Sex trade expanding in Asia

News release

Asia's sex industry is rapidly expanding and changing, threatening efforts to control the region's AIDS epidemic. More men are visiting sex workers, and in a wider variety of settings and areas, says a new report Sex Work in Asia by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The sex trade is spreading from traditional red light areas to suburbs, highways and international borders - wherever there is a high density or movement of people. Often, this growth is not accompanied by rising AIDS awareness. Indeed, it is believed that most commercial sex in Asia takes place without the use of condoms.

The report, presented in Hanoi, Viet Nam, at a WHO meeting on Condom Promotion in High-Risk Situations in the Region, highlighted the need for HIV prevention in the sex trade, which has long driven Asia's AIDS epidemic.

Although substantial improvements have been noted in Cambodia (HIV infections level are decreasing among young sex workers) and Thailand, sex workers remain highly vulnerable to HIV infection - in some urban areas in these countries as well as in India and Myanmar, nearly half the sex workers are infected.

The report notes that most sex workers are unable to insist on condom use. This is especially the case if they are victims of trafficking, migrants or are young, which is all too common across Asia:

  • There is a high demand for the young, with the premium age for sex workers in Asia between 12 and 16. This partly reflects cultural norms as women marry in their teens in many parts of Asia.
  • In Thailand, many sex workers start in their teens, and a third of foreign sex workers are less than 18 years old.
  • In India, it is believed that 40% of female sex workers enter the trade before 18 years, while in Nepal about 35% begin sex work when they are 15.
  • A study in Sri Lanka found that one-third of sex workers had been trafficked.

Profitable business

Greater mobility and changing sexual attitudes and economies have led to the sex trade expanding across Asia.

The spread of consumer cultures has had a dramatic impact, with sex becoming increasingly commercialised. ""As economies develop, more men have greater spending power. They can spend this on commercial [sex],"" the report notes.

The huge resurgence of prostitution in China and Vietnam has been associated with market-oriented policies, and has been boosted by migration.

Although sex tourism is highly visible, particularly in Bangkok and Angeles in the Philippines, it is a relatively small, although lucrative, market.

The domestic market is much larger but far less visible. Regular clients are often men separated from their families - transport workers, seafarers, soldiers, businessmen and migrants.

The industry is extremely profitable:

  • In Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, it has been estimated to account for 2% -14% of gross domestic product (GDP).
  • In Japan, the sex sector's annual earnings have been estimated to account for 1% - 3% of GDP.
  • Between 1993 and 1995, profits from the Thai sex industry were believed to be three times as great as from the drugs trade.

Part-time work

The report notes that in all Asian countries, there is a clear move away from direct sex work towards ""indirect"" prostitution, where selling sex is a part-time occupation. Bars, fitness centres, clubs, massage parlours, karaoke bars, restaurants and hotels are now typical venues. Sex workers increasingly operate in private houses in suburbs, carry mobile phones and may themselves be mobile.

While many enter the trade because of economic hardship, a rising number sell sex because of relative deprivation - students, for example, may become part-time sex workers to help fund their education. Many of these women do not see themselves as sex workers or at high risk of HIV infection, and thus do not use condoms.

Prevention efforts are made especially difficult because with sex work illegal in virtually all of the region, it is often clandestine and hidden, making it difficult to disseminate condoms and advice about HIV/AIDS.

For more information, contact Mr Charles Raby, Public Information Officer at (632) 528 9983 or email:

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