Asia's Dirty Secret

By Kuo, Michelle | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Asia's Dirty Secret

Kuo, Michelle, Harvard International Review

Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in Southeast Asia

While prostitution has an ancient history, the globalization of the sex trade is an unprecedented phenomenon. Despite recent exposure of the brutalities of prostitution and sex trafficking and the accompanying flurry of international and domestic resolutions, the sex industry in Southeast Asia remains a hugely profitable and deeply entrenched enterprise that thrives on the exploitation of women and children.

For Asian countries intent on reaching the developed world's level of prosperity, the sex industry has provided a disturbingly steady flow of capital. Approximately 60 percent of Thailand's tourists visit solely for sexual purposes, for example. The transnationalization of the sex trade can be seen easily in the countless travel brochures and websites devoted to prostitution and sex trafficking; these advertisements, urging a global clientele to explore Asia, boast of the submissiveness of Asian prostitutes, perpetuating stereotypes that enhance the trade.

Female prostitutes, many of them children, often begin in rural communities in Malaysia and are coerced into urbanized industries in the United States or Japan. Child prostitution in Southeast Asia continues to increase at 20 percent a year. One fifth of prostitutes in Thailand begin their work between the age of 13 and 15. The increases in prostitution and trafficking also partially explain the dramatic rise in sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HJV infections. In Thailand, approximately over 1.5 million women are afflicted with HIV. The UNAIDS Programme, warning that half of the HIV infections in Asia occur in people under the age of 25, argues that the AIDS epidemic in Southeast Asia will soon rival the situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

The United States has played a crucial role in the growth of the Southeast Asian sex sector. Although prostitution in the region certainly existed before, US presence in Korea and Vietnam propelled the explosion of large-scale, formalized businesses oriented specifically toward sex. The sex industry created during the Vietnam War grossed US$16 million for the Thai economy. Between 1957 and 1964, when the US established seven bases in the country; the number of prostitutes rose from 20,000 to an astonishing 400,000. At the time, one South Vietnamese explained, "The Americans need girls; we need dollars. Why should we refrain from the exchange? It's an inexhaustible source of US dollars for the state."

Following the war, the Thai government, like other Asian governments, was left with the challenge of replacing the capital garnered from the brothels surrounding the military bases. Part of the development strategy became a race among governments to utilize the most profitable resources they had to offer: young rural women desperate to raise money for their families. Women who escape sexual slavery or coercion may still choose prostitution because jobs for women are scarce and low-paying. This scarcity of other high-paying alternatives forces many of these women into a cycle of exploitation and susceptibility to sexually transmitted diseases.

Southeast Asian government policies concerning the sex sector are often characterized by ambiguity. They officially prohibit prostitution, yet acknowledge and legitimize its existence. In many cases, the police and local officials' corruption, bribery, and active participation as customers guarantee the abuse of prostitutes will go unpunished, hence eliminating any hope for the enforcement of legislation. The refusal of Asian governments to declare the sex industry an economic institution has pushed the sector underground. While prostitutes are vulnerable to battery as well as criminal arrest, an unstated code of immunity protects the brothel owners, abusive clientele, and pimps from government reproof.

Supply and Demand

The growth of the sex industry in Southeast Asia is not an accidental by-product of poverty. …

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