03 April 2013


After spending two months studying issues regarding the environment and human rights’ violations through the lens of Northeastern Thailand, CIEE Thailand traveled to Chiang Mai to look at these issues from a different perspective.  During our trip, we visited the Can-Do Bar, home of EMPOWER.
             EMPOWER is a national organization founded by sex workers, for sex workers. Located above the Can-Do Bar, there are two floors, which we toured that facilitate its mission to educate and empower women sex workers in Thailand. The space includes a library, gym, office, computer room and most importantly, two classrooms. Theses two classrooms are where the women, who come on a walk-in basis for 1 baht a day, are taught English and Thai. What is so incredible about these classes is that they are designed to be applicable to their work. Their education motto is “learning by doing”. The women are learning English phrases, that they can use to speak with farang (Thai word for foreigner), like “would you like a drink” or “do you have a condom”. They are even learning the alphabet in both English and Thai.
        This organization also teaches them how to fill out job and identity card applications. Many of the women have been able to get the American equivalent of a GED or a high school diploma after taking these classes. Not only because they are learning the skills necessary but also because the staff encourages and empowers the women that they can succeed. But enough about EMPOWER, which I think is doing a great deed to the women of sex work. Let’s talk about the exchange with the bartenders of Can-do Bar. 
  After a tour, the student group interviewed the lovely bartenders of the bar that is underneath EMPOWER. Sex workers who do not have social security or health care founded the bar six years ago. The women together create a safe working environment to ensure that the women are protected and given workers’ rights just like everyone else, regardless if their work is considered taboo. The women work an 8-hour day and are given vacation, social security, and government holidays. Within the bar, there is no smoking allowed and the music’s volume is limited to 90 decibels. The bar also has fire alarms and emergency exits. 
The mission and purpose of both EMPOWER and Can-Do Bar are commendable, appreciated, even needed in today’s society because I agree that all people should be given the same protections and rights in their workplace. However, I was thrown off at how the women responded to our questions. We have exchanged with many villages, government officials and NGO organizers but never anything related to sex working or labor rights in general. I guess that was not clear to the women because when we asked simple or basic open ended questions like, what is the daily life of a sex worker, we were immediately directed to their book that included 12 stories of sex workers instead of getting it from them in an interview setting. We did not understand why they were being defensive and guarded with us because all we wanted to do was learn more about their occupation and movement.
       After the interview, Emma, another CIEE student, and I spoke with Whitney, the English teacher and our tour guide of EMPOWER to follow-up and hopefully get a better understanding of the women because with the language barrier we thought it would be easier. After speaking with her, she also was defensive. This is when I realized that when people are being marginalized because what they do, it is difficult to let others in. Reflecting on it now, the women were vulnerable and that is not a comfortable feeling. I even look at myself and wonder how would I feel in that situation. At the same time, I also think that it’s not the best way to create understanding if one is always on the defense. We did not want to exploit them or make them feel judged but how would you feel, knowing that society does not approve of your life choice to be a sex worker, if westerners (or people of another culture who are considered of higher status) came into your space and asked you questions? It’s not an easy thing to do – being open, raw and honest even though there is the fear of rejection, judgment and criticism. I do not like being vulnerable by any means but I have learned to do so when it is beneficial to others’ learning and also for my own healing. I hope that these women can do the same.

Astrid Quinones
Fairfield University 


Tom Baker said...

That is such a cool experience you had! Having done research on the stigma surrounding sex workers in the United States, I have a unique attachment to and interest in the subject. From my experiences, I have seen some very ugly prejudices that people hold against sex workers and it has really forced me to examine the issue from a lot of different angles.
I think groups such as EMPOWER are the catalysts that will create changes in the industry. The fact is, as long as the sex work is considered an “alternative career,” the people who work in the industry will continue to be marginalized, abused, and stigmatized. The wonderful thing about EMPOWER is that it is normalizes the career by giving its employees benefits and safe work spaces while, most importantly, keeping their dignity intact. If more organizations like EMPOWER continue to develop, I truly believe it will have a significant impact on the changing of the stigma that surrounds sex work. It is my hope that a few years down the line the employees of EMPOWER will no longer feel that fear and defensiveness that you experienced when they are asked about their work.

Sara Hutchinson said...

Hi Astrid,
That sounds like a very unique and interesting experience. I really enjoyed reading your blog post because I have never heard of anything like the organization Empower before. I think your perspective on the vulnerability and defensiveness they feel at being part of such a marginalized profession was dead on. Groups such as Empower are important tools for changing perspectives around such a stigmatized form of work. As Tom said, I think it would be interesting to see how Empower changes down the road. Will these sex workers feel more empowered to speak up about their personal experiences? Or will their always be some layer of defensiveness to their responses? I would also be interested to read the book “12 stories of sex work” that you referred to and hearing their personal stories.
Great reflection thanks for sharing!

Kelly Hardin said...

Even though weeks have passed since this exchange happened, I still struggle to make sense of the defensive reaction that the women of EMPOWER had to our questions. In part, I believe it is because we went into the exchange not knowing exactly what EMPOWER stands for and not knowing enough about sex work in Thailand in general. Because this incredible organization is trying to fight stigma against sex workers, I agree with you that it would have been helpful if they explicitly told us why it was that the questions we asked bothered them. (Then again, perhaps the lack of this direct response is partially due to Thai cultural norms.)
On the other hand, as demonstrated by all the wonderful work they do at the learning center and the Can Do Bar, I believe that these women are anything but vulnerable. They have much inner strength to do all that they do.

HannahBanana said...


I too was confused after having left the exchange with EMPOWER, but having discussed it more I think that I now have a better grasp on what had happened during this talk. I appreciated that you and Emma decided to continue the discussion with Whitney and i find it very interesting at the responses that you got. It was upsetting that there was confusion about the amount of knowledge we had of this organization and sex work in general. I wonder if things would have been different if they understood that we were trying to understand the work the organization, having no past knowledge. For all we know they may have acted in the same manner, guarded and defensive. I only wish that they would have been more open and proud to talk about their work because after all, aren't they trying to express that the work that they do should be accepted in society and treated as so. Maybe in actuality they do feel somewhat ashamed of their work. Whatever the case is, although they seemed as if they were holding something back, they are very brave women that are doing something extremely valuable for human rights.

Tonia said...

This is cool!