This week we chatted with Amaris Montes, a UC Berkeley junior who just completed her internship with Empower Foundation. Empower is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides support for women working in the sex industry in Thailand. In the latest installment of our interview series, Amaris discusses how she became involved with the organization, her typical day in the classroom, and how this experience has affected her the most.
Twenty Two: Let’s start with the basics. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Amaris: My name is Amaris Montes and I am a soon-to-be senior at the University of California at Berkeley, studying both Rhetoric and Anthropology. This past semester I took a semester abroad to study at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand for five months.
Twenty Two: How did you become involved with the Empower Foundation?
Amaris: Before I left for my semester abroad in Thailand, I knew I wanted to apply for a few research scholarships. Because I am an Anthropology student, it seemed to make sense to do some ethnological work in Thailand after my term was up. The interplay between tourism, the sex industry, and the ban on prostitution sparked my interest. While working with my research mentor I developed a research question regarding the religious factors that may have influenced the women to enter into their work field.
So, when I arrived in Thailand, I immediately looked for organizations that worked with sex workers. The search was a bit endless and difficult because I did not want to work with an organization that wanted to change the choice that the sex workers made to work in their field or an organization that aimed to “save” them from the sex industry.
Empower was the only organization, along with Swing who works with transgender individuals, that actually accepts the occupation of sex work as an actual field and focuses on protecting the women in their work place rather than stigmatizing them. I worked with the UCEAP liaison, Thanet Makjamroen, went to a sex industry panel discussion where I met the creator of Empower, Pii Noi, and whaa-laa… the rest is history.
Twenty Two: Can you describe your typical day working with Empower?
Amaris: I would come in only a couple times a week for about five hours since I had to juggle the internship with work and traveling. I would come in, discuss what lessons have been taught that week with my fellow intern Baraq Stein, and see what women had dropped in.
You see, the women work late hours, until 3 or 4 in the morning, most of the time drinking during their work because it’s an art of flirtation in order to get customers. So different women of different ages would come in on different days, sometimes willing to learn English, sometimes just wanting a safe place to hang out in between work and home.
We would let the women play on the computer for a bit and give them some time to roam the internet before getting down to business. The interns and students would sit around a big table and just chat for a bit to gauge their English abilities. We would go through different lessons a day–basic introductions, colors, clothing, flirting, body parts, watching movies, and traveling.
Many times we would just ask them what they would like to learn that day. It was a very relaxed atmosphere because we were there to serve them and be resources for whatever they need. If they didn’t want to do a lesson, we would all just chat, which many times helped them more than our lessons because they learned conversation skills that they could use for their work or teach them about our own lives and countries. All in all, I felt like we were all teaching each other and I was not teaching at someone.
Twenty Two: What did you learn from working with Empower that affected you the most?
Amaris: The most shocking and eye-opening thing I learned while working with Empower is the way that people view sex workers. The organization is set upon accepting the women for who they are but every time I either spoke about the organization or individuals would come in from international NGO’s, they always had a condescending perception of the women. People do not understand the difference between the horrors of sex trafficking and the sex workers in Thailand who actively choose to do sex work.
While it is disheartening for people to not understand this, it is more important to see the negative effects of this perception. Because the women are seen as victims, NGO’s and government officials either want to “save” the women from their conditions by changing their profession to sewing clothes or street vending or want to arrest the women because they are criminals. In this way, no one is focusing on the protection the women need in the workplace. Because sex work is illegal in Thailand, the women are not guaranteed fair working conditions, protections from maltreatment in the workplace, fair pay, access to medical treatment and HIV screenings, or reasonable hours.
Although sex work is illegal in Thailand, Thai tourism still markets the Patpong (red light district) as a tourist attraction and the sex workers, therefore, largely contribute to the economy despite their illegal status. Not only that, but policemen looking to make some extra bucks can threaten to raid a strip club, go-go bar, massage parlor, karaoke bar, or anywhere else where sex workers may work if they don’t pay off the policemen. Because of this, more than half of the average sex workers’ salary goes to paying in police men, even though they, many times, are the sex workers’ biggest customers. It is a whole crooked system that would be improved if the sex work were legalized and the women were given adequate work benefits.
Twenty Two: Will you continue to work with Empower or similar non-profits when you’re back in Berkeley?
Amaris: I hope to find another internship with sex workers in either Oakland or San Francisco. It would be interesting to see the way the legal system works with prostitution in California in order to see the difference between Thailand and the States. But it seems to be just as equally, if not more, difficult to find organizations that are accepting of prostitution. So again, here lies the same problem.
Twenty Two: How can people outside of Thailand help forward Empower’s mission?
Amaris: People can start by being more open-minded to the idea of sex work in relation to the conditions of each country as well as realize the difference between sex trafficking and free-choosing sex work. While in the US there are multiple avenues to gain a good amount of money without averting to prostitution, in Thailand and other countries sex work is a highly lucrative business which could mean a family’s survival. The odd relationship between the government, tourism, and the sex industry also makes it a different game in Thailand.
So if people stop stigmatizing sex work and push for foreign governments like Thailand to legalize and protect sex workers, women can work in better conditions, free of violence from their customers. Sex workers can also stop feeling like they are looked down upon and instead feel Empowered, which is what the organization is all about.
Click on the images below to see more from Empower. All photography courtesy of Amaris.
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