“This is Us” Sex Work Museum Opens in Bangkok, Thailand

August 2016

‘This is Us” – a museum in Thailand dedicated to documenting the lives and history of sex work – is set to open to the public later this month. The museum is run by sex worker-led organisation Empower Foundation. Although the museum has existed for years, previously it was only open for private visits booked in advance.

Chantawipa Apisuk (Pi Noi) told the Myanmar Times that the items exhibited have been collected over the 30 years of the foundation’s work with sex workers in Thailand. “We don’t want our passing years to go to waste, so we’ve been categorising our knowledge and information in order to pass it on to the next generation, who will carry on our work,” she said.

The museum brings to life the history of sex workers and sex worker skills and culture. It uses interactive displays to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions about sex work. For sex workers viewing the museum’s exhibits, it shows different parts of our lives and experiences represented through different mediums.

At the door to the museum, sewing machines sit discarded. This represents how sex workers have rejected rescue projects that teach textile skills to sex workers, in the hopes they will change jobs. “No more sewing machines!” a sign reads, reflecting a sentiment shared by many sex workers in the Asia Pacific region and even featured in Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers logo.

Before 1960, sex work was legal in Thailand and had been for some time.  State officials ran government managed brothels. However 1960 saw the introduction of laws criminalising sex work. As is the case in many places where sex work is criminalised, there has been evidence of corruption, such as a recent case where evidence of police receiving bribes from sex industry business owners was found during a raid. As NSWP reported, this raid led to over 100 sex workers being arrested.

On the tail of this high profile raid, last month the Tourism Ministry threatened to shut down numerous red light districts in Bangkok. As Chantawipa explained the Myanmar Times, Empower continues to fight legal oppression of sex work, as well as equality and justice for sex workers in Thailand. “We’ve been through 11 governments – elected, appointed and by coup – and yet nothing has changed. People are still arguing over whether to make prostitution legal,” she said.

As Empower describes in their report, there are still many barriers that need to be overcome before sex workers can have equal access to labour laws and other mechanisms to improve labour conditions.

Migrant sex workers often face even greater challenges. Empower explores many of these issues in their report “Hit and Run: Sex Worker’s Research on Anti trafficking in Thailand.”

In “This is Us” these experiences and issues are explored in creative ways, including through the part of the museum dedicated to Kumjing dolls.

Kumjing dolls are paper maché dolls, and as the sign at the museum explains, “”Kumjing is a representation of the migrant people who are living along Thailand’s borders, unable to go anywhere freely. But when these people turn themselves into dolls, they can travel anywhere they want. These dolls can be taken on buses, trains, airplanes to wherever they dream of going to.”

The Kumjing dolls made their debut appearance at the 2004 International AIDS Conference in Bangkok.  Since then, these dolls have managed to travel across vast areas – with a map of the world showing many of the journeys taken by these dolls across borders where migrant sex workers themselves are often denied access.  Photos also capture their attendance at political rallies and migration meetings across the country.

Visitors to the museum can learn about the economy and how sex workers have fared throughout the ages, with Empower having mapped average sex worker incomes against the same amount of rice across different eras. 400 years ago, selling sex could buy you around 10kg of rice, which is about the same today.

“This Is Us” is set to open officially around mid-August, from Wednesday to Friday, 12-7pm. Admission is 100 baht (US$2.80). Visit empowerfoundation.org for more information.