Where Bangkok’s sex workers go to school
In the middle of Patpong, one of Bangkok’s sultry red-light districts, above a bawdy bar named Super Pussy, a very unique class of students is getting ready for its weekly English lesson. Five male and transsexual service workers, the accepted title here, enter the class with bottled water and bootleg bags in hand.
While the volunteer ESL teachers from the United States and Australia are busy setting up the white board for the lesson, one of the students waves me down from my corner of the room. He raises his hand and says teasingly, "You know, you look like my ex-boyfriend.”
SWING (Service Workers in Group), is a volunteer organization that provides daily activities, counselor services, discounted medical exams and free English lessons to sex workers. Native English speakers have been invited to volunteer their time for classes since 2004.
Patpong is the first of three drop-in centers run by SWING, with two other locations in Pattaya and Samui Island --both locations having claimed similar notoriety among travelers as hot beds of the Thai sex tourism industry.
Whether out of their own choice or forced servitude, sex workers have long gathered in these hubs of Thailand’s sex tourism industry from bordering countries and the north. The majority of the students at the English class in the Patpong center are originally from Laos or Myanmar.
All participants’ identities are protected by SWING, and no one is discriminated against because of their gender, orientation or nationality.
Though everyone in the class was born a male, the students prefer to greet each other with a soft sawadee ka, ka being the interjection said by females in Thai.
Verbs placed on the board by the young American volunteers are acted out by the students throughout the lesson. They are not timid to participate, and eagerly volunteer to join in on activities.
English is a tool that gives the sex workers opportunities to make career changes. Each class aims to be inspired by a new interest that could later lead to a job as a cab driver, waiter or store clerk.
Health through education
The permanent glass ceiling over the underbelly of Thailand’s sex workers presents a daily struggle that the founders of SWING are trying to alleviate. In one of the recreation rooms at the Patpong drop-in center, two walls are checkered with hundreds of glossy condoms of every color.
The education gap that afflicts workers is most visible in their lack of awareness with sexual diseases. Here the environment is set up to openly discuss the severity of unprotected sex, and perhaps subtly suggest the use of condoms.
Depression and other psychological diseases that manifest themselves as the byproduct of the sex industry are handled by the center’s counselors. Confidential relationships are maintained, and even the classrooms adhere to similar privacy policies.
Women are most vulnerable to sex slavery, while Thailand’s 'third gender,' male-to-female transsexuals, known locally at kathoeys, are often the victims of violent crimes. SWING’s services offer hope to those caught in the undercurrent of the illegal, yet openly accepted practices in Thailand.
SWING (Service Workers in Group): Building 3, 5th floor, Patpong Soi 1, Suriyawong Rd., Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand; tel: +66 (0)2 632 9501; fax: +66 (0)2 632 9503; www.swingthailand.org