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Swinging a lifeline: The Pattaya-based non-profit assisting a diverse sex worker community

Anunchanaporn “Anna” Pilasuta sits inside a Pattaya bar, where she was once a sex worker. Today she is working for SWING. Varuth Pongsapipatt / HaRDstories

SWING’s clinics offer more than just healthcare to sex workers; they represent a microcosm of change, where occasional police collaboration signifies a slow but hopeful shift in societal norms.

 

When Surang Janyam was graduating from Bangkok’s College of Dramatic Arts, an institution with a history spanning nearly 90 years, she was expected by many of her peers to become a teacher, or a civil servant – just like her father, who taught at public schools. 

Now, decades later, Surang runs a network of non-profit clinics that aims to protect sex workers from sexually transmitted diseases, and provide them with the basic healthcare services tailored for their community, while also campaigning to combat the prejudice and stigma still attached to the sex work industry in Thailand. 

Known as SWING, or Sex Workers in Group, the charity covers not only women who work in the sex industry but also men, transgender individuals, and gender-nonconforming persons in the trade – often regarded as a fringe minority, even by their own peers. Its staff, drawn from the ranks of sex workers, tends to understand the situation and difficulties faced by people in the profession better than anyone.

SWING began nearly 20 years ago, in 2004, at Surang’s behest, after a short stint working for a charity that assisted sex workers in Patpong, Bangkok’s most famous red-light district. Surang recalled in an interview with HaRDstories how the experience helped her overcome her own prejudice about sex workers and opened her eyes to their challenges and their seemingly invisible existence in the Thai social strata.

“When I first started working, it was very difficult for me,” Surang said. “I was taught to be a conservative, prim lady. I was meant to be a traditional Thai dancer. I had this assumption that I was a ‘good woman’ and Patpong was where the ‘bad women’ worked. I was really struggling with my own values. I was afraid people would also look at me as one of the bad women.” 

Although Thailand’s sex industry generates billions of dollars every year – research company Havocscope valued it at $6.4 billion in 2015 – sex workers continue to be treated as outlaws by legal establishments. Due to the illegality of their profession, most Thai sex workers lack access to basic employment rights and healthcare services, despite their high risk of sexually transmitted diseases and other dangers associated with the profession

Sex workers interviewed by HaRDstories share common complaints: their visits to public hospitals and clinics often turn out to be a humiliating experience, with condescending attitude and rude treatment from the staff. These negative encounters eventually compel many sex workers to avoid public healthcare institutions, which further increases the risk to their health.

To solve that problem, Surang said SWING was launched as an intermediary to provide sex workers, especially men, transgender individuals, and gender-nonconforming persons, with healthcare services in a safe and non-judgmental environment. The foundation currently runs two clinics in Bangkok and one in Pattaya.

“We are friends of sex workers, who work for sex workers,” Surang summed up the group’s mission. 

 
Feeling valued 

Sex workers continue to face fines and jail terms under the Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act of 1996. While the act itself does not explicitly ban sex work, aiming instead to punish brokers and middlemen, police often misuse the law to harass or arrest sex workers, according to rights advocates. 

The law also represents a constant threat to sex workers, even those who are victims of exploitation or abuse by clients or employers. Activists report a long history of sex workers seeking police assistance, only to find themselves charged with prostitution.

This legal landscape, combined with prejudice from healthcare providers, has driven sex workers further into the shadows, shunning interactions with authorities and state-run services.

Anunchanaporn Pilasuta, known as Anna, a receptionist at SWING’s clinic and a former sex worker, understands these challenges well. She recalls that during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown of the nightlife industry, it was SWING, not the government, that offered her help and encouragement. This support inspired her to join the foundation.

Now a receptionist and information officer at SWING’s clinic in Pattaya, a city known for its freewheeling nightlife, Anna informs visitors about the foundation’s campaigns and offers advice on staying safe from sexually transmitted diseases. 

“Working at SWING made me feel valued,” Anna said. “Visitors at the clinic keep addressing me as “doctor,” even after I told them that I’m not a doctor. They value me as a healthcare worker, even though I was just a receptionist.” 

Anna still remembers the bitter memories she had from the public healthcare system, when staff used rude language with her, going as far as picking on her transgender identity and her occupation as a sex worker. Even when she was admitted to a hospital for an illness, she wasn’t safe from sexual harassment. A visitor to another patient who shared a room with her touched her breast area without consent. 

Driven by these experiences, Anna is determined to save other sex workers from this kind of discrimination, and ensure that they are treated with dignity when they seek healthcare services. 

When other sex workers heard about her role with SWING and the foundation’s missions, Anna said, they also flocked to the clinic to get advice on staying safe, discuss their health, and pick up free condoms offered by the clinic. 

Since its inception in 2004 with just a five-member team, SWING has grown to nearly 80 staff members this year, over half of whom are former sex workers like Anna.

Another sex worker turned SWING staff member is Wit, a Cambodian who works as the foundation’s online outreach officer. 

Wit, who asked that his real name not be published out of fear of possible issues with the immigration police, said he once struggled with self-worth as a male sex worker. Joining SWING changed that.

“I grew up with the idea that people should be proud of what they do for a living,” Wit said in fluent Thai. “But I also looked down on myself, because I didn’t feel proud of what I did [being a sex worker]. It was easy to make money, but I never dared tell my mother what I was actually doing.”He added, “But after I joined SWING, I felt that I have a value in myself, because I get to help other people who are in the profession.”

‘I was so afraid’ 

To illustrate the pervasive prejudice against sex workers in Thai society, Surang, co-founder of SWING, reflected on her own initial biases. Fresh from the College of Dramatic Arts, she was introduced by her sister to a Patpong-based organisation seeking an instructor for dance and skits in outreach programs focused on sex workers’ wellbeing.

As someone with an interest in social work, Surang decided to apply per her sister’s recommendation, though her misgivings about the sex workers were hard to shake off. In Surang’s perceptions at the time, sex workers invoked the images of sexual diseases, rude behaviour, and unsavoury characters. Even when taking a cab to her workplace in Patpong, Surang said, she was always anxious that the drivers would assume that she was “one of those women.”

“In my first week there, I didn’t eat or drink anything in the office at all – I was so afraid that I’d catch a disease from them!” Surang said. “But after two weeks, it turned out there was nothing to be afraid of at all … they were so nice.”

Once the mental barrier started to break down, fear gave way to understanding, and Surang soon took up another role as a Thai language tutor for the sex workers – many of whom were illiterate at the time. She taught the workers to read and write, so that they can use basic banking services, as well as teaching them English conversations, so that they can communicate with their clients. 

But Surang soon realised that even her progressive organisation wasn’t inclusive enough, when a transgender sex worker named Jamrong Pangnongyang applied to learn English with her. Her application was turned down, as the organisation was solely focused on providing the services to female sex workers, and not their male and transgender counterparts.

The experience led Surang to a realisation that the sex work industry wasn’t only populated by women, but also other genders, yet their existence was barely recognised, even by NGOs engaged in social care at the time. 

The exclusion left many male and transgender sex workers with even higher vulnerability of HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, as many of them lacked understanding about self-care or sexual health education. Those who did get infected were also bereft of anyone to turn to for help. 

“They couldn’t even cry, because their physical appearance was male, and society still expected them to be tough,” Surang said. “I thought that if I let this problem go on, it’d be too heartless. I had to do something.” 

Determined to address this gap, Surang seized an opportunity when USAID offered a grant for projects reducing HIV infections among men who have sex with men. Surang invited Jamrong – the sex worker who was turned down from her English lesson – to start a new organisation for male and transgender sex workers, with the funding that she secured. And thus, SWING was born. 

Teaching sex workers about sex

Jamrong entered the world of sex work two decades ago, driven by the need to support her family. She started with singing gigs in nightclubs, which led to her being noticed by clients, who often asked him out on ‘dates.’

Although Jamrong faced judgmental stares as a male sex worker, she considers herself luckier than many peers, having never faced violence from clients or contracted diseases common in the sex work community.

Jamrong’s empathy for her fellow workers’ struggles led her to readily accept Surang’s offer to co-found SWING. “If there was a chance to make a difference, I wanted to take it,” Jamrong said. “Saying no was not an option for me.”

Starting SWING was a financial challenge. Surang and Jamrong reached out to former sex workers who had moved to Europe, seeking donations. Their efforts paid off after a month, raising enough money to rent an office space for SWING. 

“We made calls, wrote letters, sent out emails. It took us a little over a month. In the end, we raised about 100,000 baht,” Jamrong said. “That’s why we’re very proud to say that we are an organisation by and for sex workers, because even our beginning was owed to the sex workers.”

Addressing HIV among male sex workers was one of SWING’s initial goals, along with dispelling the misconception that HIV automatically meant AIDS – a then-perceived death sentence. Lacking formal education in reproductive health, Jamrong embarked on self-education about sexual health and safety. Having no college degree, Jamrong reasoned, would not stop anyone from learning new skills in life. 

SWING soon trained a network of healthcare volunteers from the sex worker community, equipping them with knowledge about reproductive health and protection, which they then shared with their peers, thus broadening SWING’s reach. Sex workers who sought to quit the profession were also offered jobs at the foundation. 

Natthawat Thammarak, a mass communications graduate and former freelance sex worker, joined SWING after attending their training sessions. Now the foundation’s communications officer, her role involves advising on sexual health, informing workers about medical results, and facilitating access to care. The main challenge, she said, is to communicate in a way that’s approachable and non-judgmental. 

Recognising the emotional toll of a disease diagnosis on sex workers, Natthawat stresses on the importance of emotional support. “Working at SWING has shown me and others our untapped potential,” she said. “It’s a world apart from my previous life as a showgirl.”

 
A wall of suspicion

Another challenge throughout 20 years of SWING’s operation is winning trust and acceptance from the sex worker community. The simple task of reaching out to the very people they try to help turns out to be one of the toughest problems for SWING.

Their preference for isolation and secrecy is easy to sympathise with, Jamrong said, as sex workers continue to be branded as outlaws and constantly face the threat of arrest or punishment. Very few sex workers want to be approached or contacted, even by an organisation like SWING.

“Not everyone knows SWING, and not every bar would open their door to us. You have to understand that sex workers are made to think of themselves as criminals, so they must always cover their tracks at all costs,” Jamrong explained.

She added, “If someone approaches them in a bar offering help, they might suspect a trap set by the police. Building trust with sex workers requires time, consistency, and persistence to prove that we are genuinely on their side.”

The wall of suspicion was ultimately breached by SWING’s reputation as an organisation run by sex workers, and word of mouth soon spread that they could be trusted. Even the clinic’s hours, from 11:00 to 18:00, were specifically set to accommodate sex workers who work night shifts.  

Today, SWING’s scope of work extends beyond its initial objectives; the organisation now caters to sex workers of all genders – men, women, and transgender individuals. The clinic is staffed by trained and licensed professionals, offering services such as STD testing, free condom distribution, and the provision of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent HIV infection.

As of August, at least 12,247 sex workers sought some kind of services from SWING this year, according to the charity’s data, more than doubling from 2019, when the organisation received up to 6,527 visitors. Additionally, the distribution of PrEP pills has seen a substantial rise, from 4,404 bottles in 2019 to 38,224 in 2022.

Their work faced a threat in early 2023 when the Ministry of Public Health considered restricting PrEP distribution to hospitals, excluding private organisations and charities. Joining forces with other civic groups, SWING protested against this decision. The collective outcry led to the government retracting the restriction, ensuring that PrEP distribution continues to be a vital service at SWING’s clinic.

Seeking allies 

SWING’s outreach extends into the digital realm, with over 200,000 followers across its social media platforms. These accounts are managed by Wit, the Cambodian online officer, who views his role as a vital public relations effort to connect with the broader sex worker community.

Wit emphasised the importance of social media in reaching sex workers, many of whom prefer to maintain anonymity. “The income difference between being a sex worker and working for SWING is substantial,” he admitted. “However, I find value in my work because it helps people and contributes to society.”

For many sex workers in Pattaya, their first encounter with SWING often comes through word of mouth, visits by its staff to the bars where they work, or the foundation’s other activities, like the distribution of free food during the pandemic shutdown.

Earn, a transgender sex worker who’s been in the profession for 10 years, said her knowledge about sexual health was rudimentary at best, before she learned of SWING. “Nobody really stepped in to address our health needs before,” she said, requesting anonymity due to the stigma of sex work. “Some only distribute condoms, but SWING opened an actual clinic.”

She learned about SWING’s free health checks, advice, and condom distribution from another sex worker, leading her to become a regular visitor to the clinic and an advocate for protection and PrEP usage.

On some occasions, SWING also works with law enforcement with the hope of helping police officers understand the reality faced by sex workers in Thailand better, especially their experience with abuse of anti-prostitution law. 

In one of their joint initiatives, cadets at police academy are encouraged to take up internships with SWING as their field staff. These future officers of the Royal Thai Police would visit sex workers and hand out condoms, run health check-ups, and teach them how to read and write, providing the cadets with an intimate insight into the daily lives and struggles of sex workers. 

“I realised that the law as it stands today can truly be problematic, and it should be amended,” a cadet who underwent the programme said, asking that his name be kept anonymous to not jeopardise his career inside the police force. 

For instance, the cadet said, many police officers he knows would search sex workers they arrest for condoms, which would then be used as evidence of their profession to prosecute the workers or slap them with fines. The fact that condoms are crucial in protecting the health of sex workers who carry them is rarely acknowledged. 

Surang and Jamrong acknowledge the long road ahead for SWING, both in reaching more sex workers and in advocating for legal reform. 

Surang insisted that they are not trying to force the public to abolish the anti-prostitution act, but to pave the way for a fairer legislation that does not exploit sex workers. 

Her pleas may soon be heard. Lawmakers are debating a possible revision to the 1996 act, and even the Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin, is reported to be supportive of the changes. 

“Before I die, I want to see this law amended,” Surang said. 

 

Editing and translation by Teeranai Charuvastra

Jamas Kositvichaya is a writer with a keen focus on legal and humanitarian issues. Through her writing, she strives to inform and inspire, contributing meaningfully to discourse on justice and humanity.

Varuth Pongsapipatt, based in Bangkok, is a contributing photojournalist at SOPA Images. His work primarily focuses on news, documentaries, and reportage, capturing compelling stories through his lens.

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