In a good week, Nupchan could earn up to $230 — three times the minimum wage — from the throng of tourists that would sweep in and out of Chiang Mai, a city in the hills of northern Thailand famed for its gilded temples and cleansing retreats.
As a sex worker, Nupchan catered to their more carnal tastes.
Since the government imposed a nationwide lockdown March 18, halting most business and inbound flights, though, her clientele has vanished — and with it her livelihood. With the country’s bars, clubs and massage parlors forced shut, the pandemic has pumped the brakes on a billion-dollar business.
The red-light districts of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket, once throbbing with dance music and a rainbow of neon lights, have gone quiet and dark. For all its typically gaudy pomp, though, Thailand’s sex industry is technically illegal, which makes it hard to take its measure.
A 2003 government study put the value of the industry at $4.3 billion, according to Empower, a local nongovernment group that supports sex workers. A former Thai politician and massage parlor owner raised the figure to $6.4 billion in 2012. Estimates of the number of people the industry puts to work range from 100,000 to 300,000.
Empower and others say the vast majority are now out of a job, and quickly burning through their modest savings and belongings.
“It’s been really stressful. I’m thinking a lot about how to cut costs, how to spend less and less, and how to make money,” said Nupchan, who gave only her first name for fear of arrest.
“I’ve pawned everything I had,” she said. “All my rings, necklaces, jewelry. I’ve pawned all of it.”
Many are mothers
Like most sex workers, Nupchan also has family members who depend on her income — two older brothers and a grandmother. Many are mothers themselves.
Liz Hilton, Empower’s director, said those who could go home have done so to save on rent and, for those whose families have farms, work the land while the lockdown lasts. Others have been forced to stay put by travel restrictions or closed borders.
Surang Janyam, director of Service Workers in Group (SWING), another support group for those in the trade, said her staff recently found about 20 sex workers who could no longer afford their rent sleeping rough in the hills outside of Pattaya, a seedy seaside city popular with sex tourists.
With few other options, some sex workers continue to ply their trade as well as they can, taking their chances with the coronavirus and swapping the relative safety of their old bars and clubs for a sidewalk or street corner.
“The people are afraid of the COVID, but what can they do if they have no money?” said Surang. “They have to try to work.”
More would choose to keep working if there were more customers but those in the business say fear of the virus and lockdown rules have dented demand as much as supply.
Lacking legal employment, sex workers are also ineligible for the monthly benefits the government has been providing those put out of a job by the lockdown to tide them over, making a bad situation worse.
A survey of about 100 sex workers by SWING found that only 23 had even bothered applying for the monthly handouts and that only four did so successfully — and only by concealing the nature of their work.
Hilton said the sex workers Empower has been in touch with through the lockdown have had better luck, with about half of them securing the new benefits. Even then, though, they omitted the sex they have for cash and mentioned only the ancillary work.
“Sex can be just five minutes of the job,” she said. “There’s a lot of waiting, serving drinks, dancing, massaging. There’s a lot of other work involved in sex work, not just sex for cash, and so they’re able to apply for all the work they do around sex.”
Migrants face extra challenges
The sex trade’s many migrant and indigenous but stateless workers, denied the emergency handouts by their lack of legal status in Thailand, can’t even do that.
Both SWING and Empower also say the coronavirus has already taken a far heavier toll on the country’s sex industry than the arrival of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Then, there was no mass shutdown of the bars, clubs and massage parlors most sex workers operate out of, and the use of condoms soon cut down the risk of catching AIDS from sex.
Now, said Hilton, “it’s not clear that there’s any way to have sex safely … [to] be protected from COVID while you’re having sex, whether it’s sex for money or not,” at least not until there’s a vaccine.
Surang said this was the worst industry downturn she has ever seen.
Having left the sex industry out of its emergency benefits plan, the government should at least give it some thought while drafting its recovery plans, SWING President Chalidaporn Songsamphan added last week during a virtual panel discussion on the country’s sex trade hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.
“If Thailand will continue to rely on … commercial sex for its revenue for the country, maybe the Thai state will have to think clearly on how to protect these workers who are so important to earn this revenue,” said Chalidaporn, an associate professor of political science at Thailand’s Thammasat University.
With new confirmed coronavirus cases per day mostly back down to the single digits, the government started allowing restaurants, barbershops and some other businesses to reopen earlier this month. On Thursday it announced that it would be lifting the lockdown in full July 1.
In time, the bright lights of Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy and the country’s other hedonistic hot spots will flicker on again, the bars will open their doors, and the customers will be back, if slowly and in smaller numbers than before, and Nupchan will be waiting for them, with or without a vaccine.
“Of course I will be afraid and nervous,” she said. “I’m not sure how we will protect ourselves. We can wear masks and things like that, but there’s no real plan for how to protect ourselves and our customers.”