Contemporary Slavery: Thailand’s Matrix of Domination

As has been covered numerous times here in SIF, gender is a social construct ascribed to both males and females. Patricia Hill Collins (1990) argues further that gender operates along side multiple social constructs (race, class, nationality, sexuality) that are enmeshed in a “matrix of domination.” Within this matrix, uneven opportunity structures emerge for individuals who fall into these socially constructed groups. In this post, David Mayeda closes out his series on contemporary slavery by applying Collins’s matrix of domination to a type of work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where adolescent males and young men are manipulated into commercial sexual exploitation.

Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be bought?

On the third night of our anti-slavery tour in Thailand, our group was being led through one of Bangkok’s red light districts. In this environment, sex was not the only thing being sold on the cheap. Tourists could cheaply purchase all kind of things – clothes, weapons, luggage, electronics. Though this was a work trip, the one leisure item I wanted to purchase was a pair of focus mitts for kickboxing. Some popped into my vision and I checked them out. Within a minute, the salesperson dropped his price from 2500 to 1000 baht (about $32 USD).

At that moment, the situation’s realness hit me, and I had a rather uninsightful but powerful reminder of why I was on this trip – to problematize the commodification of human life. We are all commodified to some degree. If you’ve held a job, you and your work skills were commodified as labor. But what if you were the object being commodified, if your body was being sold and your choice to be sold for someone else’s pleasure was minimized, even erased? This is the reality that characterizes sex workers’ lives across the world.

Getting a foot massage (or anything else) on the cheap is made possible by global inequality.

Similar to other countries, Thailand’s commercial sex industry preys on the young and vulnerable. Most of those exploited are young women who might exert elements of choice when working in this environment, though “choice” is minimized by poverty, familial and cultural expectations tied to gender and birth order, and limited employment options. Within this matrix of domination, other women are fully controlled as sex slaves, given literally no choice. This industry also victimizes young men and adolescent boys whose choices are manipulated.

Illustrating that males and females can both be feminized (or masculinized), “boy bars” exist catering to wealthier men from predominantly western countries. The males who work in these bars are typically heterosexual but play a more effeminate role to improve their chances of attracting foreign men who pay for their sexual services. In this context, the Asian males, like their female counterparts in the commercial sex industry, are a commodified form of erotica for the privileged western male consumers (see hooks, 1992).

Notably, among those young women who hold minimal choice when working in this industry, some are full-fledged Thai citizens coming from poorer backgrounds, and some are hill tribe Thai without citizenship rights. But among the males who “choose” to enter the commercial sex industry, virtually all are from one of the marginalized hill tribe groups. Most males enter the industry after moving to the city to find work so that they may send money home. But without formal education and being an ethnic minority, finding conventional work is problematic, if not impossible. Sex work then becomes one of the only options in this limited opportunity structure where race, nationality, gender, and education are central constructs in the social matrix. Our delegation was fortunate to meet with social workers who work with male sex workers in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. See one story, below:

There are charitable groups that assist female sex workers in exiting the industry. However, almost none will work with males because the charitable organizations tend to be religiously based and thus will not work with males socially defined as homosexual.

Despite harsh international laws against having sex with minors, weak law enforcement in Thailand allows such practices to persist.

Additionally, police refuse to take male sex workers seriously, leaving them even more vulnerable to exploitation. And any laws outside Thailand that would punish men who have sex with minors while outside their home country are rendered ineffective because Thai police rarely arrest foreigners. Consequently, western men who have sex with minors are almost never caught. Staff from one of the few organizations that does work with these males – Urban Light – lamented that some of the male tourists have larger vacation budgets than their entire organization.

Clearly, the matrix of domination present in Thailand is a grizzly one, driven largely by internationally privileged demands. Make no mistake about it, although institutions in and around Thailand share responsibility for the social ills discussed in this series, we as advantaged consumers bear a global and human responsibility as well.

Sociology is not just about understanding problems; it is also about understanding problems accurately so that one may address them intelligently. A social worker said to our group that slavery persists because there are more people willing to exploit others than there are people who will actually do anything to assist the victimized. It’s not enough to care about social problems. If you want to see change, you have to act!

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe how internationally defined constructions of gender are applied to young Thai males and females, and to privileged males from other countries in this matrix of domination.
  2. How does global inequality contribute to the objectification and commodification of human life?
  3. Identify the multiple institutions that contribute to international commercial sexual exploitation.
  4. What will you do to decrease contemporary slavery?

All photos taken by author.