AT A glance, the calf-length cape that a good-looking young model swirled around on stage appeared to be made of shaggy sheepskin, wildly inappropriate for the tropical climate of Pattaya, a seaside resort in Thailand. In fact its composition was more apt, if no less uncomfortable: hundreds of dangling prophylactics. Pattaya has one of Thailand’s highest concentrations of go-go bars, massage parlours and other shop windows for the sex trade. Parts of it call to mind Sodom-on-Sea. But this “Condom Fashion Show” was not part of the sleaze. It was staged at a recent United Nations-led “consultation”. The theme—sex workers and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS—was deadly serious, and the effort to turn it into burlesque rather heroic.
The consultation differed in more fundamental ways from the usual run of international conferences. Several dozen sex workers from eight countries (Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand) attended as full-fledged participants, not just models in the fashion show. Sex workers are on the front line in the struggle against an epidemic that in Asia still claims 350,000 new infections each year. A 2008 report prepared for the United Nations by an independent commission confirmed that “men who buy sex are the single-most powerful driving force in Asia’s HIV epidemics.” It is thought that about 10m Asian women sell sex to 75m men, who in turn have a further 50m regular partners . . .
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