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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.

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.”