They were slaves, and so had to follow the bidding of their masters or face punishment. It remained this way for hundreds of years, until in the 20th century King Rama V sought a more Western approach to policy and abolished slavery. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of their suffering.
The abolition of slavery brought about freedom from slavery, yet freedom without land, property or money to support a family often left the uneducated slaves little choice but to turn towards prostitution. Brothels began to grow and spread along the length and breadth of the nation. It was here where they competed both with Chinese migrants – who came on the back of Thailand’s rice exporting boom of the mid-19th century – and often with younger children who were sought after by some.
War also saw the explosion of prostitution as an industry. Thailand was occupied by the Japanese forces throughout World War II, and used Thai women as prostitutes throughout their occupation. Whilst the Vietnam war didn’t involve Thailand, it was a popular spot for American soldiers to enjoy their R&R leave. They flocked to areas such as Patpong in Bangkok and the coastal city of Pattaya – two areas which remain prostitution hotspots to this day.
As Thailand began to modernise, its economy did the same. Moving from a sustenance-based economy to a capitalist one saw villagers needing cash to purchase goods. Many simply couldn’t afford to live, and so turned to prostitution, migrating in large numbers to big cities before returning home with more money than they could realistically have made elsewhere. This trend still exists today – for many, it’s the only way they can provide for their families, and so will often send cash home each month to do so.
Thailand began to see the potential in tourism, and so in the late 20th century they invested heavily in promoting Thailand as a tourist destination. The resulting boom in tourism also saw with it a boom in sex tourism; it’s estimated that today there are in excess of 4 million tourists heading to Thailand for its sex industry alone.
Women are often taken advantage of and duped by brothel owners or pimps in order to secure their services. Human trafficking remains a huge problem.