"It's 2015—tell them, go ask a sex worker!"
October 20, 2015 6:17 AM   Subscribe

The Can Do bar came about because sex workers had been advocating for [workers' rights] and working under shitty conditions for years...One day a group of sex workers here in Chiang Mai said, 'Actually the government doesn't get it, nobody understands what we're talking about, we're going to have to build it ourselves, we can't wait anymore.' And so they pooled their money and raised a million baht [almost $30,000] between them all and created the bar. Charlotte England at Vice writes about the only bar in Thailand, and maybe anywhere, owned and run by a sex workers' collective.
posted by Stacey (6 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This was tremendously interesting. I didn't know about the requirement for sex workers to drink the "lady drinks" (or really anything about the industry), and I'm glad these women have gotten together to make changes.
posted by xingcat at 6:47 AM on October 20, 2015

My first job out of college was working at an advocacy organization that had aspirations to be like Empower. (And never was because it was a horribly dysfunctional place, but that's a separate story. ) My dad used to describe my work as "saving hookers." I would explain a million times over why that was one hundred percent not appropriate, but it was still easier to frame things that way to people in his life who had just never stopped to think of sex workers as anything but victims, and I didn't know what I could give him to read when I got sick of explaining.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that this article is the first piece of mainstream journalism I've read that concisely explains the problems with the "saving hookers" mindset, while also not deliberately painting its subjects as titillating curiosities. This is the article I would give people in my dad's boat as an introduction to why sex worker rights matter.

Never ever thought I'd say this, but bravo Vice.
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:33 AM on October 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

You'd have to use very specific semantics for it to be the first. 'Lusty Lady' strip club in sf comes to mind.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:53 PM on October 20, 2015

I was passing through Bangkok on business once and decided to check out a "bar" and some of the girls there were genuinely funny and pleasant, and I ended up taking a bunch of them out to a nice dinner after the bar closed - typical scam where they suggest eating at a restaurant and leave you to foot the bill but I already expected that, and the food was really great, some hidden back alley place that only the locals seemed to know.

It was a pretty eye opening experience - and I imagine I got treated differently because I looked like a local, and apparently locals are apparently "not welcome" in those areas (whatever that means). Of course anything they said had to be taken with a pinch of salt, I'm repeating what I recall here from those conversations.

They introduced me to the "owner" and said that this is one of the few local owned bars in the area as the majority are owned by white foreigners. Customers pay 150 baht for a drink, which is split 50 baht between the girl and 100 baht to the bar. Sex work is technically illegal and so transactions had to occur off site - customers had to pay a "fine" to the bar for depriving them of her work for the night and take her out if they wanted her, at which they had to negotiate a rate privately with her. After work everyone changes into casual attire, the neon lights go off, the music cuts out and it's eerily dark and silent and peaceful, just the giggles and laughs of the staff winding down and having a bit of fun. They showed me they slept multiple people to a bunk in the room above the bar, most of them had come from an area from the north called Isaan, and it seemed a generational thing (their cousins, aunts, come back with stories of riches from the city).

I asked about pay, they said if there were two types of girls, the first would pole dance (there's a rotation of sorts) they would get 4500 baht a month and they'd split their time between dancing and working the floor. The second type didn't dance and thus didn't get paid, but they were allowed to circulate in the bar as free agents and just work the floor and rely on tips / drinks. One of the more experienced ones said she gave up dancing as she would get more money working the floor area directly, showing me she got a 600 baht tip from just a single customer that night, but the younger less experienced ones needed to get up on stage to get visibility (customers can ask for them by number) and put themselves out there. In fact one of the girls I met there that night, said she didn't actually work there (!) - she worked at a competing bar and she was on her "night off" and just hanging out there, and the bar didn't seem to mind her encroaching on their "turf" as such - she got to keep any tips she got, and any drink orders she generated were split along the 50/100 split mentioned earlier for all the girls.

Seemed like a really fascinating economic system.

I never found out what the going rate for sex was, I never asked and they never offered directly (it was hinted at vaguely but I guess that's how it goes) - maybe I was some kind of curiosity as I looked like a local. They for sure earn way more than any other job they could be doing in the city, for someone of their rural background. They mentioned / coached me on a few things I could do while I was there, presumably since I was sort of like a local: "buy" lady drinks for the girls but drink them myself (since they only get a cut of lady drinks, not a cut of the drinks I would consume) and the girls didn't necessarily want to drink them anyway, and also buy drinks for / tip the other workers in the bar - the bar staff and other wait staff, for example, usually older women who had aged out of the ability to work the floor.

One of them pulled out her smart phone and started showing me pictures of her travels - she says she takes the chance to travel to neighbouring countries (by bus) whenever she can as she likes seeing the world - sometimes she goes on "business" trips to visit contacts she's built up by people who've visited on business her city / bar previously. They had nice bags, clothes.

As mentioned people can make the mistake of thinking in black and white, where they either imagine all sex workers as victims, or over romanticize the life they lead. There's also at the same time very real dangers, health risks from STDs, drug use, alcohol use, being vulnerable to crime and violence, exploitation by bar owners. Saying good bye was a sobering moment: I had grown to genuinely like all of them, each of them having such contrasting yet complementary personalities, as perhaps a group of people do when they work play and bunk with other 24 hours a day, and I really wasn't sure what kind of future they would have in the next few years. Part of me wants to be optimistic and think they're tough, smart and resourceful, and the other part says that these sorts of stories don't always have happy endings. But hopefully they do more and more often now, thanks to the organizations mentioned in the article...

I left them the remainder of my local currency and I flew out the country early next morning.
posted by xdvesper at 5:33 PM on October 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

This is an interesting article, and I wish that this much more nuanced and informed picture of sex work would get the same popular attention that the simplistic story of disempowered trafficked victims does.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:48 PM on October 20, 2015

A great documentary on a sex workers collective is Tales of the Night Fairies (full film on Youtube). It came out at the same time (~2003) as the alarmist Born into Brothels documentary and got much less attention. The filmmaker Shohini Ghosh was invited to the Seoul Women's film festival and I ended up being the Korean-speaking volunteer who had to pinch-hit as an interpreter for a press interview. I had a hard time getting the reporter to understand that Ghosh was making the argument that pretty much everyone ends up having a job that isn't their ideal job, so why can't we honor the labor that everyone is doing as labor, and provide workplace protections for everyone.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:26 PM on October 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

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