commercial sex workers. While precise figures are impossible to come by, the number of young women involved in the sex industry has been estimated to range between 500,000 and a million, including women from neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
In the 1990s, Thailand garnered praise for turning the tide of what was then one of Asia's most severe AIDS epidemics by launching a massive public awareness campaign to promote the use of condoms in all commercial sex encounters. The '100 percent condom' initiative, with the backing of the highest levels of government, was credited with reducing the number of new infections from 143,000 a year in 1991 to around 23,000 a year in 2003.
But both at the height of the government's prevention campaign, as well as now, HIV prevelence among women in the entertainment industry has always differed sharply, depending on the venue in which they worked.
Hilton attributed this to the dramatic difference in working conditions at various venues, and women's correspondingly different ability, and will, to insist on condom use.
"Clearly, anything that one is doing that will decrease vulnerability, or increase empowerment of women to make their choices, is extremely important in talking about sexual power relationships and transmission of HIV/AIDS," said Patrick Brenney, country coordinator for UNAIDS in Thailand.
In some places in Thailand, especially low-end brothels catering to migrant workers, young women are virtual captives, held in locked rooms or buildings and forced to have sex with whoever walks through the door. Insisting on condom use in these circumstances is virtually impossible, even if the girls were aware of the risk of HIV, which many aren't.
Thailand also has a large sex industry catering to foreign tourists seeking a 'good time' with seemingly willing partners, which flourishes in and around bars and other entertainment venues. Here men can meet women and take them back to their hotel for a night, or even on 'pleasure trips' during their holiday.
While the women working in these venues have more freedom to accept or refuse clients, or demand condom use, most of the establishments are highly exploitive, putting the women under financial pressure and ultimately increasing their vulnerability to HIV by making them less insistent on condom use during every encounter.
The recently opened Can Do Bar operates on different principles altogether: it was founded by a group of sex workers, who pooled their savings to rent the space and renovate it, and employs only three women - two bar tenders and a cleaner. The others are all 'freelancers', who receive no salary but are also not obliged to pay fees for using the Can Do as a place to meet clients.
Hilton said the business model for the bar was to make a profit by selling drinks, rather than by exploiting the girls who used it. "In other bars, men pay the bar and the bar makes money from you. We don't take any of your money - it's all yours. You are not paying anything for your workspace, or your safety."
The women using the bar are also required to contribute to Thailand's social security system, making them eligible for paid sick leave and other benefits.
So far, business at the Can Do has been slow - the bar is located far from areas commonly frequented by Western tourists, where there are plenty of rival bars catering to male holidaymakers. But the investors are planning promotion campaigns and hoping that business will gradually pick up.