Thailand: Can sex work and ethics mix?

A Thai go-go dancer takes the stage at an almost empty bar in the red-light district of Patpong, in Bangkok.</p>

A Thai go-go dancer takes the stage at an almost empty bar in the red-light district of Patpong, in Bangkok.

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.”

Appreciating Can Do’s business model requires understanding the mechanics of Thai go-gos and girlie bars.

Sex workers in bars have two ways to make cash. One is through “lady drinks,” an overpriced, watered-down cocktail that customers are wooed into purchasing for the ladies. The workers make about $1 from each drink.

The main source of revenue, however, is through sex, which costs between $30 to $50 and takes place away from the bar. The sex worker keeps all of this. However, leaving the bar for a few hours requires paying the owner around $15 for his employee’s time.

This is called a “bar fine.” It helps skirt Thailand’s anti-prostitution law by moving the cash-for-sex swap away from the bar and into an off-premises bedroom.

Can Do’s model is the same, only customers can’t force ladies to drink alcohol (they prefer juice) and there is no bar fine. “We think sex is a consenting matter between one, two, three or five adults,” Hilton said. “It’s really not our business and shouldn’t be our bar’s profit either.”

Cutting out the bar fine, a core revenue stream for any girlie bar, inevitably leaves Can Do at a competitive disadvantage. The sex workers also don’t impose punishments common in other bars, such as pay cuts for missing monthly quotas of “lady drinks” and customers paying to take them away.

Nor do they squeeze their sex workers through impossible-to-follow rules. Other bar owners are free to slash pay for disappointing a customer or for setting down a beer bottle too forcefully.

And unlike other sex-for-sale pubs, deemed “special entertainment venues” and exempted from Thai labor law, Can Do’s workers get one day off per week and two weeks of vacation time. Most operations expect women to work seven days per week with a very small yearly holiday allowance.

“This is definitely the best place I’ve ever worked,” said Pae, a 25-year-old sex worker and bartender at Can Do. “In other places, you can work hard but screw up just a little bit and get your pay taken away. It’s never enough to live on.”

Though financially middling, Can Do has been successful in proving sex work and ethics can mix, its founders claim.

But not all Thai feminists believe the flesh trade can be sanitized.

“If they’re promoting prostitution as work, well, that’s still commercializing women,” said Virada Somswasdi, one of Thailand’s best-known feminist scholars. A graduate of Cornell University, she founded the nation’s first women’s studies program at Chiang Mai University in 1986.

“They’re still submitting their bodies to becoming objects for a man’s sexual desires,” Virada said. “Do women deserve that? After all the contributions we’ve made to society?”

Sex workers aren’t wrongdoers, Virada said, but they are exploited. “We need to tackle these issues in a more sensible way.”

Can Do has faced similar criticism from other prostitution abolitionists. The trade’s stigma can also follow them home into gossipy neighborhoods. “Thai society thinks we’re terrible,” Mai said. “People on my street have said, ‘Why can’t you get a better job than this?’”

Even if Can Do never rakes in a fortune, its workers hope the bar at least helps normalize the sex trade as a legitimate job with its own unique skill set.

“It’s not just about going straight to a hotel,” Pae said. “You have to make the guy comfortable, make him smile. You go out to get food, go dancing. The sex? That’s only five minutes of an eight-hour shift.”