Historically, prostitution in Thailand was reinforced by the institution of polygamy. Both are now illegal, but the use of prostitutes by Thai men is still widespread. Every town has at least one massage parlor. The glitzy brothels of Patpong and such towns as Pattaya and Hat Yai may form the foreign perception of the Thai sex industry, but they are a relatively recent development, dating from the presence of US servicemen in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Some estimates put the number of sex workers as high as two million, but a more realistic figure is 250,000, one fifth of whom are male. The majority of prostitutes work for Thai clients, but a few service the many tourists who come for so-called “sex holidays.” Increasingly, concern about exploitation, pedophilia, AIDS, and sex tourism are being voiced around the world, and countries such as Sweden now prosecute their nationals caught paying for sex with children abroad.
Many prostitutes come from the poorest regions of Thailand or neighboring countries such as Myanmar. The income, and a somewhat fatalistic attitude, can outweigh any social disapproval they may face. But some do not become involved in the industry willingly, and cases of beatings and imprisonment are not uncommon. Health problems, stigma, lack of skills, and death from AIDS spell grim prospects for all sex workers.
Despite a government campaign and the work of programs by charities such as Empower, research from 2010 estimates the number of prostitutes infected at 10 percent for the whole country, and up to 50 percent for provinces adjacent to the Myanmar border.