How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand's Sex Workers

Many of them left rural areas to earn their living in the sex trade — and send money home to help their families. COVID-19 restrictions have changed all that.
Above: N., a sex worker at a bar in Pattaya, Thailand. The sex trade has offered good-paying jobs for many people from rural areas who were facing a life of tending rice paddies and digging up cassava roots. Source: Allison Joyce for NPR

Mos, 26, was a "moneyboy" — a sex worker — at a gay bar in the Thai tourist hub of Pattaya. For him, it was a dream come true. Now the pandemic has put his dream on hold.

Mos grew up in a poor province on Thailand's northeastern border, eating fish from the river and leaves foraged from the forest. He wanted to eat pork and pizza.

When he graduated from high school, he moved to Pattaya and became a sex worker. He says the job was fun, and the pay was great. He saved up enough money to build a cement house for his family in the countryside. He promised his younger siblings he would send them to college.

"I'm very proud of that," he says.

Indeed, for people in rural, landlocked provinces, Thailand's tourist hubs offered good-paying jobs for those otherwise facing a life of tending rice paddies and digging up cassava roots — the lives they grew up with and their parents still toiled in.

Mos is one of an estimated 200,000 to more than 1 million sex workers in Thailand, including full-time sex workers affiliated with bars, freelancers supplementing their regular income with occasional prostitution and migrants from bordering countries.

Sex work is practiced openly in the country, but it is illegal and subject to fines or, in rare cases, imprisonment. About 24,000 people were arrested, fined or prosecuted in 2019, according to the Royal Thai Police. Mos and many of the

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