• Athena Ives

Supply & Demand

Sex Trafficking in Thailand

Strolling down the popular Walking Street in Pattaya, Thailand, tourists are greeted by scantily clad Thai women enticing those passing by to come into the Go-Go clubs and bars. Even though prostitution is illegal in Thailand this does not mean it doesn’t take place. Sexual tourism is defined as “the organization of vacations with the purpose of taking advantage of the lack of restrictions imposed on prostitution and other sexual activities by some foreign countries” (Leheny, 1995). According to Martin and Jones (2012), approximately 250,000 men from Western countries travel to Thailand as sex tourists annually. Statistics show that there is a high demand for sex workers and this is not limited to those of legal age. All though it is difficult to track, an estimated 200 men from New Zeeland engage in sex with a child in Asia every week (Martin & Jones, 2012). To accommodate the high demand for sex tourism, a form of slavery called human sex trafficking is often used to fulfill these needs.

Statistics have demonstrated that Thailand depends on tourism, especially the sex industry. Statistics have also shown that a significantly high number of sex tourists come to Thailand specifically for sex with children under the age of 16. According to the Human Trafficking Report of 2014, Thailand is a Tier 3 country. This means that Thailand is “a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking” (US Department of State, 2014). The report estimated that there are over three million migrant workers in Thailand of which tens of thousands are trafficked for the purposes of sex.

According to the United States Department’s 2014 Report of Trafficked Persons, there is not an accurate number of annual trafficked Thai nationals, but it is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. These are only individuals that have been identified as trafficked individuals (U.S. Department of State, 2014). These Thai nationals are typically trafficked to the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, and China for purposes of sexual and labor exploitations. They have also found a significant number of Thai nationals in Australia, the United States, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Timor-Leste (U.S. Department of State, 2014). The sex industry is a difficult one to calculate the number of those that enter into prostitution through trafficking. Bales (2004) found that there was a link between prostitutes with no legal documents and human trafficking and the number of prostitutes in Thailand with no legal documents were found to be estimated at thirty-five thousand. This is roughly 5% of all prostitutes in Thailand (Bales, 2004).

Being the oldest trade in history, prostitution in Thailand had an early start. The first documentation of prostitution in Thailand dates back to the seventeenth century when a Thai official obtained a license which monopolized the sex trade. Prior to this, prostitution took the form in concubines or slave wives. According to Kelly (2015), the Thai government passed a law in the nineteenth century lowering the requirements for immigration making it easy for migrants to enter Thailand and find work. This caused difficulty for Thai women looking for work (Kelly, 2015).

Western involvement in the sex industry began during the Vietnam War and Thailand became a sex tourism hotspot. Soldiers would return home telling tales of the beautiful Thai women and their sexual escapades. This triggered a phenomenon that has grown rapidly.

According to Montgomery (2007), while child prostitution and human trafficking have been common in Asia for decades, sexual tourism has entered into practice around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The theory of supply and demand combined with a significant increase in tourists is believed to be the root cause of sexual tourism. Statistics show that 10 percent of Thai citizens are under the poverty level, and there is an average of fourteen million tourists annually. Statistics have also shown that six percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) is from tourism. Due to the nature of the sex industry, it is unclear how much of this six percent is income through the sex trade. The International Labor Organization Report stated that on average Thai sex workers send $300 million (USD) to their families living in rural areas every year (Montgomery, 2007).

The dependence on tourism, an increase in the sex industry, and poverty are all risk factors that make Thai citizens significantly vulnerable to human sex trafficking. Gozdiak (2011) found that one main reason Thai women become victims of human sex trafficking is due to lack of finances. There have been numerous documented cases where the child victim of sex trafficking was sold by her family members for money. Some victims are even under the impression that their owners are helping by giving them money to send home to their families (Montgomery, 2007).


Bales, K. (2004). Disposable people: new slavery in the global economy. Berkeley, Ca: university of California Press.

Gozdiak, E. M. (2011). Data and research on human trafficking: Bibliography of research-based literature. DIANE Publishing.

Kelley, K. (2015). Patriarchy, Empire, and Ping Pong Shows: The Political Economy of Sex Tourism in Thailand.

Leheny, D. (1995). A political economy of Asian sex tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 22(2), 367-384.

Martin, D., & Jones, S. (2012). The social and reputational damage caused by western and Aussie sex tourism in Thailand.

Montgomery, H. (2007). Working with Child Prostitutes in Thailand: Problem of Practice and Interpretation. Childhood 14 (4) 415-430.

U.S. Department of State (2014). Trafficking in Persons Report. Thailand Trafficking Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2014/index.htm.