I lived many years in Thailand where a subject of fascination for outsiders is the “sex industry.” I have of course known many people who were involved at various levels, but have never turned much of an ethnographic eye toward the subject. Until now. Thanks to the interests Petra Lemberger, a MA student at Chiangmai University in Thailand, I recently with her published an article “Thailand’s Sex Entertainment: Alienated Labor and the Construction of Intimacy” in Social Sciences. I think a highlight of the article are the descriptions of bar girls Petra located in Thai language Master’s theses.
Our point is that the Thai ethnographic eye looking at the Thai sex worker sees something about the nature of intimacy, caring (in Thai “dulae”), an approach that has not always been apparent in the English literature which tends to frame relationships originating in sex work as economic ventures which need to be treated as such (i.e. it is just another job), or condemned as a form of involuntary labor appropriate to regulation by police.
The odd thing of course, is that all three viewpoints can be true at the same time. Sex work can be “just another job” worthy of job protections, and also exploitative in a criminal way. But as the Thai ethnographers we translate and cite point out, what goes on in the bars between European men and Thai women can be more complicated.
Anyway, if you have the inclination, I urge you to click on the link above, and read our article! I learned a lot from Petra writing it, and also enjoyed getting to know more about the women in the bars via the Thai Master’s students (and others) who also write about this subject.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.