Inter Press Service

THAILAND: Male Sex Workers Face HIV Risks, but Get Less Attention

Chayanit Poonyarat

Chayanit Poonyarat

Bon, 18, says that being in sex work earns him more than enough money for his needs, but he still hopes to do something else in the future.

”You don’t need special qualifications to join this business and the pay is impressive,” he explains in an interview.

But he says he has set some goals for himself after three years in the sex industry here in Thai capital, where he has three to four customers a night. ”I can now almost afford a new house for my parents,” says Bon, who is from Chachoengsao province 82 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.

He ran away from home and worked as a waiter earning 1,500 baht (35 U.S. dollars) a month, but found this barely enough to cover his rent and his other expenses.

”Then my friends told me about this job. I was a bit worried in the first place, but I know I had nothing to lose,” Bon explains.

But in truth, Bon knows he has something to lose. ”I am always afraid of many things while working, but I don’t want to mention them. To tell you the truth, I have never been happy. I do it simply because I don’t have much choice,” he says.

He also knows that health and other risks from his sex work exist, ranging from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to HIV/AIDS.

He says he has heard of HIV/AIDS and STDs. ”I am afraid of getting the disease that’s why I use a condom every time I have sex,” Bon says, adding that he also has a medical check-up every three months.

”For me, if a customer refuses to use a condom they never get my service. I know I can’t buy my life (back) with their payment,” he adds.

Still, he says more than half of his customers, most of them ‘katoey’ (tranvestites, transsexuals and homosexual men), prefer not to use condoms if they could have their way. ”They often say it’s not comfortable and I know many of sex worker friends don’t always use this.”

This kind of behaviour is what worries activists like Natee Teerarojjanapongs, director of the Fraternity for AIDS Cessation in Thailand (FACT), despite figures that show lower HIV prevalence rates among male sex workers and what he says are HIV/AIDS campaigns that have been successful in promoting safer sexual behaviour.

Figures from the AIDS division of the department of disease control in the Ministry of Public Health show that 9.6 percent of male sex workers have HIV, compared with 16.2 percent of female sex workers.

Activists say that while campaigns for condom use and programmes on HIV/AIDS for male sex workers by groups like FACT have an impact, there remain worrying signs of ignorance and complacency about the pandemic.

Natee also says that the vulnerability of male sex workers tend to get lesser attention from society and even some activists, and that this is reflected in the much fewer number of groups that work with them compared to those working with female sex workers.

”Society continues to turn a blind eye to problems involving make sex workers,” says Natee, who has worked with male sex workers since 1986. ”People are less sympathetic toward male sex workers because men are seen to have ‘nothing to lose’ when it comes to sex work.”

Chantawipa Apisuk, director of Empower Foundation, which works with sex workers here, agrees. ”Thai society tends to see men as having more choices compared to women,” she says. ”Therefore they see male sex workers as doing their jobs voluntarily, while female sex workers are more likely to be trafficked or forced.”

But she disputes this popular perception. She says that Empower has found that sex workers, whether male or female, are not always forced by traffickers or criminals and may go into the sex industry out of their own choice.

Activists, however, also point to the sensitive issue of how free this choice really is, giving economic pressure and other factors that limit their livelihood choices.

According to recent studies by Nithet Tinnakul from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, the number of male sex workers has more than tripled over the past two years to more than 30,000 in 2002.

Nithet identified two factors to explain the spike – the 1997 economic crisis and a growing attitude among women customers that they should get even with their philandering husbands by imitating their sexual behaviour.

He found that male sex workers, some as young as 12, are mostly confined to Bangkok and large cities like Chiang Mai in the north and Phuket in the south. Male sex workers catering to foreign and Thai women tend to be older, from 18 to 35 years, while younger prostitutes mostly have gay men visiting from abroad as customers, he said.

Nithet’s study found that male sex workers come from all walks of life – university graduates, office workers, students and street children. Bon adds that sex workers he knows range from 17 to 27 years of age.

Customers range from locals and foreigners, homosexual men, transsexuals and bisexuals, and women. ”Some of my women customers include high school and university students. I can tell as they sometimes drive in with their uniforms,” he says, adding that women customers appear to be increasing.

Looking ahead, Bon said he thinks he will continue being in sex work for about a year, then will go back home to build that house for his parents. ”I might come back to Bangkok, but for another job. However, I may come back to this job again, but only if I have to.”