Prostitution in Southeast Asia has grown so rapidly in recent decades that the sex business has assumed the dimensions of a commercial sector, one that contributes substantially to employment and national income in the region, according to a report published by the Geneva-based International Labor Office.

The economic and social forces driving the sex industry show no signs of slowing down, particularly in light of rising unemployment in the region. Women who lose their jobs in manufacturing and other service sectors and whose families rely on their remittances may be driven to enter the sex sector. Anywhere between 0.25 percent and 1.5 percent of the total female population are engaged in prostitution.

The sex sector is not recognized as an economic sector in official statistics, development plans, or government budgets. However, it is a very important part of the GDP of those countries. If we include the owners, managers, pimps, and other employees of the sex establishments, the related entertainment industry, and some segments of the tourism industry, the number of workers earning a living directly or indirectly from prostitution would be several million. A study by the Ministry of Public Health of Thailand found that of a total of 104,262 workers in some 7,759 establishments where sexual services could be obtained, only 64,886 were sex workers; the rest were support staff including cleaners, waitresses, cashiers, parking valets, and security guards. A Malaysian study lists occupations with links to the sex sector as medical practitioners (who provide regular health checks for the prostitutes), operators of food stalls in the vicinity of sex establishments, vendors of cigarettes and liquor, and property owners who rent premises to providers of sexual services. In the Philippines, establishments known to be involved in the sex sector include special tourist agencies, escort services, hotel room service, saunas and health clinics, brothels, bars, beer gardens, cocktail lounges, cabarets, and special clubs.


  1. Indonesia 226,800
  2. Philippines 210,000
  3. Thailand 144,000
  4. Vietnam 86,000
  5. Myanmar 66,000
  6. Cambodia 34,000
  7. Malaysia 21,000
  8. Laos 13,000


The sex sector in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and The Philippines, is estimated to account for around 14 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the revenues it generates are crucial to the livelihoods and earnings potential of millions of workers beyond the prostitutes themselves. Government authorities also collect substantial revenues in areas where prostitution thrives, illegally from bribes and corruption, but legally from licensing fees and taxes on the many hotels, bars, restaurants, and game rooms that flourish in its wake.

In Thailand, for example, close to US$300 million is transferred annually to rural families by women working in the sex sector in urban areas, a sum that in many cases exceeds the budgets of government-funded development programs. In recent years, the estimate was that prostitution yielded an annual income of between US$22.5 and 27 billion.

In Indonesia, the financial turnover of the sex sector is estimated at US$3.3 billion per year, or 2.4 percent of the country’s GDP, with much of prostitutes’ earnings, remitted from the urban brothel complexes they work into the villages their families live in. In the Jakarta area alone, there is an estimated annual turnover of US$91 million from activities related to the sale of sex.


  1. Cambodia 22
  2. Thailand 20
  3. Laos 19
  4. Philippines 15
  5. Myanmar 13
  6. Indonesia 9
  7. Malaysia 7
  8. Vietnam 7


Sex work is usually better paid than most of the options available to young, often uneducated women, in spite of the stigma and danger attached to the work. In all four of the countries studied, sex work provided significantly higher earnings than other forms of unskilled labor. In many cases, sex work is often the only viable alternative for women in communities coping with poverty, unemployment, failed marriages, and family obligations in the nearly complete absence of social welfare programs. For single mothers with children, it is often a more flexible, remunerative, and less time-consuming option than factory or service work.

A survey among workers in massage parlours and brothels in Thailand revealed that most of the women entered the sex industry for economic reasons. Brothel workers were more likely to say that they became prostitutes to earn money to support their children, while massage parlour women were often motivated by the opportunity to earn a high income to support their parents. Almost all of those surveyed stated that they knew the type of work they would be doing before taking up the job. Almost one-half of the brothel workers and one-quarter of the massage parlour workers had previously worked in agriculture. A further 17 per cent of the masseuses said they had previously worked in home or cottage industries and 11 per cent had been domestic servants.

The rationale, in Thailand and elsewhere, was that in exchange for engaging in an occupation which is disapproved of by most of society and which carries known health risks, the workers expected to obtain an income greater than they could earn in other occupations. In nearly all segments of the sex trade, that expectation was fulfilled, and remittances from the women working in the sex industry provide many rural families with a relatively high standard of living. The earnings of Thai sex workers varied widely according to the sector and the number of transactions engaged in, but surveys showed a mean income per month of US$800 for all women, with a mean of US$1,400 for massage parlor workers and US$240 for women in brothels.

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