Prostitution – Then and Now
by Rebecca Now
What does a 19th century St. Louis madam have in common with the sex workers in Thailand?
I suggest it is agency, or the lack thereof. Agency, in this context is defined as the ability to control your own destiny, to be an actor versus a reactor to life, and to have choices. When we think of prostitutes, it is hard to imagine one with a sense of agency. If the trade is illegal, they may be harassed by police, and bullied and controlled by a pimp. One person in St. Louis history, Eliza Haycraft, was the exception, and her rise from penniless, illiterate runaway to prostitute, to real estate mogul, and then to philanthropist, is an amazing story. I wish she would have written her autobiography before she died at age 51.
Haycraft is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. When St. Louis celebrated the city’s 250th birthday, she had a display in the Missouri History Museum that commemorated her exceptional life.
According to the story, Eliza ran away from home in Calloway County in 1840, stole a canoe and paddled across the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, pulled up between the many steamboats at the St. Louis landing. She had no contacts, or marketable skills. Her employment options, she quickly determined, were to be a domestic or a prostitute. She chose prostitution as the better option.
She excelled, and became a madam for a house, then she started a second house. She invested her wealth in real estate, and steadily amassed a fortune, and considerable influence. From 1840-1870, the population of St. Louis grew from 35,000 to 350,000, so she was in the right place and time to invest.
She became a major benefactor of the poor, and was beloved for her generosity. To the widow, the orphan and the poor, she provided a safety net when there was none, despite the low regard with which prostitutes were held. At the time of her death in 1871, she was worth, in today’s dollars- $30 million dollars.
What does this have to do with Thailand sex workers in 2018, you might ask? I recently returned from a study aboard program with Webster University, studying an interdisciplinary program on “Inequality and the Environment.” In our readings, and visible on the streets, is the consumption of Thai women for pleasure as wives, companions and sex partners. It was an everyday experience to see older Western men from Europe, Australia, and North America, dating or marrying Thai women that were 20, 30, or even 40 years younger. Like the industrialized nations coming in to deforest over 70% of Thailand’s forests, it is impossible to overlook the harvesting of Thai women for comfort and companionship by expatriate men that have left their native lands. In the Thai sex trade, like in St. Louis in the 19th century, the profession attracts poor women with few options to earn a living. A daughter that takes care of her family is considered a “good” woman in Thailand. The social stigma of prostitution is softened, as these women provide income to their poor families. Thailand has a flourishing tourist economy, and sex tourism is attractive to Western men. The beach community of Pattaya is home to over 1,000 bars and brothels and is referred to as the place for “sex-pats” (a play on the abbreviation “ex-pat,” which is short for expatriate). While I was visiting Thailand, an Australian man was in the news, arrested for running “sex orgy” boat parties in the Bay of Thailand.
A Thai women’s group has arisen to help these women, not to flee or be “rehabilitated” from the trade, but to respect their agency. Education Means Protection of Women Engaged in Recreation, or EMPOWER, provides English language instruction, health information and career workshops. EMPOWER has nine centers in four provinces in Thailand.
I want to make a distinction between a sex worker, who chooses the trade (albeit due to lack of education and options) and those that are trafficked. Women who are trafficked are tricked into forced prostitution, which is slavery. The Thai government is cracking down on that practice vigorously, and has made strides in cleaning up trafficking.
Despite cries for reform, the illegal Thai prostitution trade will not close down soon.
I reflected on the situation in Thailand, and Eliza Haycraft came to mind. Granted, she was a unique person in time and place, who made the most of her situation in a booming era. But women developing agency, and control over their income is important. If the trade was legal, woman could be free from bribing police to look the other way, and could form cooperative houses to escape exploitation by their male managers. I have come around to the belief that the trade should be legalized in Thailand and perhaps in other countries.
Since agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices, legalization would lead to more options and better working conditions for these women.
Rebecca Now is a speaker, collaborator, and event planner who is passionate about exploring and celebrating American
Women’s History. More information at www.rebeccanowandthen.com.