Weeks after sex workers grabbed attention with their high heels and panties to demand a piece of the government safety net, their means of survival – even access to much-needed vaccines – remain ignored.
Not only does social stigma make sex workers convenient pandemic scapegoats for the authorities, but the fact that prostitution enjoys no legal protections leaves sex workers forgotten in the margins, despite being among the most at-risk groups for COVID-19.
“What we do generates a lot of income for the country, yet, we are often overlooked by the authorities,” Siriprapa “May” Sukcharoensri, a 32-year-old sex worker employed by Patpong’s Barbar Fetish Club, told Coconuts Bangkok. “We’re always the first place to close and the last to reopen.”
Months of closure for Patpong’s red-light venues, May said, forced many sex workers back to their hometowns to save on living costs and care for their families.
And despite the risks coming into intimate contact brings for disease transmission, their young age puts them near the back of the line for vaccines. May’s boss, Barbar owner Michael Messner, used business channels to secure 100 doses of Chinese-made Sinopharm doses, enough to sponsor the inoculation of 50 workers.
“This wave has increased the suffering of the Patpong workers and community, and nobody is talking about it anymore,” said Messner, whose entertainment group also owns the Patpong Museum and Candle Light Studio art gallery. “There is zero help from the government, it almost seems that this sector could be designated ‘collateral damage.’”
That’s led sex workers remaining in the famed red-light district, which has been dark since April, to band together to find any means to survive. Those who have remained in the capital have had to shift online to channels such as OnlyFans or rebrand themselves for a domestic audience instead of foreign tourists.
“Although we’re affected directly, 100%, we cannot stop moving,” May said. “Like other people, we have expenses and families to take care of. There was one woman who had to pay her own university tuition, and I admired her so much for that.”
“Survival mode is a key to staying afloat,” Messner said. “This means canceling their rented flats, and 3-4 moving in together into one flat sharing the expenses, selling their gold and liquidating other assets, like motorcycles, TVs and other possessions that can quickly be turned into cash.”
Last month, sex workers and karaoke bar staff converged on the Government House to demand access to the same monthly stipends offered to workers formally employed. Nearly two dozen people placed high heels on the ground or tied panties to the building’s front gate.
Thailand so far has only three types of COVID-19 vaccines: AstraZeneca, Sinovac and Sinopharm. Sinopharm doses, largely accessible through private business patronage channels where availability can depend on “who you know,” were imported and procured by King Vajiralongkorn’s sister, Princess Chulabhorn, who bypassed government controls in a surprise move registered as a rebuke to the government’s floundering efforts.
“This is very important, as most of these people would most likely not get a vaccine from the government as they are young or not officially employed and otherwise socially stigmatized,” Messner said.
Messner’s Patpong Museum secured an allocation of 100 doses from the princess’ Chulabhorn Institute at the cost of THB120,000. Late last month, 50 museum staffers, sex workers, tuk-tuk drivers and other informally employed people went and got their first shots.
Messner himself, who is Austrian, said he opted for a Sinopharm dose as his first jab to give his colleagues confidence instead of registering for a dose of Moderna vaccine offered last month by his embassy.
They’ll all return for their second doses on Monday, Messner said. After that, the group plans to hold activities for those vaccinated, such as cooking and distributing food.
Cyber is safer
After that, Messner, who’s long dreamed of updating Patpong for the 21st century, wants to use technology to develop a virtual side to diversify the flesh trade. He calls it “cyberpong.”
“We see a new platform developing, cyberpong is combining art and sexuality, offering a gamified live streaming platform for individual talents and establishments from all over the world,” he said.
Asked about Patpong Museum, which just opened in late 2019, Messner said that while it’s been shut for months, they’re still preparing new exhibitions and installations such as one grounding Netflix true-crime series The Serpent, in which serial killer Charles Sobhraj visits Patpong’s Mississippi Queen Bar.