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Rewriting the VictimDramatization as Research in Thailand's Anti-Trafficking Movement$

Erin M. Kamler

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190840099

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190840099.001.0001

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“Smart Raids” and the Victim-versus-Criminal Narrative

“Smart Raids” and the Victim-versus-Criminal Narrative

(p.69) Chapter 3 “Smart Raids” and the Victim-versus-Criminal Narrative
Rewriting the Victim

Erin M. Kamler

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Drawing on interviews with ethnic migrant sex workers in Chiang Rai, Thailand, as well as employees of local and international NGOs, in this chapter I show how the anti-trafficking movement uses “Smart Raids”—collaborations between NGOs and the Royal Thai Police to raid brothels, karaoke bars and massage parlors—in an attempt to rescue women working as prostitutes against their will. Digging more deeply, we see how this policy traps female migrant sex workers in a binary framework that pits the non-consensual “victim” against the agentive “criminal” in what I call the “victim-versus-criminal” narrative. By doing this, Smart Raids not only fail to achieve their primary goal, they also have detrimental effects on the very women they are designed to help.

Keywords:   Thailand, Burma, trafficking, migration, sex work, narrative, gender, NGOs


—Mae and Buya, Land of Smiles

The brothel is a small wooden house that sits unassumingly beneath the open sky. It looks nothing like a brothel one would imagine if one were from the West—if one had only ever consumed the sensationalist images of back-alley, “third-world” prostitution rings and violent trafficking gangs that fill the Western imagination. This brothel is not the opposite of that, but it is not that either. Trees and grass surround it. Somewhere nearby, in the mornings, a rooster clucks. Before it, a road stretches to the east and west, heading in one direction toward the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, and in the other, toward the Burmese border town of Tachilek. A karaoke bar catering to ethnic men of modest means, in the evenings it is covered by a canopy of stars. It is sometimes a site of pain, most certainly, but it is also sometimes a site of agency, however precarious, and this paradox does not go unnoticed by the women on whose labor it thrives.

“Nut” tends to the outdoor fire while her sister “Mo Mo” smokes. They are ethnic Akha who recently migrated to Thailand. They stick together, these sisters. Their social network is a dense web of other Akha who dwell in small, Thai-style homes on back alley sois lit by firelight and fluorescence. Homes that sometimes moonlight as brothels. Makeshift homes and precarious vocations—the quintessential migrant experience. Sometimes a farang, or foreigner, ventures down (p.70) these roads, but not often. Usually it is Akha men who come here, keeping the social network alive and reinforcing the tightly knit nature of the Chiang Rai migrant community.

Until one night, when the raid comes. When Thai police and a bevy of uncomfortable-looking social workers descend, sending the women scattering, sending the mama san running, sending the money into the hands of the state. Just like everything else in a migrant’s life, that too will eventually be taken. The women who are caught stand powerless against authorities, and face two choices: claim to be victims, and begin the long road through detention, prosecution, and rehabilitation; or claim to be criminals—and face stigma and deportation. These are the only options available to a migrant prostitute caught in one of Thailand’s “Smart Raids.”

In the previous chapter, we looked at the imagined migrant in the context of the larger identity projects that shaped the conditions of her migration and set up the dilemmas she would face upon reaching her destination. Here, we begin to look at the actual lived experiences of migrants caught in the crossfires of these projects as they play out on the ground. Drawing on interviews with ethnic migrant sex workers in Chiang Rai, as well as employees of local and international NGOs1, in this chapter I show how the anti-trafficking movement uses “Smart Raids”—collaborations between NGOs and the Royal Thai Police to raid brothels, karaoke bars, and massage parlors—in an attempt to rescue women working as prostitutes against their will. Digging more deeply, we will see how this policy traps female migrant sex workers in a binary framework that pits the non-consensual “victim” against the agentive “criminal” in what I call the “victim-versus-criminal” narrative. By doing this, Smart Raids not only fail to achieve their primary goal, they also have detrimental effects on the very women they are designed to help.

As a vehicle for uncovering and understanding lived experience, DAR requires a balancing act. As artists and researchers, we need to constantly move back and forth between the social world and the imagination in an ongoing interactive dance. Following our imagined migrant into her collision with Thailand’s anti-trafficking movement, we begin at the site of the brothel—a site that would ultimately serve as the dramatic opening to Land of Smiles. By looking at the experiences of migrant sex workers who are caught in these brothel raids, we will see how they become trapped in a web of narratives spun by outside actors—narratives that render them voiceless, powerless, and invisible.

The first step in the DAR praxis, then, involves uncovering the lived experience of the marginalized “subject” as a way of starting to understand the narrative frameworks that have been used to manage, silence, and bury that experience. As with the Thai and U.S. identity projects, here we will see another example of how narratives about trafficking are communicated through policy. But in order to understand all this, I want to first ask the reader to step back as we look at the broader context of Thailand’s Smart Raids.

(p.71) Smart Raids in Thailand

The year 2012 marked a pivotal moment in Thailand’s anti-trafficking policy efforts. That year, the country came under fire for failing to comply with recommendations outlined in the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The 2011 TIP Report cited problems with Thailand’s inability, or reluctance, to comply with the minimum standards of anti-trafficking policies that were identified in section 108 of The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) (U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons [U.S. Department of State], 2011). It then called for Thailand to increase its efforts to prosecute cases and penalize traffickers. Finally, it downgraded Thailand to “Tier 2 Watch List” status—the second-to-lowest ranking in anti-trafficking compliance status for all countries around the world, and a ranking that the U.S. government threatened would carry a heavy penalty for any country that failed to turn its policies around.

One of the immediate responses to this downgrade was an increase, both on the Thai government’s part and on the part of the international community, in strengthening anti-trafficking policy implementation in Thailand. Specifically, the State Department responded to Thailand’s downgraded status by increasing funding for Smart Raids. In a Smart Raid, an NGO will collaborate with the Royal Thai Police to raid a brothel, karaoke bar, or massage parlor—places where suspected underage prostitution might be taking place. The women working in these establishments are arrested and taken to one of Thailand’s International Detention Centers (IDCs) where they are held while social workers and NGO staff enact a “weeding out” process, working to identify which are consensual sex workers and which are under age 18, and thus automatically deemed to be victims of human trafficking. Sometimes, the women are held in detention for several months to over a year, while authorities attempt to facilitate the prosecution of the establishment’s owner on trafficking charges.

Consequently, these raids are often devastating to women doing sex work by consent. Not only do they objectify and paternalistically shame women who have chosen to enter this vocation, but they also hinder the women’s ability to provide for families who rely on their incomes to survive. While Smart Raids are meant to address the needs of trafficking victims, they more often than not end up penalizing consensual sex workers while reinforcing a victim-versus-criminal binary and a gendered construction of citizenship that does real harm to female migrant laborers working in the sex industry, regardless of whether they are victims of human trafficking.

As noted in Chapter 2, policies designed to combat trafficking in Thailand are recent inventions. Human trafficking only emerged as a central concern for the U.S. State Department within the last two decades, and formally crystallized into an official global problem with the 2000 Palermo Protocol. But formal problems demand formal solutions, no matter how flawed they may ultimately prove to be. Smart Raids were designed as a mechanism for freeing victims of human trafficking while “minimizing harm to others” (U.S. Department of State, 2012). Ideally, these raids are “grounded in real evidence, have a well-defined goal grounded in law, and (p.72) are planned to ensure the safety of everyone involved. They should also include arrangements to segregate supervisors, conduct victim-centered interviews, cross-reference victims’ accounts, and quickly transition to post-rescue care and shelter for identified victims” (U.S. Department of State, 2012). The TIP Report distinguishes these interventions from “Blind Sweeps,” which do not rely on credible surveillance or verification of the evidence of trafficking victims being present in the targeted location.

The Smart Raid policy, however, fails to live up to the standards outlined above. Instead, as was noted by a number of respondents, they seldom succeed in identifying actual victims of human trafficking, and more often serve the purpose of harassing, intimidating, and disrupting the work of consensual sex workers. Moreover, in 2011 the Smart Raid policy, though well funded and diligently enacted, succeeded in producing only a scant number of trafficking prosecutions in Thailand (Anti-trafficking NGO employee, personal communication, 2011)—not enough to demonstrate adequate compliance.

For the women working in Thailand’s brothels, the policy has two primary detrimental consequences: First, it puts the onus on sex workers to demonstrate their status as either a “victim” (i.e., forced) or “criminal” (i.e., consensual) prostitute. If rendered a consenting criminal, the sex worker is further penalized. Such a purposeful and strategic form of punishment, enacted with copious amounts of funding from the U.S. government, can be seen as a way of reinforcing Western stereotypes, moralisms, and gender norms.

Smart Raids are also problematic because they assist the state in penalizing “illegal” migrants, many of whom are fleeing repressive regimes, armed conflict and structural violence in their home countries. As we saw in Chapter 2, female migrants from Burma are often unable to secure the proper documentation needed to migrate formally into Thailand. This results in their hiring “carriers” to help them manage their migration processes. These informal arrangements, lacking support by state apparatuses, often leave women vulnerable to exploitation. Smart Raids, however, do nothing to challenge the structural conditions underlying such processes. Instead, they problematically legitimize the Thai state’s mistreatment of female migrants who enter the sex industry.

The dual threats of deportation on one hand, and exploitation on the other, must be analyzed together, since both serve as components of the state project of gendering the citizenship of female migrants. We see, through the Smart Raid policy, how the state becomes an actor to whom women must either demonstrate their loyalty by identifying as victims, or demonstrate their defiance by identifying as consenting sex workers. Legitimacy is thus bound to the women’s demonstration of agency or victimization, illuminating the gendered nature of their relationship to the Thai state.

Moreover, the gendered nature of migrant women’s status as noncitizens in Thailand has implications on the extent to which they can control their own bodies. In the absence of a nuanced understanding of sex work, the state mediates the relationship between a female sex worker and her body, imposing limitations on her ability to make her own choices. The result is that the state itself invalidates the (p.73) notion of “consent.” In this way, Smart Raids perpetuate the state’s domination over a women’s physical agency.

Above all, and as I’ll discuss in more detail throughout this chapter, Smart Raids flatten the lived experiences of female migrant laborers in Thailand by assuming these women have uniform experiences of migration, labor, and gendered identities. In this way, the raids contribute to the silencing of the voices of female migrant laborers in the trafficking discourse. Rather than putting the subjective experiences of women at the center of the anti-trafficking policy conversation, Smart Raids override this subjectivity, privileging instead the agendas and ideologies of the Thai National Identity and U.S. Abolitionist Projects.

The Origin of Smart Raids

Prior to concretizing human trafficking as a global concern at the 2000 U.N. conference at Palermo, Western NGOs had already begun setting up shop in Thailand to combat a problem that the Thai government was failing to address. Their efforts were largely functional before the advent of Palermo, operating in ad-hoc collaborations with the government, civil society, and local NGOs. Palermo then introduced the participation of the U.S. government into what quickly became a full-fledged anti-trafficking movement. The benefit of that introduction is that it has legitimized human trafficking as a concern on the world stage and an international human rights priority. The drawback is that the collaborative efforts of NGOs and the U.S. government, though well-intended, often backfire and negatively impact the very women they are designed to help.

One of the problems with the U.S. government’s taking up the fight against trafficking concerns the accompanying legislation that was imposed under the umbrella of U.S. foreign aid. In January 2003, President Bush implemented the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR—a five-year plan for public health outreach to 15 countries, allotting 15 billion U.S. dollars to address the “social, cultural and behavioral causes of HIV” (Masenior & Beyrer, 2007), AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Embedded in the plan was another policy initiative called the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO), or the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. The “Pledge,” as it became known, denies U.S. government funding to any organization with activities that “promote or support the legalization or practice of prostitution,” and requires that any organization receiving PEPFAR funding officially adopt a stance opposing prostitution (One Hundred Eighth Congress of the United States of America [PEPFAR], 2003). The controversial legislation, which was continued under the Obama administration by then-U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, was overturned domestically in 2013, as it was deemed to violate the First Amendment rights of NGOs (see Brennan Center for Justice, 2009; Grant, 2013). At time of writing, however, the legislation continues to remain in place in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus.

The Anti-Prostitution Pledge is the site of deep divides among NGOs in Thailand. Prior to the legislation’s implementation, coordination among and between religious (p.74) international and secular NGOs had been largely functional. Even sex workers’ rights organizations had been brought into these collaboration efforts, which recognized and openly acknowledged the differences between human trafficking and consensual prostitution. These organizations maintained an organized (albeit fragile) communication network, and worked together to try to solve the problem of “actual” trafficking.2 The George W. Bush administration’s Anti-Prostitution Pledge put an end to this cordiality.

To better understand this policy and its history, I turn to an interview with NGO employee, “Roseanne.” Roseanne was the director of an organization supporting sex worker rights in Thailand. This organization had existed for 30 years, and was an activist site dedicated to empowering sex workers through reforming the conditions of the industry, rather than treating them as victims in need of rescue and reform.

I asked Roseanne to explain the origins of the Smart Raid policy and its implications on NGO collaborations in the early days of Thailand’s anti-trafficking movement. She noted that during the Bush administration, when the Anti-Prostitution Pledge took effect, coordination efforts between NGOs working on trafficking issues began to break down. She referred to this breakdown as “a messy divorce.”

“Back in 1980, three-hundred women were rounded up in a brothel in Chiang Mai,” she recalled. “The new head of police needed to show power, so he did a crackdown. Organized all the bribes. That’s always been happening. A police-prostitution connection. Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights [an NGO advocating for children’s rights] jumped in as part of it, and in 2001, International Justice Mission [a faith-based international NGO]—the ‘cops for Christ’—descended from heaven into Chiang Mai. The money from George Bush had arrived,” she added with a note of sarcasm. She then went on:

For us, we could say that the motivation was all about border control for America. Our analysis is that somewhere in their mind, gangs, drugs and women all follow the same big transnational crime networks. Before the Anti-Prostitution Pledge, people could sit around the table and talk about the issues freely. But once the Anti-Prostitution Pledge came, it became a dividing line [between NGOs]. We had to talk about it and it divided us.

Roseanne went on to explain how this coalition of NGOs attempted to work together to conduct Smart Raids in the early 2000s, shortly after the Anti-Prostitution Pledge was implemented. Despite these attempts, however, the imposition of the policy created a rift in inter-sector collaboration efforts. The new moralistic stance against prostitution that all organizations were forced to adopt affected the efforts of those that felt no need to integrate such dogma into their work. Once the U.S. government became a vocal actor in anti-trafficking policy, relationships between NGOs deteriorated. Criminalization efforts deepened, as NGOs began to view their efforts as being oriented toward “fighting crime” rather than offering services and support to trafficking survivors.

Above all, the imposition of the U.S. government’s agenda on NGOs working to combat actual human trafficking rendered silent the lived experiences of female (p.75) migrant laborers, as well as their advocates. These approaches leave little space for reflecting on the subjective experiences of women who are directly affected by the policies intended for their benefit.

The Implementation of Smart Raids

Uncovering the experiences of female migrant laborers working in the sex industry requires understanding the specifics of how Smart Raids are implemented in context. One Thai female NGO employee working for a local NGO whom I will call “Paithoon” described this process, as her organization was responsible for conducting many of the Smart Raids that occurred in 2011 and 2012 in Chiang Mai.

Paithoon painted a vivid picture of the process of raiding a brothel. “We first need the senior police to give us the command,” she explained. “We are the social work team, [but] we must follow the police. Make sure it’s safe. Make sure they don’t have guns inside the establishment.

“We follow the police inside [the brothel],” she went on. “Our duty is to take care of the women. We have to inform them who we are, because in some cases they start to cry. They are very afraid. We need to protect them from the media. It’s very messy.”

Paithoon then described the way the NGO identified actual trafficking victims. “First we point to our target,” she explained. Usually, she elaborated, this target was a young woman who appeared to be under 18, which would, if confirmed, automatically render her a victim in the eyes of the law.

“But we have to understand that some people—some women want to work,” she noted. “Some blame us. ‘Why do you come here?’ [They say.] ‘This is my job. We don’t want you here.’ But our objective is to protect the victims who need help. Underage women need help,” she said emphatically.

“What about the other women [working by consent]?” I asked. “What happens to them?”

“We need to take them all out [of the establishment],” Paithoon went on. “There is an appropriate way to talk to them. We say, ‘We need your cooperation.’ ”

When asked whether the non-victims cooperate, Paithoon responded, “We don’t force them. We ask for their cooperation. They usually do. I think the women know that prostitution is against the law.”

The Effects of Smart Raids

In addition to having negative material impacts on consensual sex workers, Smart Raids also reinforce several powerful narratives that paint sex workers in a negative light, strip them of their agency, and silence them. Here, I discuss four ways in which Smart Raids communicate messages that conflict with female migrant laborers’ own stated experiences and restrict their ability to effectively communicate those experiences. These messages include:


  1. 1. “Sex workers should be punished” (Judgment message)

  2. 2. “Sex workers are slaves” (Victimization message)

  3. 3. “Mama sans cannot be trusted” (Criminal message)

  4. 4. “ ‘Life Skills’ are a viable alternative to working in the sex industry” (Reform message)

1. “Sex Workers Should Be Punished” (Judgment Message)

As I’ve explained, the Smart Raid policy punishes sex workers regardless of whether they consider their work to be consensual. Several women whom I spoke with revealed that under the Smart Raid policy, sex workers are held in detention centers without due process, access to mobile communication technology or appropriate translation services. Those who are considered trafficking “victims” may be held for many months to over a year while they await trial. While the ultimate goal of freeing women from the sex trade is to empower them, the notion that women’s empowerment can best be attained through a carceral approach favoring anti-organized crime initiatives and other legal remedies has been challenged by feminist scholars (see for example, Berman, 2003; Bernstein, 2010). Relying on legal frameworks and processes to right the wrongs of supposed oppression ignores the underlying structural conditions that cause the inequalities leading to women’s migration and entry into sex work. Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, by detaining women in environments in which they have virtually no freedom of movement or interaction with members of the outside world (see Segrave, Milivojevic, & Pickering, 2009), the Smart Raid policy robs female migrant laborers of their agency and dignity. While meant to be a tool for empowerment, the policy in fact ends up violating their human rights.

These rights violations, when described by advocates of the policy, are often seen as little more than “collateral damage” (Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, 2007)—the notion being that sex workers should expect to, and thus accept, having their rights violated, because those who consent to doing this work deserve to be punished. The idea that a person should expect to have her rights violated because her vocation renders her deserving of punishment, however, is grossly problematic. It reinforces the idea that rights are in fact not universal—that while the “good” (i.e., “non-consenting”) prostitute is a deserving holder of rights, the “bad harlot” remains undeserving of rights, and is thus less human.

Moreover, and as I have discussed, the punishment of women who engage in consensual sex work reinforces the age-old abolitionist idea that prostitution cannot be considered a legitimate form of labor. While many of the sex workers I interviewed explained that they were working in the industry consensually, Smart Raids do not take these perspectives seriously. As a vehicle for reinforcing the criminalization of migrants, the Smart Raid policy inadvertently increases women’s risk of exploitation within brothels, as their precarious labor and migration status makes them vulnerable to a host of difficult relationships with managers, customers, and middle-men, and leaves them unable to depend on the police and other authorities for protection.

(p.77) Criminalization of prostitution also creates a double bind for women who are actual human trafficking victims, as these women, too, are “compelled to lead ‘illegal’ lives” (Kempadoo, Sanghera, & Pattanaik, 2005: 9). By contrast, a rights-based approach to combating trafficking would offer measures that ensured sex workers were treated as legitimate laborers and protected in the workplace (Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, 2010; Ham, 2011; Jordan, 2010). Such an approach would diminish the threat of violence, illness, and abuse encountered by sex workers, and help to prevent the loss of dignity they often face under the control of pimps and other potentially dangerous actors (Nussbaum, 1998; 2012).

2. “Sex Workers Are Slaves” (Victimization Message)

As a means of promoting the U.S. Abolitionist Project in Thailand, the Smart Raid policy legitimizes the false idea that all that sex workers are bound in slave-like conditions—locked in brothels, abused, and unable to control the use of their time. In addition to abolitionist actors such as CAATW and other NGOs that took a cue from Palermo, this sensationalist view has been used in the mainstream media by journalists such as The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof to create an “ideal type” of victim—a rhetorical move that pulls at the heartstrings of a well-meaning Western audience who knows little about the actual experiences of sex workers (Bosworth, Dempsey, & Hoyle, 2011). We see, then, how the Smart Raid policy works in tandem with these broader narratives to promote the U.S. Abolitionist Project’s abolitionist agenda.

Contrary to this message of victimization, my interviews with sex workers in the Akha community in Chiang Rai dispelled the myth that the conditions of sex work are akin to conditions of slavery. Many of the women explained that sex work was but one of an array of vocations available to them in the informal labor sector. However, sex work, unlike other jobs, offered the women more freedom of movement, flexibility, and independence. Many also explained that this form of labor was more lucrative than other jobs. Finally, many expressed the need to implement regulations within the industry such as minimum wage, mandatory condom use, the abolishment of customer quotas, and caps on percentages given to brothel owners as strategies for protecting sex workers from exploitation. Such critical and well-defined policy recommendations were more often the norm in my conversations with sex workers, rather than the exception. This illustrates the depth to which the women had evaluated their own circumstances and drawn well-thought-out conclusions about what could be done to improve them.

A number of interviewees explained their decision-making processes for entering the industry—processes that refuted the Western narrative of sex workers being forced or coerced into this vocation. For example, one Akha sex worker in Chiang Rai, who I call “Nu Nu,” described her peers’ incentives for working in a karaoke bar:

A lot of people come here with friends. People know this place. They talk and talk, say they will get a lot of money so they come with friends. Their parents and their (p.78) families are very poor so they want to help their parents. Some sex workers, they are afraid their parents know. So some people go to Bangkok and work. A lot of people in ethnic groups, they come from the mountains to help their parents. Then their parents send for money. A lot of sex workers have very poor families.

For many women, the incentive for doing sex work is rooted in economic necessity and strong ties with family and community. The Akha, like other ethnic minority communities in Thailand, experience a sense of responsibility for taking care of their extended families. This is especially true among oldest daughters, who are often primary breadwinners. Nu Nu explained that the desire to care for families living in remote villages in Burma’s Shan and Kachin states motivated both her and her friends’ entry into sex work. She explained that karaoke bars were popular places where people “come with friends,” and added that she was free to come and go as she pleased.

Another female migrant, “Ah Noh,” echoed this perspective. Ah Noh explained that her work in the sex industry was hardly coerced; rather, sex work was simply one of many vocations that allowed her to earn a living. In Ah Noh’s words:

In the day there is acheap—“another occupation,” like construction, or agriculture. Another labor job. You know? I need to get more money. My income and my spending are not balanced. I need more money so I work here [in the brothel]. I don’t know how much I will make in one month working in here. Some days we have a lot, some days we don’t have anything. I make about 150 Thai Baht every day,3 but in the evening, not sure. It depends on my experience in the job during the night. But I have to pay for light and water.

Ah Noh’s reasoning suggests that sex work affords women the ability to pay for electricity, water, and other necessities, and that it is often necessary for migrants to take on a number of different jobs in order to make ends meet. Other women reiterated this perspective. Given the options, they explained, sex work was a practical choice that allowed them to generate the income necessary to survive.

These responses remind us of the precarious and limited situations many migrants find themselves in once they have crossed the border into Thailand. As noted previously, the Thai government restricts the access of migrants to a range of services, including education, healthcare, and employment. Given these restrictions, sex work often becomes the most economically beneficial vocation for women such as Ah Noh.

But the Smart Raid policy leaves no room for such a nuanced look at women’s choices. Instead, through its carceral framework, Smart Raids reinforce the essentialist claim made at Palermo that all sex workers are “victims” of human trafficking.

3.Mama Sans Can’t Be Trusted” (Criminal Message)

Smart Raids are premised on the notion that all brothel owners and mama sans—women who supervise employees in a given establishment—are menacing figures (p.79) who control the movement, finances, and labor conditions of sex workers. In contrast, my interviews revealed that many women’s experiences did not match with this sensationalized view. Contrary to the stereotypical “victim” who is locked in a room and controlled by a violent pimp, the sex workers who spoke to me revealed that they had close ties with the individuals who facilitated their transport and employment (i.e., their supposed “traffickers”), and that they in fact trusted their mama sans.

“Do you have problems with your boss?” I asked one Akha sex worker, “Mo Mo.”

She responded, “I have no problem with my boss. We are like sisters. When I have work, I will do my work. If I have free time I go home. If I have a problem then the boss helps me. [We are] like a family,” she explained.

Mo Mo’s depiction of her close relationship with her mama san illustrates the discrepancy between the assumptions reinforcing the flattened paradigm of the Smart Raid policy, and the nuanced subjectivities of women’s reported experiences.4 While the Smart Raid policy regards all mama sans as traffickers who enslave their “victims,” in reality, these individuals often serve as support systems for sex workers, offering them protection in a context where no other such resource exists.

Another Akha sex worker, “Nut” explained that due to a lack of citizenship documents and access to formal banking structures, some sex workers rely on their mama sans to hold their earnings. Nut elaborated:

When I finish my work the boss gives me my money. Some people want to save their money with the boss. When they need money, they get it from the boss. Some people get their money, like 500 baht, but they buy something. Where does the money go? I don’t know. This is the example [of how we might waste our money]. So we give our money to the boss to save. In one month we can have a lot of money saved.

Contrary to speculative data in the TIP Report, which suggested that sex workers in Thailand were forced to repay large debts to their traffickers (U.S. Department of State, 2012), this interviewee reported that she trusted her mama san and was, in fact, relying on her to help her save money. This evidence suggests that the notion of trafficking in Thailand having reached a point of crisis that can only be remedied by abolitionist policies is, in fact, a fallacy. Contrary to this belief, many of the sex workers who spoke to me reported that they did not consider themselves to be trafficking victims. Instead, they worked in collaboration with their bosses to develop informal strategies for economic advancement in the face of state systems that left them at a disadvantage.

4. “ ‘Life Skills’ Provide a Viable Alternative to Sex Work” (Reform Message)

The final message that the Smart Raid policy implicitly communicates is the idea that alternative forms of income generation, such as the “life skills” promoted by many NGOs, could easily replace the remittances of sex workers, offering them a viable (p.80) alternative for generating income. Embedded in this view is the idea that sewing, cooking, handicrafts, and other “women’s work” offer a more dignified alternative to the selling of one’s sexuality. In addition to being an economic alternative, “Life Skills” represent the imposition of normative ideas about sexuality and reform.

A number of the female migrant laborers doing sex work who spoke to me challenged the assumption that such skills offer viable financial alternatives. One Burmese migrant, who I call “Thida” explained that doing these “life skills” rarely allowed sex workers to generate the income needed to leave the sex industry. “If I was sewing, I would maybe only make 150–180 baht per day,5” she explained. “If I was a Thai person, [I would make] 200 baht per day. But if I am a migrant, only 120 per day. In Mae Sot,6 only 80 baht per day.”

By contrast, Thida explained, sex work was a far more lucrative vocation. She offered the example of a colleague who had earned enough money doing sex work to buy farm equipment and start her own business. Given that women from Burma are prevented from working in Thailand’s formal labor sector, such an opportunity is often seen as being impossible to pass up. “In Mae Sot, customers aren’t paying a lot but the women are still making three times the minimum wage,” Thida added.

Thida’s analysis illustrates the reasons behind many migrant women’s decision to enter the sex industry. While Smart Raids reinforce a panic about the dangers of sex work, the sex workers I spoke with stressed that their work afforded them opportunities for real economic advancement. The broad disparity between these contrasting perspectives about sex work suggests that women’s views about their own lives need to be taken into account, if we are to fully understand the implications of anti-trafficking policies. But Smart Raids allow no room for these nuanced experiences to be expressed.

Smart Raids and Rhetorical Silence

Smart Raids and the narratives they communicate silence the voices of female migrant laborers by imposing assumptions about their lived experiences and rooting these assumptions in policy. They also reinforce an emotional concern about trafficking—which continues to be described as being “on the rise” by abolitionist-oriented researchers (see Bales, Trodd, & Williamson, 2009; Kara, 2010).

Why do Smart Raids have the effect of silencing the very women they are intended to help? Why does “crisis” rhetoric continuously override an evidence-based analysis of sex workers’ experiences? Again we return to the U.S. Abolitionist and Thai National Identity Projects. Here, I offer three readings of the way these projects use Smart Raids to concretely advance their political aims.

First, Smart Raids advance the Thai and U.S. National Identity Projects by displacing the threat of trafficking (and the corresponding preoccupation with “victims”) onto sex workers themselves. In this way, they provide Westerners “looking in” at the spectacle of trafficking a way to deal with social anxieties related to identity, nationalism, and morality. Social threats—anxieties that circulate below the consciousness of individuals in a given culture or context—often manifest as (p.81) fetishized concerns, or panics. As Ahmed (2004) has explained, this often happens as a result of unknown fears being displaced onto the social issue itself (p. 133). Reinforcing the idea that sex workers are criminals allows NGOs and members of the public to take refuge in the “myth” of the danger of sex trafficking—a myth that, I have shown, underscores aspects of both the Thai and U.S. national identity projects. In the context of sex trafficking in Thailand, it is the brothel owners, recruiters, and transporters—that is, the “traffickers”—who are seen as the source of this threat. But there is another dynamic at play too, and this involves the agency of consenting sex workers. I argue that they are also viewed by the anti-trafficking movement as the source of the trafficking threat, for their very existence challenges the notion of victimization that is perceived as a necessary condition of women who are trafficked into the sex industry. It is therefore not just the “external agents” of the brothel who are held under scrutiny by the Smart Raid policy model—it is female sex workers themselves.

Second, Smart Raids advance the Thai and U.S. identity projects by implicitly promoting the deportation of migrants—a cornerstone of the Thai National Identity Project. These raids serve as a convenient mechanism for “catching” undocumented migrants, detaining them, and forcing them out of the country. The Thai state relies on these deportations to reinforce the citizenship status of those who are seen as “belonging” in the country. As noted in chapter 2, Thailand also paradoxically depends on the influx of these migrant “others” to uphold these notions of citizenship and belonging. Smart Raids, can, therefore, be seen as demonstrations of both the United States’ ongoing anxieties about the role of immigrants (in the form of the “bad harlot”/noncitizen), and as expressions of Thailand’s attempts to promote nationalism within its border by actively—and performatively—ridding itself of the other. Again, we see how social tensions dealing with belonging and non-belonging are displaced onto the fetishized arenas of sex work and migration.

Finally, in reinforcing the identity of the Thai citizen in contrast to the Burmese or ethnic migrant, Smart Raids contribute to the gendering of female migrant citizenship in Thailand. Inherent in this move is a restriction on the right to paid labor—a right wholly denied to migrant women from Burma. To unpack the idea of gendering citizenship, I turn to Orloff (1993), who argued that the key to analyzing states’ effects on gender is whether and how they guarantee women access to paid labor (p. 318), and Walby (1994) who explained the need to analyze conditions of citizenship through a gender lens, as women have historically had their access to citizenship denied. Here, we see these issues come together in the responses of migrant sex workers, who explained that access to paid employment was a necessary condition for their emancipation, as such access would provide them with legitimacy in the eyes of the Thai state. Regulating sex work, which meant, in their view, having the freedom to set their own schedules, earn a minimum wage, enjoy safe working conditions (such as safe sex), and not have to adhere to a customer “quota” system would allow them to function as professionals, rather than as criminals. It would also reduce the potential of being exploited.7

The Smart Raid policy negates the rights of female migrants by supporting the Thai state’s de-legitimacy of their labor, in whatever form that labor may take. In other (p.82) words, Smart Raids uphold Thailand’s project of discriminating against the “noncitizen,” and “gender” this discrimination by explicitly targeting female sex workers and criminalizing them for both their migration practices and for participating in a vocation that is dependent on the use of their female bodies.

The question of whether sex work can and should be considered legitimate work is central to the construction of female migrant laborers as agents in achieving personhood under the Thai state. Both trafficking victims and consensual prostitutes are non-subjects, possessing no rights to the full benefits of citizenship. Both types of women suffer under the Smart Raid policy and are caught in a double bind: “trafficking victims” are punished for being noncitizens while simultaneously tasked with the burden of proving their loyalty to the Thai state in the form of witness testimony. “Consenting prostitutes” are criminalized for being noncitizens and for being “illicit” sex workers, while simultaneously blamed for the existence of trafficking (in the eyes of abolitionists). Citizenship and legitimacy are thus gendered by virtue of the fact that sex work, as a form of labor, defines the women’s status in relation to the state.

Furthermore, as citizenship is an inherently embodied reality (see Orloff, 1993: 309), and as sex work is enacted via the bodies of women, where and how it is regarded by the state constitutes where and how sex workers are situated in relation to the state. Smart Raids, as a state policy that explicitly targets female sex work as a gendered form of labor, advances the Thai and U.S. national identity projects that construe certain types of workers as noncitizens, and therefore rendered undeserving of social protection by the state. Through this analysis, we return to the neoliberal roots of these colliding projects, which eclipse a view of labor exploitation in other informal sectors by redirecting attention onto the “crisis” of trafficking. Smart Raids reinforce this dynamic.

The Smart Raid policy, along with the victim-versus-criminal narrative it communicates, has detrimental effects on the women the policy is ostensibly designed to help. Rather than curbing trafficking, Smart Raids penalize consensual sex workers and serve as a mechanism for halting migration—a process that then ripples out to families and communities who are dependent on the labor of migrants. Furthermore, the raids reinforce gendered citizenship in Thailand, a circumstance in which undocumented female migrant sex workers are explicitly targeted for their noncitizen status. The female bodies of migrant laborers are implicated in a “victim-versus-criminal” binary, in which they are stripped of subjectivity and agency. Most importantly, Smart Raids silence the voices of female migrants, overriding their lived experiences and replacing these experiences with manufactured myths about sex trafficking.

The brothels of Northern Thailand are paradoxical sites. They are sites of empowerment and constriction, sites of community and isolation, and sites where bonds between women—however precarious—are formed. The complexity of the brothel, and the damaging implications of the Smart Raid policy would later serve as the launching point for the dramatic narrative of Land of Smiles.

(p.83) In the meantime, though, Phase One of the DAR praxis required me to continue uncovering the lived experiences of other actors who make up the anti-trafficking “community”—actors trapped in equally problematic narrative webs. In the next chapter, I look at the experiences of NGO employees in Thailand who advocate on behalf of supposed trafficking victims, and the narrative of rescue that influences their work. Again, we will see how trafficking narratives and the practices and policies through which they are communicated have the power to steer the movement in a direction that often does more harm than good.


(1.) See Appendix D for Phase One interviewee identification chart.

(2.) It should be emphasized that actual sex trafficking does occur in Thailand and elsewhere. However, quantifying this problem remains difficult, in part due to the sensationalist narrative that conflates consensual prostitution with trafficking. An important scholarly debate about the problem of “hard numbers” can be seen in the work of Agustin (2007), Kempadoo, Sanghera, & Pattanaik (2016), Parreñas (2011), and Sanghera (2005).

(3.) About U.S. $5.

(4.) I recognize the danger in taking all informants’ statements at face value—that doing so can cause the very same “flattened” view of experience that this study seeks to challenge. Noting this limitation, it is nevertheless important that we allow for women’s voices to be heard—even when those voices may seem to reinforce an equally simplistic view of what “agency” means. In this case, I tried to triangulate the data around this respondent’s close relationship with her mama san by asking other sex workers in the brothel to describe similar relationships. Overwhelmingly, the response was the same: mama sans are more often trusted by sex workers than feared. So while we cannot know the entirety of the dynamics that take place between these individuals, the narrative of trust communicated by this respondent and others is important to acknowledge.

(5.) About U.S. $7–$9.

(6.) A city on the Thai-Burma border.

(7.) Such improvements have been demonstrated in the Netherlands, where brothel legalization has led to an increase in law enforcement’s ability to detect cases of sex trafficking (United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, 2007).