Childhood’s End

In Thailand, poverty isn't the primary reason that girls become prostitutes

For people concerned with child welfare and human rights, the rural villages of northern Thailand loom as a heart of darkness. National policies on land ownership have led to the demise of many family farms in this agricultural area during the past 30 years, so northern Thais have increasingly trekked far from home in search of jobs. A well-publicized and shocking aspect of this phenomenon has been the massive trafficking of Thai women and girls from the north in the sex industry of Bangkok and of cities in richer Asian nations.

HOME IMPROVEMENT. In a northern Thai village, one family’s house (left) displays a major renovation financed by a daughter’s prostitution proceeds, while another family with no such income lives in a far more modest dwelling (right). Mark Taylor

It’s unclear precisely how many child prostitutes Thailand has produced. The U.N.’s International Labor Organization estimates that 100,000 to 200,000 Thai women and girls work in a variety of overseas venues where sex is sold. The Protection Project, a human rights research institute in Washington, D.C., places the number of Thai females participating in Japan’s commercial sex market alone at between 50,000 and 70,000.

U.N. and human rights groups alike have assumed that prostitution and other forms of child exploitation stem from a toxic social brew of poverty mixed with a lack of education and job training. Anti-prostitution programs in northern Thailand—a farming region without a major city—now focus on promoting better schooling for girls and teaching vocational skills to villagers.

Enter Lisa Rende Taylor. An anthropologist at the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit policy-and-research organization headquartered in San Francisco, Rende Taylor directed a 14-month study of child labor, prostitution, and sex trafficking in two northern Thai villages. Her results, published in the June Current Anthropology, challenge conventional wisdom about why so many of the region’s girls end up selling their bodies in brothels, massage parlors, teahouses, and snack bars across Asia.

“Neither poverty nor lack of education are the driving forces behind trafficking of northern Thai children,” Rende Taylor says. Daughters from both poor and relatively well-off families become prostitutes in roughly equal proportions, she finds. Moreover, some girls who complete primary or even secondary levels of education also enter the sex trade.

Many northern Thai girls regard prostitution as a “bearable choice,” according to Rende Taylor, because they feel obligated to repay their parents for past sacrifices and to improve the family’s financial standing. That obligation stands even if the parents own farmland and make a decent living. In a setting devoid of any other well-paying job opportunities, the oldest profession represents the only way for a girl to make enough money to maintain or enhance her family’s property and status in the village. In landowning families, middle-born daughters are the most likely to become prostitutes.

First-born girls typically stay at home to assist their parents in daily tasks and thus rarely enter the sex trade. Middle-born girls are traditionally regarded as the family’s financial helpers. Thanks to the labor of their older sisters, last-born girls typically receive more schooling than their sisters. Still, it’s not uncommon for them, too, to spend time as prostitutes after completing the equivalent of elementary or high school. They work to recoup education costs and strengthen family finances, Rende Taylor says.

“It’s common for one female sibling to be working in the fields alongside the parents, another to be working in a bar in Bangkok, and perhaps another getting a secondary education,” remarks Rende Taylor.

In contrast, parents don’t expect much payback from sons, who move into the homes of their wives’ families after marriage.

Female prostitution in northern Thailand is often a family choice, Rende Taylor says. Therefore, interventions to stop sex trafficking must address such factors as a girl’s need to earn money for family status. Such an approach would differ from methods used elsewhere around the world, where human rights workers have good reason to suspect that many youngsters sell sex because they’ve been coerced, abandoned, kidnapped, or sold into virtual slavery to pay off parental debts.

Family ties

It’s daunting to ask women in a foreign country to talk about how many of their daughters work as prostitutes and why they permit them to do so. And it’s especially difficult to get honest answers.

In her fieldwork, Rende Taylor had two advantages in gaining the trust of residents in a pair of northern Thai farming villages, each consisting of about 150 families. First, being half-Thai herself and having relatives in a neighboring province of Thailand, she spoke the native language and looked much like the women whom she was studying. Second, her research team consisted of six women from nearby villages who were aware of how area girls were recruited to work in sex emporiums throughout Asia.

Moreover, village headmen had approved of the study and were consulted during the project.

During parts of 1999, 2001, and 2002, Rende Taylor’s team interviewed all currently or formerly married women in the two villages, a total of 299 individuals. Their ages ranged from 18 to 109. With assistance from some of the women’s adult children, the researchers chronicled the personal histories of the women and their 677 children. The team noted amounts of education, jobs held, number of marriages, and long-distance moves.

Of 244 daughters performing full-time labor of some kind, 62 had been involved in commercial sex work. Many had recruited village girls for sex traffickers or served as prostitutes in Bangkok, Malaysia, Singapore, or Japan. The other daughters worked primarily in sweatshops or as scavengers.

Daughters of landowning and landless parents entered the sex trade with comparable frequency and almost always with their parents’ knowledge. Land is the major currency of wealth in northern Thailand, as most farming families don’t save any cash.

Middle-born daughters from landowning families were about twice as likely to do stints as prostitutes as their sisters were. Birth order made little difference in landless families, where prostitution surged among girls whose mothers had remarried.

Stepfathers and step siblings may have put extra pressure on girls to earn family money in the high-wage sex industry, Rende Taylor suggests.

In all families, daughters involved in prostitution remitted large amounts of money to their parents. Several families used the income to build huge, fancy houses next to the older, wooden-stilt houses of neighbors.

In an economy that offers girls no viable alternatives for earning enough money to meet family obligations, prostitution is viewed as an acceptable, if still socially frowned-upon, choice, Rende Taylor asserts.

At the same time, Buddhist beliefs in northern Thailand contribute to community acceptance of former prostitutes, who often marry local men, says Rende Taylor. Thai Buddhists hold that each person’s soul inhabits many physical bodies over time, with the quality of each life influenced by the soul’s store of merit. Prostitution performed out of the need to aid one’s family builds up merit, despite the nature of the job itself.

Most former prostitutes that Rende Taylor’s team spoke to said that they had worked short hours and had had the freedom to choose or reject clients. The women generally didn’t regret what they had done.

“The trauma inflicted on a Thai woman’s psyche by commercial sex work may be different from and, barring coercion or violence, less than that sustained by a Western woman,” Rende Taylor suggests.

Child support

In 1993 and 1994, anthropologist Heather Montgomery of the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, interviewed 50 Thai girls who worked as prostitutes in a slum adjacent to a tourist resort. These girls’ reported feelings of indebtedness to their parents and desire to repay them financially were echoed in Rende Taylor’s more-recent findings, Montgomery says.

A 12-year-old girl, who had earned enough money from one sex client to rebuild her parents’ house, excitedly told Montgomery, “I will make merit for looking after my parents.” The young Buddhist believed that such merit would bless her in her next life and negate the effects of having been a prostitute.

Montgomery wrote about her experiences with such children in a 2001 book Modern Babylon? Prostituting Children in Thailand (Berghahn Books, Oxford).

Observations such as Montgomery’s, as well as Rende Taylor’s report, illuminate the reasoning of some child prostitutes. “If policy makers are serious about ending the problem … it is important to get away from unhelpful stereotypes of passive trafficked victims,” Rende Taylor says.

In her opinion, intervention projects should open to local Thai girls key positions that are held in high esteem by villagers and typically filled by outsiders with more education than the locals have. These jobs include bookkeeping, government administration, and research for international companies targeting goods to the Thai market. Young women holding these jobs could stay in their home villages while bringing status and income to their families.

The new data raise the prospect that Thai families hedge their bets by sending only some of their daughters into prostitution. Psychologist Christine Liddell of the University of Ulster in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, says that the parents studied by Rende Taylor often selected middle-born girls for prostitution to limit any damage to household functioning should the risky venture fail to yield much revenue or result in harm to a child. For farming families facing uncertain prospects, first-born “home helpers” and well-schooled last borns may be less expendable than middle borns are, Liddell says.

She argues that increasing demands for children in the global sex trade and the continuing decline in numbers of family farms in Thailand promote child prostitution far more than any calculated decisions by northern Thai parents do.

Given the limited size of Rende Taylor’s study, it’s not clear that parents have much say in whether their daughters become prostitutes, remarks anthropologist Bernard Formoso of the University of Paris. Parents probably permitted girls and boys alike to seek their destinies—an important concept in Buddhism—by temporarily migrating to cities such as Bangkok, where some girls entered the sex trade, he says.

Rende Taylor disagrees. Parents are indeed urging their children into prostitution, she reports. Her findings reflect a “dangerous tradeoff” that northern Thai families make. In her view, parents permit certain daughters to face prostitution’s hazards in order for the family to reap its unparalleled financial returns.

Disease dangers

A frightening specter looms over the entire business of selling sex—the possibility of contracting and spreading AIDS and other sexually transmissible diseases.

Rende Taylor has yet to explore whether or how concerns about AIDS influence the decisions of northern Thai families to permit their daughters to become prostitutes. The disease has certainly made its presence known in the two villages where she worked. In 2002, 13 percent of families in one village and 3 percent of those in the other reported one or more members infected with HIV or diagnosed with AIDS.

A decade ago, Thai prostitutes who spoke to Montgomery repeatedly told her that they would get pregnant or contract diseases only if it was their fate. Thus, they almost never used contraceptives or received medical checkups.

In northern Thailand, increasing rates of HIV infection among former prostitutes may soon cause at least some parents to keep their daughters out of the sex trade, predicts anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis.

Rende Taylor regards only one thing as certain: The phenomenon of child prostitution can look dramatically different through the eyes of those whom it directly affects.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.