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Thailand: Can sex work and ethics mix?

Sex workers operate a pimp-free, go-go bar themselves and split the profits.

A Thai go-go dancer takes the stage at an almost empty bar in the red-light district of Patpong, in Bangkok. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — If bathroom graffiti is any measure of a go-go bar’s depravity, then the “Can Do” bar is rather chaste.

Girl-power slogans are scrawled on the walls in pink magic marker. Above the toilet, the blue-ink scribble gets unusually political for a go-go bar: “Vote no - crazy constitution in Burma!”

In the barroom, more clues suggest this is not the sort of Thai girlie bar mythologized in sailors’ sex tales. There is no “mamasan” mother hen pushing ladies on male customers. The music isn’t set at an eardrum-shredding volume. The female workers are dressed like college kids: jeans, T-shirts and sneakers.

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Make no mistake. The bar’s 30-odd rotating cast of female employees have sex with men for money. But the premises is pimp-free. The sex workers operate the bar themselves and split the profits.

“Some guys like that our conditions are fair, that we don’t have a bad owner,” said Mai, a 25-year-old sex worker with auburn bangs and Bambi eyes. “That’s why they come here instead of somewhere else.”

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The sex workers-turned-entrepreneurs at Can Do Bar call it “experitainment.”

The hypothesis is simple: if a girlie bar eliminates the industry’s cutthroat practices — “gain weight and you’re fired” or “he’s a regular, you can’t turn him down” — it can prove that selling sex doesn’t rely on exploitation.

The world, or at least Thailand, will take notice. And sex workers will be seen as legit breadwinners, not victims or vile women.

“Most of Thai society says we’re prostitutes and body sellers,” Mai said. “Why can’t they see it like selling cars? We’re just here to offer a service.”

As Can Do’s fifth anniversary nears, the experiment's results are mixed. Do the men arrive in droves? No, more like a steady trickle. Is it profitable? According to last month’s accounting, just barely. They made $600 in 2010. Have they inspired imitators? Not yet.

But their business model is hoped to motivate others in Thailand’s massive sex industry to expect more from their employers. The trade employs 77,000 sex workers across the country, according to Thai government estimates, and more than 300,000 according to regional non-governmental organizations.

“Since it takes a tree 10 years to grow, we decided we’d give it 10 years,” said Liz Hilton, a Thai-fluent Australian who works with Empower, a sex workers’ rights coalition that helped create the bar.

With $30,000 of their own money, Empower’s sex worker membership opened the bar in 2006. They were fatigued from urging Thai officials to recognize sex work under labor laws and the government’s social security scheme, Hilton said.

“They said, ‘You know, the government’s just not getting it. We’ve got to show them how it’s done,’” she said. “If you ask any sex worker what she wants, it’s a good life for herself, her family and acceptance by society. It’s not rocket science. They don’t want anything special.”

Can Do is not the den of decadence certain foreign tourists seek out in Thailand. The sex workers are so modestly dressed that distinguishing between a working girl and a female customer enjoying after-work drinks can be tricky. The setting is so unraunchy that Western women routinely swing by for beers, almost unthinkable in the typical dungeon-dark, techno-blasting go-go.

According to Can Do’s sex workers, their customers include doctors and deliverymen, local NGO workers and foreign retirees on vacation. The female employees are mostly Thai, with a sprinkling from Burma or Thailand’s hill tribes.

About 80 percent are single moms, Hilton said, and their ages range from 18 to 66.

“Yes, 66,” said Hilton, responding to my incredulous stare. “She’s selling it really well, so don’t you worry about her. You know, it’s hard to find a 66-year-old if that’s what you’re looking for.”