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Click HERE to subscribe. One evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand, toward the back of a modest two-story building in one of the city's 17 unofficial red-light districts, a handful of sex workers primped. They pinned back straight hair with small barrettes and applied various hues of rose blush.
Occasionally, an iPhone would ding, prompting the women to check who had received a text from a client. On the wall, a poster read: "It's not what we do She and her colleagues belong to Empower, a sex-workers' rights organisation with an estimated 50, members. Since the group's founding in , it has fought to improve the working conditions of women in the sex trade in Thailand, where prostitution is illegal, but widely tolerated.
Empower members advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work; they want the industry treated like any other profession. Empower's headquarters, where I met the women, serves not only as a dressing room but as a library, schoolhouse, and drop-in centre for thousands of sex workers throughout the city.
In the Can Do Bar, women are employed as waitresses and receive social security benefits and vacation and sick days. Hermarratanarapong turned me from watching her friends preen to face a large cabinet with glass doors. Inside were T-shirts that read "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere," flash drives disguised as lipsticks for easy access to labor law documents , and handwoven condom-carrying cases.
There was an anthology of autobiographical vignettes written by group members, a history of sex work in Chiang Mai, and something called the Bad Girls Dictionary—a self-published book full of feisty definitions for more than words relevant to Empower's mission.