When sex is a job. An interview with Chantawipa Apisuk of Empower.
In this interview, Chantawipa Apisuk of Thailand relates how she became interested in political activism during a 10-year stint as a student in the US. Her later experience traveling as a Thai woman abroad made her realize that the international stereotype of Thai women was that they were drug traffickers or prostitutes. When she returned to Thailand in 1983, she found that the cause for this attitude and accompanying ill-treatment was the growth of a sex industry in Bangkok catering to Western tourists. Apisuk's background enabled her to view the sex workers as exploited and stigmatized people who were, in a sense, political prisoners. The double standard in Thailand both promotes prostitution and denigrates the prostitutes. The official government response is to raid the brothels occasionally and place the women in "rehabilitation" centers. This approach fails and serves only to further erode the women's self-confidence. Apisuk's organization, Empower, attempts to protect women engaged in the entertainment industry from the physical and health dangers and economic exploitation inherent in their jobs. Empower follows a pragmatic, nonjudgmental approach in providing services that can be as simple as translating a letter or as complex as teaching prostitutes English and trying to increase their self-esteem. Empower accepts sex work as the women's current reality and makes no attempt to try to persuade them away from prostitution. This nonjudgmental approach has opened Empower to criticism from other nongovernmental organizations, but Empower's influence has continued to grow both nationally and internationally.