Thai museum tackles stigma surrounding sex workers

A punching bag with phrases used to describe sex workers at Empower Foundation's This Is Us museum in Nonthaburi province, just outside Bangkok. Visitors are invited to put on the boxing gloves and have a go at demolishing such prejudices.
A punching bag with phrases used to describe sex workers at Empower Foundation's This Is Us museum in Nonthaburi province, just outside Bangkok. Visitors are invited to put on the boxing gloves and have a go at demolishing such prejudices. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

The first thing you see before you enter Thailand's first sex workers museum is an antique wood and cast iron sewing machine.

It sits there, before a multi-coloured display case filled with high- heeled shoes, plastic models of fruit, a penis-shaped ashtray and small figurines of couples copulating in various positions, as a symbol of the vast and misunderstood world that sex workers inhabit.

"People keep giving us sewing machines," said Ms Chantawipa Apisuk, the founder of Empower Foundation, an organisation that aims to improve sex workers' lives, which opened the museum just outside Bangkok in September.

"People believe that they should stop selling sex and work with the sewing machine because it's good work for women," she told The Straits Times. "But you are moving people who earn 2,000 baht (S$80) a day to earning 20 baht a day. Will most women who do sex work, want to earn 20 baht a day?"

The veteran sex worker advocate is familiar with such daily contradictions, having long tried to change attitudes in a country that made its name as a recreation hub for American soldiers during the Vietnam War, and which still draws a substantial number of sex tourists despite outlawing prostitution since 1960.

Today, in key sections of Bangkok and other tourist havens, massage parlours offering "special" services are a common sight, as are streetwalkers and itinerant vendors hawking dildos, lubricants and Viagra pills of unknown origin.

Called This Is Us, the museum on the third floor of Empower's office in Nonthaburi province hopes to give some context to all of that.

A large mural featuring a seafaring junk adorns the first wall panel. Next to it, there is a note stating that an official in the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya was licensed to run an elite brothel in 1680. The brothel's services cost between 50 satang and four baht, enough to buy at least 15kg of rice in those days. (A hundred satang make up one baht.)

Early female immigrants from China, unable to find other types of work, expanded the sex industry by running "tea houses" where customers could have tea, a bath and sexual services, the museum explains.

Migrant women are a strong theme in the museum. An entire wall panel bears a mural of the world map, guarded by papier mache dolls of women in various ethnic dress from the region.

It is a stark reminder that Thailand hosts a large number of migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, many of whom turn to prostitution as a way out of grinding poverty while others fall prey to human traffickers.

A mini-bar, a bathtub and a pole dance platform help the visitor visualise the environment in which sex workers ply their trade.

More heartbreaking are the three-dimensional figures in picture frames on a shelf. Scenes depict a sex worker scrubbing the shoulder of a customer in a bathtub, women on a platform waiting to be picked by clients and a woman sprawled over a bar table in a drunken stupor.

But a boxing ring in one corner makes no room for self-pity, when paired with a punching bag covered with the phrases "sex slaves", "disgrace to women" and seurm sia - or "shame". A pair of boxing gloves hung nearby invites visitors to have a go at demolishing such prejudices, which are well and alive.

Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul in July vowed to clamp down on the sex trade.

"Tourists don't come to Thailand for such a thing. They come here for our beautiful culture," she told Reuters. "We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone."

The idea was privately dismissed by those familiar with the entrenched nature of Thailand's sex trade.

Given the ingrained prejudice against sex work, the museum has attracted far more international visitors than Thai nationals. "They are not ready," Ms Chantawipa says.

Foreigners meanwhile turn up, at times in large groups, at this nondescript corner by a flyover. While the museum is open from Wednesday to Friday afternoons, visitors must call to make an appointment. Entry costs 100 baht.

Ms Chantawipa estimates there are some 300,000 sex workers in the country. In the long run, she says, the solution lies in providing proper healthcare as well as better education for sex workers.

This would widen their options, beyond just sewing skills that may banish them to another anonymous - and lower paying - sweatshop.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline Thai museum tackles stigma surrounding sex workers. Subscribe