Thai Migrant Sexworkers: From Modernisation to Globalisation

Aoyama, Kaoru
Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-230-52466-8, 237 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Meena Poudel

University of Newcastle,


This is an engaging and deeply researched study of Thai women's experiences of working in sex sectors, in both Thailand and Japan. It explores a domain of the sex trade that has been enormously influenced by global forces, not only economically but also culturally and politically. Through her combined observations, interviews, social theory, feminist epistemology, political analysis, and critiques of trafficking debates and migration discourses, Aoyama precisely organises various contradictions and myths concerning the trafficking of women, sex work, sexual slavery, labour migration, and the agency of women working in the sex sector within the highly cultured and rapidly globalised economies of Thailand and Japan. Sex workers, in the context of Aoyama's analysis, range from women who leave home in search of a means of livelihood for themselves and their families, to those who travel to sell sex in search of a better life.

The issues of trafficking and sex work are central to contemporary debates about globalised migration. Trafficking of women has become increasingly politicised in recent years within feminist activism, academic research, NGO work, and global legal frameworks. Analysing the lived experiences of her research participants, Aoyama, by placing Thai female sex workers within a broader context of globalisation, draws together the themes of gender, deviance, and migration and consciously offers not only a critique but also an exploration of the middle ground in increasingly polarised feminist debates.

Although this book focuses on the East Asian context, by establishing the tension between the rights of sex workers and prevailing social morality through which the sexuality of female sex workers and trafficked women is constructed, Aoyama contributes to the debates on 'agency' and 'deviancy', 'choice', 'consent', and 'force'. Moreover, throughout her analysis, she illustrates how the agency of Thai female sex workers constantly interplays with the structural forces (p. 21) of their own specific context, which, due to their perceived sexuality, often constructs their 'deviant' identity and categorises them as 'bad women'. Although this perspective parallels that of many feminist scholars, migrants, domestic sex-worker campaigners, NGO activists, and media personnel who advocate for the rights of sex workers in Asia and elsewhere in the world, Aoyama's approach, by taking the middle ground within the feminist debate, serves as an invitation for those engaged in the debate to acknowledge the fact of lived experiences that are grounded in a specific social and cultural context.

The tension between 'agency' and 'deviancy' identity is critically outlined in Chapter 4, entitled 'Becoming ex-sexworkers', where the author examines how former sex workers were able to create their own communities, and argues that cultural construction of female sexuality and the subsequently 'deviant' identity of returned trafficked women and sex workers contribute to a situation in which they need to be accepted and assisted by their original 'home' and community (p. 150).

Her vigorous analysis, in Chapter 2, of the political economy of Thai society and its governance strategy - what Aoyama terms social engineering - gives an insight into how economic vulnerabilities are constructed politically, and how those vulnerabilities interact with the lives of ordinary people in general, and women in particular. Aoyama consciously exposes here the ambiguities inherent in the 'traditional role and status of women' by examining the political construction of the economic vulnerabilities of Thai society and Japanese demand for sexual and non-sexual services from Thai migrant women. She argues that selling sex, in exchange for a means to survive, is not an exploitative experience for some women in certain circumstances.

Summarising her arguments in the conclusion, Aoyama underlines the importance of recognising sex work as work, and of acknowledging the specific circumstances in which women have decided to take on this work as a means of earning a living. In its powerful argument and thoughtful analysis, this book is essential reading for all those who are engaged, or intending to engage, in research into sexual trafficking, labour migration, sex work, and sexualities, and in campaigns for the rights of women involved in these sectors.