What’s prostitution and what’s a relationship?

In Thailand it is not always easy to distinguish between prostitution and legitimate relationships.

Here is scenario number one:
Let’s say a foreign man hires a woman to be his girlfriend for a certain amount of time – quite a common scenario in Thailand – and pays her a fixed salary. That must be prostitution, you would think.

Here is scenario number two:
What if that same man gets involved in a real relationship with a Thai woman, lives with her permanently, but still pays her a certain amount of money every month? What if she expects those regular payments from him, and she would not stay with him once he stops paying?

Is it still prostitution under those circumstances? There is no clear and easy answer, since the second scenario describes a high percentage of western man/Thai woman relationships.

Culture clash

From the point of view of the Thai woman it is clearly not prostitution. Economic considerations play a bigger role in Thai relationships than in western ones, and traditionally Thai men have paid a good amount of money to their wife’s parents as part of the marriage arrangement.

But many westerners would label such relationships a kind of prostitution. So the answer is that it depends on the cultural lens we are looking through. East and West will not agree on this issue, and what we have here is a typical culture clash.

Love, prostitution and grey areas

The western man is expected to conform to such a financial arrangement since he is in a relationship with a Thai woman. Even if the Thai woman herself does not insist on the financial arrangement, she will be under considerable pressure from her family and even from her friends.

The western man is always seen as wealthy, even if he is not. Unless the mixed couple is able to introduce some western values into their relationship and lesson the family influence, the  money issue tends to always be a sticking point.

In most cases the Thai woman will feel a moral obligation to send money to her family, even if the couple moved to the husband’s home country. So the economic support and financial consideration almost always tends to be part of the arrangement.

Maybe we have to compromise here and invent a new term, somewhere between a love-based relationship and prostitution, like conditional relationship, or relationship with negotiated benefits.

Even if the relationship is gradually transformed into a true connection, an actual loving relationship, the Thai woman will see regular payments as a sign of love, commitment, and support. The western man, in contrast, will not see it that way and often resent the constant financial pressure.

I am not putting any blame on Thai women. They just do what is part of their culture, their upbringing and their often limited understanding of western values. The truth is that many western men actually feed this kind of thinking by flashing their money and offering to pay the woman.

Often they feel that they are really helping out, they want to show generosity, or they know that this is the easiest way to start up a relationship. So we are still in this grey area between love and prostitution.

If you try to draw fixed lines between those two concepts, you will have problems in Thailand. This is just not a black and white issue here, and our labels simply don’t fit.

What does marriage mean in Thailand?

Even the Thai language is not so clear cut. One word can mean girlfriend/boyfriend or wife/husband. If the Thais talk about their “faen” you won’t know if they are referring to their lover or their spouse.

Here the language reflects the cultural ambiguity between those two terms. In Thailand it is also quite common to refer to one’s partner as “husband” or “wife” just because they have been living together for some time, even if they are not legally married.

Then there is a marriage ceremony in Thailand which is conducted by monks, but it does not convey any legal status. So a couple can be married by a monk, and they will consider themselves husband and wife, but legally they are not married.  Last but not least there is the formal legal marriage.

Relationships in Thailand often defy western attempts to classify them according to our understanding. Western men have generally no problem finding a Thai partner, but to find a Thai women who really loves them for who they are and not for the economic security they provide is not so easy at all. Fortunately I can speak from personal experience that it is possible.

Click Here to read the next article in the relationship series

You can find the previous articles in the relationship series here:
Relationships in Thailand Part 1
Relationships in Thailand Part 2
Relationships in Thailand Part 3
Relationships in Thailand Part 4
Relationships in Thailand Part 5

image of the the author, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, has been living in Thailand for well over a decade. His wife is Thai and they have created a successful cross cultural relationship. You can reach Shama at shama@shamakern.com