When the Thai Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Pichet Duronkaveroj, came to speak at Harvard, he said, “Thailand doesn’t have a gender problem.” He was speaking to a room of forty students, of which two were female.
Facts and figures tell an interesting story about gender equality in Thailand. Women account for 80% of total employment in the ten largest export industries, and 45% of the manufacturing workforce. Rural Thai women have always had a central role in providing for the well-being of their families, and have been entitled to property rights and land ownership since those rights were established under the reign of King Rama V.
Today, Thailand has the fifth-most PhDs awarded to women as compared to men (57%) in the world, and has one of the highest proportions among Asian countries (51%) of female science researchers. According to the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, “the status of women in Thailand is perhaps higher than other countries in Asia with the exception of Singapore.”
But there is a contradiction between statistics and reality. On the face of it, Thailand doesn’t seem to have a gender problem. Thailand’s last elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was female. Yet, she was only elected because she promised to let the thinking be done by a man – specifically, her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. Her campaign slogan was “What Thaksin thinks, Phuea Thai [the party she represented] does.”
The truth is women do not suffer de jure restrictions to mobility, education, and labor force participation. What women in Thailand suffer is a lack of de facto access to power: a cultural disempowerment that is in part a result of sexual imperialism, state policies, and gender-specific socialization. Parallel to the story of high educational attainment and economic empowerment is the story of violent objectification. It is the story repackaged by the state into a normal condition of female life.
Violence in the Media
To understand the violence of female objectification in Thailand, one needs not scratch very deeply at the surface. The media is overt in its problematic representation of women.
Every Sunday, Thailand’s most widely circulated newspaper, Thai Rath, features a scantily clad female model on the front page – her body takes up more than 3/4 of the entire broadsheet. Thai television dramas, called lakorn, prominently feature violence: just last year, data from the Thai Ministry of Health showed that 80% of Thai dramas featured rape scenes. In threads on the popular Thai forum Pantip, users rationalize this by differentiating between ข่มขืน and ปลุกปล้ำ, the former meaning rape, the latter meaning forced sex. The latter is apparently deemed acceptable. Some are less abashed about consumption of rape culture: if you search for the word ‘ข่มขืน’ on Google Thailand, the first two pages of results solely consist of links to rape pornography, and only on the third page will you encounter links to a news source. This narrative is dangerously realized with high rates of domestic violence – a Mahidol University survey showed that 1 in 3 households in Thailand report domestic abuse.
Women’s rights in Thailand do not simply exist in a negative space defined by an absence of de facto power. It is a charged, powerfully-constructed space in which the female body is raped in the media, raped in the home, and raped in the male imagination.
The History of Violent Objectification
The violent objectification normalized in Thai society today has its roots in the sex industry. However, the Thai sex industry is neither a wholly foreign construction, nor is it wholly for foreign consumption. It is well known that the presence of U.S. military bases during the Cold War – in Pattaya and Sattahip – created huge demand for prostitution. Yet, the idea of “sexual imperialism” ignores the important role that the patriarchal Thai state had in creating and legislating this market. The development policies employed in the 1950s by the Phibun government misunderstood the importance of rural Thai women as economic agents – paradoxically, a historical reality co-opted by the current government in their narrative of gender equality – and did not create job opportunities for women. Working in a gendered economy with many dependents, but denied access to industrial jobs, the rural woman turned to ‘sex worker’ as a viable career path. Industrial policies widened income inequality between the center and the periphery, closing off even more opportunities to rural women in the traditional economy, whilst giving birth to a middle class in a modern economy.
Moreover, state coordination of industry and investment in tourism, through the Tourism Authority of Thailand, promoted commercial sex as a tourist attraction for male visitors to Thailand. As the sex industry grew, international pressure led parliament to enact a law to curtail prostitution. However, the Prostitution Suppression Act only criminalized sex workers, not their customers. Faced with the contradiction between preserving conservative Thai values and the desire for modernization at all costs, the Thai state, supporter and incubator of the profitable sex industry, made the sex worker guilty for corrupting conservatism, and absolved the male consumer in his exploits.
Misogyny and the Middle Class
Furthermore, the socialization of the middle class transformed the atypically biased power dynamic between male and female in the sex industry into the societal norm. Today, 70% of sex workers’ clients are Thai men. Over 70% of Thai men have their first sexual encounters with sex workers. As the middle class grew, so did their disposable income. Thai middle class men, socialized in a society where male participation in the sex industry was vindicated by the state, and even encouraged by their peers, spent their increased disposable income on the sex industry. As male desires involving purchase and domination of the female body were increasingly realized, they also became normalized.
To a lesser extent, the hyper-sexualization of the female body was also expedient to the middle class woman. In the construction of a distinct middle class identity, middle class women in central Thailand failed to empathize with commercial sex workers because they were typically from rural Thailand, from a different economic class and often a different ethnic background. Trapped in Freud’s Madonna/Whore dichotomy imposed by patriarchal Thai society, middle class women were able to maintain their image of purity against the counterfactual of the deviant prostitute. As such, the media were able to capitalize on the market for male desire with little societal opposition. Today, rape in Thai lakorn expresses the subversive male fantasy of collapsing the divide and having both the pure saintliness of the Madonna and the degraded desire of the Whore, an unwilling “good” girl forced to turn bad.
Ultimately, Thailand’s gender problem is intimately connected to class, which makes it possible for some to ignore. To believe that Thailand does not have a gender problem is to believe a privileged lie. It is a lie perpetuated by a state seeking to maintain its patriarchal power, a state that encourages the demand and the supply for the exploitation of women through commercial sex, and then criminalizes women participating in it. It is a lie believed by a middle class that accepts hyper-sexualized portrayals of the female body in the media.
Violence against women is on the rise in Thailand. Don’t blame it on Western influences, on the G.I.’s in Pattaya, on the tourists who come to seek prostitutes today. All Thais are complicit. We have let violent objectification become a normal condition of female life, which it is absolutely not. We must recognize there is a problem, and demand change, including legislation of rape in the media, changes in prostitution laws, perhaps even the legalization and regulation of the sex industry. For the women of Thailand, for our mothers, our daughters, our doctors, our future prime ministers who want to think on their own, we must demand change.