Origins and working conditions of female sex workers in urban Thailand: Consequences of social context for HIV transmission

Maria J. Wawer, Chai Podhisita, Uraiwan Kanungsukkasem, Anthony Pramualratana, Regina McNamara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


This paper examines the social origins and working conditions of selected female commercial sex workers in Thailand. Quantitative data gathered from 678 commercial sex workers (CSWs) in low-price brothels, tea houses and other work sites in three urban centers were supplemented by focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. The commercial sex establishments were selected from lists provided by local health officials. Social factors associated with entry into commercial sex work and condom use for sexual intercourse were investigated as they operate on contextual, intermediate and proximate levels. Women from the North region of Thailand predominated (68%) and they tended to be younger than the 27% from the Northeast. The majority of all women maintained financial ties to the home by sending income to parents, siblings and other relatives but this pattern is stronger among Northern women. Qualitative data suggest that women were systematically recruited into prostitution from villages in the North and their work enabled them to comply with traditional family support roles. Women from the Northeast revealed a more complex pattern of entry with intrafamily strife, divorce, efforts to find other employment, and entry into sex work at a later age than the women from the North. Northeastern women were more than twice as likely as Northern women to have had a husband as their first sex partner (55% vs 22%). The lives of CSWs were found to be tightly controlled by brothel owners and managers, although 8% were living with a husband or partner, and non-commercial sexual relationships in the month prior to interview were reported by up to 23%. Data indicate need for even more intensive education on HIV transmission, especially with respect to risk of transmission in the absence of AIDS symptoms. Appearance and a trusting relationship were the common reasons given for not using condoms. With the most recent client, 92% reported use if the client was not known and 70% reported use if the client had visited the same CSW three or more times. Education on HIV must take these attitudes and motivations into account as well as sanctions for brothel owners who do not enforce condom use. The proportion of Thai men who visit brothels in addition to other sexual partners, high rates of HIV among CSWs, and inconsistent use of condoms create a complex web that accelerates the spread of the HIV epidemic in Thailand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)453-462
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Commercial sex worker
  • Condoms
  • HIV
  • Sexual behavior
  • Thailand

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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