Can sex workers LIKE what they do?
This is the long version of a report on the second survey of sex workers in Nana Plaza area of Bangkok, Thailand conducted in the first week of March, 2015. Short versions are publicized elsewhere. This could be called the boring version because it includes data from the survey broken down by question and a call to others to follow this methodology too.
One hundred active, current sex workers were surveyed on the job in one of the largest sex tourism locations in the world. A full explanation follows. Results:
This survey shows 72.1% LIKE sex work
In this survey only 48.26 HATE sex work.
When trying to make sense of these surprising numbers please remember that an entire industry of people operate non-government organizations around the world for the express purpose of rescuing sex workers. More often than you may realize they have no interest in being rescued, and for good reasons.
If you have interest in doing this kind of survey we will say more about that below.
Contact us though this website or our – – FaceBook/UnderstandingTrafficking page.
Anecdotal evidence from raid after raid by police, often spearheaded by those same NGOs, result in shocking civil rights abuse of consenting sex workers over 18 years old, who do not qualify under the definition of trafficking victims.
This new information defies one of the most important myths of the anti-trafficking industry. Blog after blog, television shows, and movies tell the same extreme, sensational stories. It is completely reasonable, after this craziness, to believe it as if there is no other story. Under age children, violence, and slavery are the main ingredients. But it is true? That is what this research is about. The is-it-true part.
Lets talk about children first.
This survey had three questions about age.
Question 5 asked, “At what age did you have your first vaginal sex, penetration?” In other words when did the sex worker lose her virginity? The ages they gave were added up – 1737 – and divided by 98 good responses. The average age of these sex workers is 17.7 years old. From what I hear about American high school students these days, Thai sex workers lose their virginity at similar and probably an even older age than many American teenagers.
Fourteen lost their virginity under the age of 18 as follows: one at 10 years old, two at 11 years old, three at 12 years old (of these first five, three were transsexuals), no 13 year olds, five at 14 year olds, thirteen at 15 years old, eight at 16 and eight at 17. On the high end there were two at 25 years old, one at 27, and one woman who claimed to have lost her virginity at 37 years old. But, again, the average age was 17.7 years old.
Question 8 asked, “How old were you the first time you were paid for a sex act?” Again the ages they gave were added up – 2149 – and divided by 93 good responses. The average age when these sex workers were paid for the first time is 23.1 years old, well over 18 years old, the age the UN designated as the end of childhood around the world.
Only five out of 93 were paid for sex the first when they were under 18 years old, or 5.4%. One claimed to have been paid for sex at age 12, one at 16, and three at 17 years old. All others were over 18. The 12 year old is the same transsexual who claimed to have lost virginity at age 10. On the high end two were paid for the first time at age 40, and one each at age 41 and 45. All others were between ages 18 and 39 years old, but mostly in the mid 20s.
Question 10 asked, “How old are you now?” Again the ages they gave were added up – 3020 – and divided by 97 good responses. The average age these sex workers were at the time of the survey is 31.13 years old.
The average age was older than expected. This is partly due to 22 of the sex workers were surveyed in a well known all day free-lancer bar with an older average age for both sex workers and potential clients. Of those over 39 years old in the survey overall ten were from this bar and ten others where elsewhere in Nana Plaza and possibly mamsons.
No one interviewed was under 20 years old. Three were 20. On the high end there was one 60 year old with her daughter, but looking for a client like the others. There was one each at 52 and 50. There were sixteen in their 40s, and their average age was 46.3.
It is possible to deliberately get different answers in a survey of this type by only surveying the youngest or oldest or whatever sex workers you want to find. But both transsexuals (AKA ladyboys) and the older age group both give every indication of being represented in the survey in their approximate proportion within the Nana Plaza area.
I think we can summarize here that there is very little involvement of children in this major sex tourism location in Bangkok. One ladyboy claimed to be raped at age 10 and paid for sex at 12, but this was a huge variance from the norm. Thai sex workers lost their virginity at an age similar to or older than American teenagers these days according to media reports. With two exceptions all women were paid for sex the first time when they were 16 or over. Only five where under 18, the official legal age according to the UN. Their average age was 23.1 years old, certainly not children’s problem.
How about family issues?
In our first question we asked “How would you describe your family life when you were a child? (Under 15 years old)
The choices were:
Very happy, Safe / Average, Normal / Abusive, Scary
Apparently sex workers surveyed did not consider their family life as a child to be unusual. 61% considered their family life as a child to be happy and safe. 30% considered their experience to be average or normal. Only 5.4% thought their family experience was abusive or scary and that could easily be better than many other randomly selected family circumstances.
Our second question asked about the biological father in this way, “Was your biological father a regular member of your family? The choices were:
Always with the family / No, but saw him often / Never knew him
This was a surprise since those of us living in Thailand often hear stories about Thai men who leave their families, especially very young men who leave their pregnant girlfriends. Maybe that isn’t an accurate picture of Thai men. In this survey 80% of sex workers claimed their fathers were always with the family. 17% claimed they saw him often. Only 3% claimed not to know their father. That seems very reasonable.
The third question asked about sexual abuse this way, “Were you subject to any kind of sexual abuse when you were under 12 years old? Possible responses were:
No none / Unwelcome fondling, intimidation / I was raped
Twelve was picked as an age that is clearly young, not to be mistaken as anything other than a child. Result: 80% – none. 15% fondling / intimidation. 4.25% raped. Yes, 4.25% is significant and not to be ignored.
Nevertheless the common narrative is that children from broken homes who are raped become sex workers. That does not appear to be true regarding Nana Plaza area sex workers. Answers to these first three questions taken together seem to indicate Nana Plaza sex workers come from surprisingly normal, even happy homes.
The fourth question asked: “Where there other women in your family or community who were sex workers? Choices were just YES or No but many did not answer this question. As it turns out this is the most balanced question of all. Most sex workers did not have the example of others leading to their choice of sex work. YES – 32% – did have sex workers in their family or community. NO – 49.5% – did not have sex workers to be their example. But 18.3% did not answer this question.
The sixth question asked if those surveyed had ever been married. Choices were: Never / To a Thai Man / To a foreign man
This is also very evenly distributed – 48% never and 49% married to a Thai man. Only 2.3% were married to a foreign man. In question seven you will see why NEVER was a more common choice than you might think it would be.
The seventh question asked their age when these sex workers gave birth. This might be the most unsuccessful question because the intention was to list all ages of pregnancies and only one number was the normal answer. Thirty-six did not answer this and we can assume the most likely reason was that they did not have children. 60 did have children and their average age is 21.68 but this is based on only one child. This researcher knows at least one responder who has three children. There were surely others. The reason 36 with no children might seem high is that 20 of our respondents are transsexuals (Commonly called lady boys here in Thailand) and lady boys do not have children of their own.
Question nine asks: “Were you ever forced against your will to be a sex worker? Again this was a YES or NO question. Note, this asked if they forced to be a sex worker as opposed to being forced to do something they did not want to do as a sex worker. Whether they were forced into an act they did not want to do was a subject of the first survey about violence discussed here (link).
There were 78 good responses. Only 7, or 9%, said YES. A very strong 71, or 91% said NO they had never been forced to be a sex worker. This is another example that defies a common myth of the anti-trafficking industry that will be studied further with a third survey specifically about any conditions some would describe as slave-like.
YOUR OPINION – – the last nine questions took a completely different form.
Here is an important question: Do sex workers – who like what they do and do not meet the definition of trafficking – still need rescuing if only to validate the mission of this rescue industry? This only became important when we discovered a clear pattern that we did not expect in this way.
You may be surprised to learn that many sex workers do like their work. They like sex work just as you may like your job at least more than any other choice available to you.
Research being reported here shows
72.1% of sex workers LIKE sex work
48.2% of sex workers HATE sex work
If a large majority of sex workers LIKE the work; if they are legally adults; and if they do not meet the definition of trafficking, it becomes difficult to justify rescues. Don’t you agree?
The last nine questions were a completely different style. If a person is asked if she/he uses illegal drugs, for example, answers will be unreliable. There are techniques to get better answers. One is to ask people their opinion about those around them, but not themselves. It is easier to answer, for example, “half of those around me use illegal drugs” than it is to admit to a stranger that “I use illegal drugs.”
This method is residual form marketing research training from may years ago and seemed to be widely accepted for broad understanding od marketing issues. It seems to apply nicely to this circumstance.
In this survey the last two questions were:
(8) “How many sex workers do you think HATE what they do to make money?
(9) “How many sex workers do you think LIKE what they do to make money?
Each question was discrete, not a matched pair. That is why answers do not add up to 100%. Answers, as a percentage, were added and divided by the number of respondents to give an average percentage. Whether you question this method or not, it is clear Nana Plaza area sex workers LIKE their work by an overwhelming majority, and certainly more than they HATE it.
This kind of survey method quickly reveals broad opinions. For example, 9 respondents claimed that 100% of those around them HATE sex work. But 39 claimed 100% around them LIKE sex work. Of those seven gave that same answer for both questions. If those seven are tossed out we are left with 32 who claim 100% LIKE and only 2 who claim 100% HATE sex work. This is very revealing. All respondents were active, current sex workers surveyed on the job.
Questions one through seven will be discussed next week and added with an edit. There is a timeliness to getting this much here in coordinate with other possibly publications.
If you have interest in doing this kind of survey we will say more about that below.
Contact us though this website or our – – FaceBook/UnderstandingTrafficking page.
Obviously this is not the most sophisticated research. It lacks funding by a famous donor. The practitioners do not hold glamorous credentials. But it is doable. You too can do this survey where you live or vacation.
Everything did not go smoothly with this survey method. We can help you overcome some problems. There were some very helpful people and entertainment establishments. (Kudos to One, Sindi, Om, Ploi, Ning, and others whose names I did not learn. Those are all common nicknames. I promised not to name entertainment establishments.)
There were also some who did not want to help. After meeting the ones who did help first, the rejections felt personal toward the end. Whether that happens first or last, don’t let it get you down.
Nana Plaza has a substantial ladyboy (transsexual) sex worker contingent. They seem to do exactly the same work with the same issues as the female sex workers. We allowed for 20, out of 100, respondents to allow for their proper proportion in that area. Your area for surveying may not have that issue. Sex workers may be of all ages from under 16 to 60 plus. This too should be represented accurately because that is the purpose of the study.
In our location, the Nana Plaza area, there is a small number of under 16 sex workers on the fringe and mostly at night. For example, I know of three sisters – ages 26, 24, and 16 – who work together. So I have some insight into the difficulties of their young sister. Most bars and better hotels check IDs carefully and will not let them in. Those few who are under 18 must either go to the private residence of their customer or to the most disreputable short-term hotels. There are no other alternatives. The two older sisters have told me this as the younger sister does not speak English. But the 16 year old has two children. Between these three sisters they have seven children which is a major factor that drives them to sex work. For those who are interested in the interaction between sex work and trafficking in your part of the world, this is the kind of circumstances you learn about by using all three of our surveys.
Police you say? So, what about police? After completing two of three phases of our survey we have had two experiences with police. The first time to ever survey we tried a street where a half dozen women will stand near a policeman who is mostly concerned with collecting fines for littering. When I first started I walked over to him and gave him a survey document. He kept it and seemed to scan it. Then he nodded his head my way and gave me a smile. An hour later during my last survey in that area I had given a survey document to one of the ladyboys there when a policeman walked up behind her and read over her/his shoulder. I was a bit concerned, but after a few minutes he, too, smiled and walked away. The ladyboy was nonplussed to have a regular policeman stand behind her as she went back to soliciting customers on a main Bangkok street.
If the reader is a person who will help this project in other countries here are some things to consider. We deliberately depended on the printed document to speak for itself to avoid unnecessary conversation. In this kind of project it is very easy for the conversation path to having people do this for you to go into words that steer the kind of question you want as opposed to a neutral environment for the respondent to give only truthful answers. That was the reason that a person who only knew a few words of Thai language handed the survey form off with as little conversation as possible.
Note: If you do this in an area where the respondent speaks one language and the surveyor speaks the same language, you should do your best to keep conversation to a minimum especially about the survey. Even inadvertently surveyors cab reveal their own opinions and prejudices that make their way onto the answer sheet. Of course, avoid that.
Do your best to get a good translation. Try to hit a fair balance between academic-style language and the words used on the street. If you ask about cunnilingus, for example, women, often internal immigrants with little education, will have no idea what you mean. But if you use s street term it might be a regional one that some sex workers know and others do not. But use a more common middle ground word like oral sex and you will do much better. A good translator who can hit this middle ground of language use is important. In Thailand literacy is high even among sex workers who often are those internal immigrants from another part of the country. If your responder is struggling and reading at a very slow speed you might just move on to someone else – but politely.
The survey document next – –
First will be English version and second the Thai version. And Thai literate people are welcome to critique our translation. The translator Dr. Singha is not thin skinned as far as I can tell. Rip it apart so we will learn how to do better.
THAI SEX WORK AGE and FAMILY SURVEY
This is a completely anonymous study conducted with support and supervision of Surindra Rajabhat University and will lead to presentation at an international conference in November 2015.
The research assistant is NOT a Thai language speaker and will not answer questions about the study questions.
Do NOT identify yourself, customers, co-workers, or your place of work. No names, please.
Survey Two – age and family issues
The propose of this survey is to provide data that can be compared to other data from other locations and other sources. It is helpful to know if sex work is similar everywhere, or not.
Please help with honest answers. This survey is completely anonymous. Thanks for your help.
Mark the answer that is closest to your situation – –
1) How would you describe your family life when you were a child? (under 15)
____ Very happy / Safe ___ Average / Normal ___ Abusive / Scary
2) Was your biological father a regular member of your family?
___ Always with the family ___ No, but saw him often ___ Never knew him
3) Were you subject to any kind of sexual abuse when you were under 12 years old?
___ No, none ___ Unwelcome fondling, intimidation ___ I was raped
4) Were there other women in your family or community who were sex workers? circle Yes or No
5) At what age did you have your first vaginal sex, penetration? _______
6) Were you ever married? circle
Never To a Thai man To a foreign man
7) Have you been pregnant? If so, at what age or ages? _______/_______/_______
8) How old were you the first time you were paid for a sex act? _______
9) Were you ever forced against your will to be a sex worker? circle YES or NO
10) How old are you now? ________
Your opinion – –
These questions are only about your opinion. Whatever you think is okay.
Percent = the number out of a sample of 100, for example, 5 out of 100 is 5%.
How many sex workers do you think sometimes use an illegal drug? ____ out of 100g
2) How many sex workers do you think have a problem with gambling? ____ out of 100
3) How many sex workers do you think are under 18 years old? ____ out of 100
4) How many sex workers do you think came from a troubled family? ____ out of 100
5) How many sex workers here do you think are not Thai citizens? ____ out of 100
6) How many sex workers do you think have children they support? ____ out of 100
7) How many sex workers do you think are over 35 years of age? ____ out of 100
8) How many sex workers do you think hate what they do to make money? ___ out of 100
9) How many sex workers do you think like what their do to make money ___ out of 100
Thai language version will be available here soon