Like many others in Thailand during the COVID-19 shutdown, sex workers are struggling to survive. Virtual sex work and an emerging online sex economy are options for some, but many are still being left behind.
Migrant and transgender sex workers are two of the most vulnerable groups, with little alternative employment options due to social stigma and the risks of being undocumented.
Many in these vulnerable groups resort to meeting clients in person, often putting themselves into extremely risky situations.
Unemployed, unprepared and unpaid
Celeste McGee is the Executive Director of DtonNaam Foundation in Bangkok, with over 13 years of experience working with sex workers in Thailand.
“The shutdown happened with so little notice,” she said. “These sex workers, just like so many others in Thailand, were unemployed in an instant and had no time to save or try to prepare for having no work.”
According to Celeste, bar workers and dancers in red-light districts often rely on a small salary, which they haven’t received for the month of March, since the shutdown order came mid-March. Meanwhile, most of their earnings are from tips from the tourist clientele, which is non-existent during this pandemic.
“Many sex workers send money back home to their families and now they cannot do that,” said Celeste. “The income of a sex worker in Bangkok is often the main source of income for their entire family back home.”
Many sex workers are not Thai citizens. Many of the male sex workers that Celeste works with in Silom, for instance, come from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Since the shutdown order, they have been trying to return to their home countries.
“The workers from Laos and Cambodia who tried to leave were able to make it back to their countries,” she said. “But many workers from Myanmar got stuck at the border, because it had already shut down.”
“They are just sleeping at the border with no resources at all available to them.”
Transgender sex workers are also one of the most vulnerable groups Celeste works with.
“The transgender sex workers struggle with negative stigma, which makes it challenging for them to find work in other sectors,” she said. “We are still in contact with many who returned to their villages outside of Bangkok. They have very few resources and are also often providing for several family members.”
Options. Limitations. Risks.
“Camming” or recording intimate or explicit content for a paying audience has become popular around the world and in Thailand. This is where a sex worker may create a VIP chatroom and invite a client into a video chat for a fee.
The trend of virtual sex work has been around for some time now, but the pandemic has increased the number of people trying to buy and sell services online.
While these online channels can be an option for some sex workers, many do not have the option.
“Some of the migrant sex workers we work with do not have a laptop or regular access to the internet,” said Celeste. “It is nearly impossible for them to go online and do camming or other forms of virtual sex work. Many of these workers just don’t have access to that kind of technology or knowledge about how it works.”
Another option is simply to meet up with clients in person, but those who choose it, do so at great risks.
According to a source who works with sex workers, often they have the street smart to the choose the right clients, however:
“I have heard of cases where the sex worker thinks they are meeting with one person they have been talking to online, only to arrive and find five men in the room,” said the source.
“The worker may also have to travel to a more isolated area than they normally would, leaving them vulnerable to sex traffickers. There are many things that could go wrong.”
The source also related stories of how some clients take advantage of the situation and push sex workers to do things they are not comfortable with, for even lower rates.
Organizations trying to help
Besides the sex workers who were able to return home or stay with family and friends, many have little viable options to survive.
Thai and migrant workers who stayed in Bangkok are receiving minimal support from a handful of organizations, such as Night Light International, DtonNaam Foundation and SWING, with varying degrees of success due to pushback from the police.
Organizations such as Shear Love International and Tamar Foundation are attempting to provide support for sex workers in Pattaya.