Bangkok Bar Girls

a personal view

Sex, love – and money

“What does it mean, anyway, to sell oneself? People think you sold yourself. But what about all these women around me? Times have changed. Look at all these women setting prices for themselves: a house, a car, an income of so many thousands per year. Okay, it’s a deal. They just call it something else: marriage. Wives sell themselves nightly, their bodies mute and aloof as merchandise. In return they get three meals a day and closets and drawers full of clothes and jewellery. And this isn’t the only way it’s done. Some sell out for power, others for fame. Some sell themselves for a city residence permit in China or a green card in the U.S. Are there any women out there who aren’t selling themselves?”

Geling Yan, The Lost Daughter of Happiness

Footnote with Footnotes:

On the Attitude Towards ”Prostitution”

in Contemporary Thai Culture

In my first ‘Quarterly Report’ from 1999[1] there is a passage I’ve had problems with ever since I wrote it: How could one correctly describe the attitude towards prostitu­tion and virginity within Thai culture? It’s an extremely difficult topic to analyze in any society, since the same individual usually expresses contradictory feelings and attitudes. There is no question of the high esteem in which virginity traditionally is held in Thai culture, and young Thai girls still have chaperons with them at all times – exactly as in Europe in past times. In much the same way the mother figure is sacrosanct. The concept ‘bad mother’ simply doesn’t exist. It is contradictio in adjecto!

To sell sexual services on the other hand is not different from selling other services on the market. A girl, who has lost her virginity in one way or another, is not looked down upon just because she is selling sex. From a moral point of view it’s no different from selling vegetables. It is only kam (‘karma’) and moralizing over kam is meaningless. Kam should quite contrary be accepted with equanimity. Your position in society was determined by actions in earlier lives, and this you cannot do anything about.  You can­not alter your destiny. But you can act morally in the situation where you are; here you have a choice.


The central point in Thai morality is your attitude towards the people closest to you, and it is how you choose to make use of your resources that bears moral implications, because this you can control. A girl who has got herself pregnant and been abandoned (you meet them everywhere!) often – if she is considered attractive enough! – becomes some sort of hostess or bar girl in order to make money and support the baby, while her mother (or some other relative) tend to the child’s daily needs. Such a girl is considered a good girl, and she may eventually return to her native village after a few years and find herself a husband there. If she has proven herself as a good girl, i.e. brought money back to the village, and not spent the money for herself only – or on drugs and a destructive way of life – she’ll have no difficulty finding a new man.

The cardinal point is that the girl’s sexuality is not considered something that she has entire disposal of. It sounds strange in Western ears of course, but ultimately it is considered a resource that belongs to her family.[2] Consequently, the very fact that the girl offers the sexual services for a cash reward is looked upon as an excuse: she has not been loose[3]; it is defined as work. If she on the other hand – like Western teenagers today – would squander this potential family asset and give up her virginity without the consent of her family, she would be repudiated, and the girl’s family would most likely claim damages from the man’s family – and eventually arrange a traditional marriage ceremony to cover it up.

How does this add up? That what I wrote in my report basically is wrong!

The line is not drawn between a prostitute and a virtuous girl! The line is drawn between a virgin and a girl that is no longer a virgin – regardless how the latter happened to land in her category.

The step for a girl who for one reason or another no longer is a virgin and doesn’t have a husband to sell sexual services is a small, rather insignificant step. If she is attractive but not from a wealthy family, I would say people would regard it as stupid not to make use of this opportunity fate has bestowed upon her. Basically it’s a decision taken by the family. Thai girls working in the sex industry usually do so by instruction from their families, and in this way they quite often finance education of younger siblings. It goes without saying that they are respected!

But prostitution is as a Western concept with such a negative ring to it. In this part of the world with its ancient traditions of courtesans, concubines, geishas, etc, people don’t share the basically negative Western at­titude. Here prostitutes are associated with pleasure, and if you would go out and ask Thai men to define the concept of prostitution, I guess most of them would name the girls walking the streets – which occurs here too to a rapidly increasing degree – and whose business is technically illegal – and they would certainly express their disap­proval. But if the girl works as a hostess in a karaoke bar, or in a massage parlour? If she is a singer or a dancer? Well, then she’s not a prostitute![4] Or if she is a mia noi (a minor wife or ‘a kept woman’ as the English say) then I’m sure very few people in Thailand would even consider the possibility that she could be regarded as a prostitute in a Western perspective. And people here would certainly disagree!

It always ends up with a question of class, of course. A mia noi of a wealthy man is a woman with so­cial standing and some prestige, but a peasant girl from Isaan working in a Pattaya bar and speaking Isaan (Lao) is looked down upon – not mainly because she is selling sex, but because she speaks Lao, has dark skin, appears in public scantily clad, and has farang customers.

If you look up the word prostitute in an English – Thai dictionary, you’ll land on a line of syno­nyms that have the one thing in common, that they are formed on โสภี, sohpee, which means beautiful. Prostitute is โสเภณี, sohpaynee, literally meaning beautiful woman. If you continue and look up the word whore in the English section, you’ll land in the same series of Thai synonyms with the basic meaning beautiful woman, courtesan, etc. – and it is of course totally wrong![5]

Whore is a terribly disparaging word, but the Thai words are totally lacking the pejora­tive purport. And just to make things worse from the point of view of Western moral­ists, in Thai culture female beauty is almost synonymous with virtue. The basic concept of kam entails the conclusion that a woman’s beauty should be interpreted as a reward for good morals.

And to drive this reasoning to its final consequence, I also have to consider the concept of ‘lust’ in a wider perspective. In Western tradition lust is bound to guilt – no matter if it is sexual lust or for example gluttony. This is apparent in the image of heaven that we have inherited, where we are expected to live a totally asexual life as idlers in all eternity. (And if work is a punishment for sin, a life as an eternal idler must be regarded as a reward!) In many Asian cultures (and even in Islam!) the image of heaven is more like an imagined paradise on earth, filled with both physical and spiritual pleasures of which lust is the essential part, and these heavens where you are allowed to spend a period of time corresponding to the good kam you have accumulated by leading a virtuous life, are of course populated with beautiful women. You can see them everywhere in the classical Thai art, and especially on the murals in the temples. These thepkanya or nangsawan have many names, and they are always pictured with bared, round breasts. So who are these women, often pictured with musical instruments in their hands? Well, obviously they are heavenly courtesans, and the terms used for them are all formed on tep (Sanskrit devata, a word usually translated ‘god’, but rather should be understood as angel or saint – if you necessarily must stick a Western label on them. In the same way you may use the word 神女 [shénnǚ] ”goddess’ for a prostitute in Chinese.) [6] And here we arrive at the point where the lines are crossing, and angel and whore have become synonyms! And what does all this add up to?


As usual a very infected moral question is reduced to a question of semantics!


What is prostitution? Isn’t it prostitution also if you when considering marriage take a man’s property, social standing, and career prospects into consideration, just like Héloïse wrote in a letter to her beloved Abélard nine hundred years ago? When Westerners talk so beautifully about romantic love, and deny underlying calcula­tions of economic or social gains – or at least sweep these question under the carpet – and at the same time condemn earthy Thai girls for their ability to combine business with pleasure, then, in my opinion, they advocate a false morality that makes their in­dignation over Thai girls’ moonlighting taste very vapid. What is the real reason behind the indignation – and frequently also racist outbursts – Western women display when you tell them that you live in Thailand? My suspicion is that they cannot accept that Thai girls feel no guilt for their lust!

There is an interesting passage in Jan Myrdal’s book Maj – en kärlek, where he de­scribes the feelings of guilt a Swedish prostitute expressed after having an orgasm with a customer. She despised herself for this orgasm, called herself a floozy[7] and said that the orgasm was proof that she was worthless.[8]

I assure you, that a Thai girl would be totally un-comprehending if confronted with a reaction like that!

So what is prostitution? Usually the concept is used in a very technical sense: The of­fering of sexual services in exchange for money.

In my opinion it is a much too narrow definition. One should at least add that prostitu­tion is sex in a strictly technical sense, without emotional involvement. As soon as lust or other emotional aspects enter into the equation, it bursts the definition. Focus should be on screened-off emotions rather then on money.

With a definition like the one suggested many Thai bargirls would fall outside the defi­nition. Their relationships are often rather of the category short term relationships, and they do quite often end in marriage. The fact that money in a varying degree is involved is in this context rather irrelevant, since money always is involved in all kind of human relationships. Many of the bar girls are of course prostitutes if – or when – they pick up men for short time, but shouldn’t be regarded as such when they spend weeks and sometimes months with a man. They choose these men on the same basis of attraction as an ordinary West­ern girl pick her lovers nowadays, and many of them would never consider going with anyone just for money! And herein lays a third criterion for the definition of prostitu­tion: what characterizes a prostitute is that she provides sexual services to whoever that is willing to pay. Whorehouse girls, massage parlour girls, and those girls working as hostesses in kara­oke bars with short-time rooms upstairs qualifies under all the criteria mentioned above (unless they are there under duress!) Freelancing short time girls hanging around in coffee shops or walking the streets quali­fy likewise, even if they may choose – or at least choose to repudiate – customers. And if I turn this line of reasoning 90 degrees once more we’ll end up where we started out: On Christmas Day 2000, when two years had passed since my return to Thailand, I wrote in my diary:

“Of course I’m aware of the Swedish attitude: ‘prostitutes’ don’t count! It’s not ‘the real thing’, it’s not ‘LOVE’, they say! And I say ‘BULLSHIT!’ I have experienced so much tenderness and genuine affection with these girls over the years that my experiences with Western girls turn very bleak, if you are unkind enough to compare them!”

And on June 30, 2001 I wrote:

“These Thai girls never cease to amaze me! Their acceptance of life – the very thing that makes them so happy and so pleasant to be with, still stuns me after 28 years! You can live with an ordinary Western girl for years without ever getting close to the core of her feelings. She’ll remain on guard, continuously lining up conditions for her affection… But here – once they have chosen you – they have no reservations; they are instantly ready to go all the way with you – meaning also to have a baby!”

To stick the mean label ‘whore’ on these girls is cruel and absolutely unjustified, and calling them ‘prostitutes’ is a gross misrepresentation of what they are! You couldn’t possibly get any further away from the Western concept of ‘prostitution’?

The concept of love according to Christian ethics may be an impossible standard: to give and keep giving and ask for nothing in return is an absurdity, since this giving itself craves a recipient! And in the final analysis God’s temptations always prove themselves more dangerous than those of the devil!


[1] First Quarterly Report, page 8. The Quarterly Reports were written in Swedish after my return to South­east Asia in 1998, and cover some of my experiences in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos during the period December 1998 – May 1999, after which I discontinued writing them. This Footnote with Footnotes was also first written in Swedish a year later, and then I’ve added to it and revised it many times, and finally I ended up with a text partly in Swedish and partly in English – until I decided to revise it once more and translate the Swedish parts into English in June 2002. [2] I am of course aware that I hardly could say anything worse today, when the Western feminists have taken over the role of the missionaries when it comes to educating women from other cultures into ac­cepting Western culture and values, and an individualistic lifestyle! Thai women have so far not shown much interest in being converted, but these secular missionaries pay no heed to their opinions – they are stronger in faith and more fanatical than the worst Southern Baptist missionaries I have encountered in this city! They are the ones in possession of the true gospel, after all! Western cultural imperialism is stronger than ever – it just carries a different flag! [3] The closest corresponding concept in Thai language is ’a worthless woman’. And a prostitute cannot be considered worthless – if so nobody would pay for her services. The word quite contrary indicates that the fact that she doesn’t charge devaluates her – and an expensive woman is of course much desired! [4] Bangkok Post, January 15, 2002: The Interior Minister “Mullah Pu” has ordered a bar in Phuket closed after he found a condom under a table during an inspection tour. Later he ordered provincial governors to blacklist and permanently close down entertainment venues found ‘condoning prostitution’. From which planet has this man descended into our realm? There are thousands of massage parlours, go-go bars, karaoke bars etc. in this city whose business would go bust within a week if they couldn’t provide sexual services – and the Ministry of Health still distributes free condoms! How would this new instruction be interpreted by its recipients? I bet that if they would consider taking any kind of action, they probably would instruct the police to arrest a few freelancers. Bangkok Post, April 23, 2002 confirms once more in a rather comical way how accurate my de­scription of the language-conditioned selective blindness is: Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but when the police made a raid at a massage parlour after complaints (from competitors, I assume!) that many of the masseuses were illegal immigrants, they found more than 50 girls from Burma, Laos, and Cambodia – all with proper work permits issued by Labour Department under the category “special types of jobs”. So, the police concluded, there was nothing for them to do, since being a masseuse is not illegal.


[5] Thai language has of course other expressions corresponding to the word prostitute, like คนเทียว literally meaning person who wanders about or more specifically เทียวผู้หญิง woman who is walk­ing about. (Indonesian has a similar expression: wanita jalang. Wanita, which also is a common name in Thai, วนิดา, is a Sanskrit/Pali word, meaning woman, young woman, beloved woman, wife, or fiancé. Jalan means road in Malay/Indonesian; jalan-jalan means walking about. So wanita jalang literally means woman who wanders about – or even that she is being wild!

[6] เทพ thep = devata, angel, god เทพกันยา thepkanya, nymph in Indra’s heaven, เทพคณิกา thep­kanika = apsara, heavenly courtesan, prostitute, เทพคนธรรพ์ thepgantan, daughter of pleasure for the gods, เทพธิคา, เทพพิน theptika, theppin, female deity, angel, นางสวรรศ์ nangsawan, heav­enly girl. (The official name of Bangkok is in its short form Krung Thep, meaning City of Angels.)

[7]ett luder

[8] Jan Myrdal, Maj – en kärlek, p. 150-151.

———– Copyright © 2002 by Carl Jacobson ———–





April 27, 2007 Posted by | anthropology, Bangkok Bar Girls, Patpong, prostitution, sex, Thailand, uncategorized | 3 Comments