Nestled near the night bazaar of Chiang Mai, Thailand stands Can Do bar, an establishment run entirely by sex workers. Its main attraction is not selling sex, as one might think, but sending a message to the public about creating safe places for sex workers and championing human dignity.
No single individual owns Can Do, which is likely the first, and only, bar of its kind in the world. Instead, it is collectively operated by women with the Empower Foundation, which they say is indistinguishable from the sex worker community and whose thrust has always been to safeguard women working in precarious environments.
Established in 2006, Can Do was conceived as a project to promote the rights and welfare of women in Thailand’s sex worker industry. Pingpong (real name Thantai), one of the founders, attests that their opening surprised many but was generally well-received and even visited by representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the International Labor Organization and Thailand’s labor ministry.
The venue boasts not only a good atmosphere and affordable drinks, but their second floor doubles as an art space and education area with materials tackling the situation and plight of sex workers in the country. One of the consistent messages that you encounter is the decriminalization of sex work and the subsequent recognition of their rights and welfare as part of the country’s workforce. The women at Can Do say they are not asking for more than they deserve as citizens.
When asked how they handle the profits from the bar, they say is equally distributed among all those who work there. It is unusual to see such a commercial establishment managed more like a cooperative than a business.
Their existence is, in itself, a statement that they “can do” much more and stand for something greater than the sum of their numbers.