Rape Culture defines the ways in which sexual violence is trivialized and normalized. It involves victims being blamed, shamed and encouraged to hide their abuse. It can be present in media and institutions as well as general societal practices. Rape culture is certainly not exclusive to Thailand; it happens everywhere. This post discusses the presence of rape culture in Thailand alone. For more definition, see here and here.
I was recently teaching a class of four people, two men and two women. During that class, one of the male students made a joke about me to a female member of staff. I didn’t quite catch it, so she repeated it to me.
“He said that if you don’t pass him for this class, he will rape you”.
“I dont understand”, I said.
“Rape. He will rape you”. She reiterated with a giggle.
“I understand the words, I just don’t understand the joke”.
She immediately realised that I was offended and came to me several times later on to apologise. The man who’d said it never did, although I have no idea if he knew that his joke was inappropriate. His girlfriend was actually one of the other students in that class, so I can’t imagine he would have cared much if he had. Completely confused and shocked, I spoke to a handful of my Thai coworkers about the incident and thankfully, their reaction was the same as mine. My boss called me in for a chat upon hearing about it, in which she apologised and promised to have a meeting with the guy who made the ‘joke’. You’re probably wondering how anyone could consider such a remark to be funny. The truth is that this wasn’t just a case of one person making an offensive comment. Rape is normalized in Thailand in many ways.
In Thai, there are two words for rape. One is ‘bplum’ (ปล้ำ), which is also used for ‘wrestling’ (‘muay bplum’ is clinching) and forced sex. The other is ‘khom kheuun’ (ข่มขืน). while both of these words mean ‘rape’ to us, that’s not the case in Thai language. It sounds completely ridiculous to say that there could be two types of rape, with one more serious than the other, but that’s exactly the case here. For us, rape is rape. There is either consent or an absence of it. In Thailand, it’s not as clear as that.
Khom kheuun is what Thais would use to describe rape as a criminal act (although isn’t it always?) Bplum, however, is much more complicated. Bplum starts as forceful and violent, but can sometimes end with the establishment of a relationship. This is commonly shown in Thai soap operas or ‘lakorn’.
Sometimes, a relationship comes only because the female character is now under some kind of ownership, having been raped by the male. It can also come because the male feels guilty for what he’s done and wants to take care of her as a way of perhaps making up for it and taking responsibility for his actions. Other times, there are cases where there may already be an attraction between the two characters, but cultural gender norms would make it unacceptable for the female to make a move. So, the leading male character forces her into sex, after which they begin their relationship. Most ‘bplum’ scenes seem to show ‘good girl’ or a ‘bad girl’. If she’s good, he’s forcefully showing his love for her; if she’s bad, he’s punishing her. In both types, the blame falls on the victim rather than the perpetrator, as it’s implied that she somehow deserved it.
It’s all very complex, so the best way for me to explain would be to show some examples of such scenes. The scene below, from ‘Game Rai Game Ruk เกมส์ร้ายเกมส์รัก’, shows ‘bplum’ between two characters. The man can be seen grabbing and forcefully kissing the woman while she shouts and hits him. Seconds later, it switches to a romantic scene of them standing by lake, lovingly embracing, before switching back to the original scene, where she has stopped struggling and perhaps given in to his advances.
This clip from ‘Sawan Bieng สวรรค์เบี่ยง’ is much more violent, with the victim confronting her attacker the morning after.
In another scene from’ Saneha Sanyakhaaen เสน่หาสัญญาแค้น, while the male is attempting to rape a female character, he realises that she is crying and stops to ask her why. He then suddenly realises what he’s doing (as if the fact that she had resisted, slapped him, and had to be dragged into the room beforehand wasn’t enough), becomes upset and leaves the room.
Scenes like these are all too easy to find on Youtube because they’re shown so frequently. A detailed article on rape culture from Coconuts Bangkok said that “..rape remains coded in the DNA of Thai drama, as no television series is complete without sexual violence against a female character. Generations of young women have grown up watching their media role models and heroines succumb to sexual violence”. In fact, a 2014 study found that more than 80% of Thai soap operas broadcast year-round contained scenes of rape or gender-based violence. The article, which can be read in full here, says that rather than depicting a violent crime and a violation of one’s rights, lakorn perpetuates the belief that rape is normal. It is often shown as a form of revenge or punishment.
In some stories, the rapist even works with a hotel employee to deceive the victim into going there to be raped. With scenes like these being so frequent in Thai soap operas, it’s little wonder that many people think such incidents are normal parts of relationships. A study on university students, ‘Date Rape Perceptions by Thai University Students‘ by Nanthaphan Chinlumprasert, revealed some horrifying attitudes towards date rape. See the image below:
“I would call this situation as consent to be raped”
Forced sex within relationships and acquaintance rape is largely normalised, and that is only part of the problem. This advertisement for a soap opera episode, which gives an in-depth description of how a male character rapes his stepdaughter as well as pictures of the scene, is particularly disturbing. The article is in Thai, but I’ve roughly translated to the following:
“While Mot is asleep, her stepfather, X, tiptoes into the room and lustfully gazes at her. He’s unable to stop his hands from stroking her thigh and then attempting to rape her. This scene will thrill you! Mot must use strength and power to fight X, whose body is soaked in sweat and mouth is almost overflowing with saliva as he stares at her. Mot is terrified to have been woken by X and pushes him away. He throws himself at her, using all his power to wrestle with her, but she fights back and kicks him, which causes her skirt to fall down. X won’t give up. He straddles her and yanks her shirt off of her. The sight of Mot’s white flesh gives him an erection. She is still fighting him, so he strangles her until she begins to cry. Don’t miss tonight’s episode on Channel 8!”
The advertisement is worrying in itself, but sadly, incidents like these aren’t just confined to TV. They are happening to real people and those people are often blamed rather than supported. Thai authorities blamed the rape of a British girl in Pai, North Thailand, on the fact that she was drunk and that the bar she had been drinking at had been open too late. The victim later spoke out, and her side of the story was eerily similar to some of those shown in lakorn scenes, where the attacker forces himself on her, realises his ‘mistake’, apologises and then tries to take care of her. In this case, by driving her home.
She said that her attacker offered her a lift home but then drove her to a wooded area and raped her. “I was afraid for my life,” she said. “He lay on top of me then and began crying and telling me how much he loved me, how he wanted to marry me and that he was sorry. He took a ring I had on my finger and put it on his hand.”
She said the man became remorseful and drove her back to another guesthouse where she sought help. She was taken to hospital but there was no doctor on duty. The police called a doctor at home but he said that he was asleep and that it was not an emergency and so the officers took her back to her guesthouse.
The woman was finally taken back to the hospital the next afternoon but was initially told she would have to pay $100 (£65) for a rape test before police reluctantly agreed to cover the costs.
The 2014 rape and murder of a 13-year old girl on a train shook the nation and sparked debate over harsher punishments for rapists. It also gave voice to a victim who had been raped in a similar case more than 10 years prior, but had felt forced to leave Thailand after being stigmatized and fired by her employer as a result of the media attention surrounding her case. See this article by Keawmala of Thai Woman Talks for more details on both cases.
Another brilliant article from Kaewmala give details of a 2012 case where a foreign woman was raped by a man in Krabi. The father of the victim produced a video criticising the Thai police for allowing the suspect to be released on bail even after turning himself in and confessing. The police responded with their own video, which was full of victim blaming and damaged their reputation even further (the victim had been pictured with the man and had dinner with him, so it couldn’t have been rape, they said). Many Thais hit back, which showed the differing attitudes between the public and the authorities. Kaewmala explains:
“Ours is a society that is both new and old, and therefore can be challenging to navigate, with cultural land mines like this. We are a society in transition, with changes happening rapidly in some areas and very slowly in others. The overwhelmingly negative feedback from new generation of Thais to the police’s reaction exemplifies the ongoing clashes between the old and the new side of Thailand. Eventually the new generation will win, but changing attitudes will take time.”
These are only the high-profile cases. As we know, rape goes largely unreported on the whole, and in a country where attitudes towards rape are even further behind than many, only a tiny percentage of cases will come to light.
The controversial subject of whether or not members of the public should intervene when seeing a couple fighting, even when violence is involved, has been raised with me by lots of my students and co-workers recently. The matter has been brought to their attention by a social media experiment video, which shows a man physically and verbally abusing a female in a Bangkok public park full of people to see how they react. Most students said that Thais generally believe that if a couple are fighting, it’s their businesses and we should let them get on with it. One said ‘they’ll fight and then make up and love each other again, so it’s OK‘, although many didn’t agree with this themselves. Another told me that her friend had been attacked by a man who tried to snatch her bag in Chinatown and when she refused to give up the bag, he punched her. She cried to a security guard for help, but the attacker assured him by saying ‘she’s my wife‘ and even though she insisted that she wasn’t, he didn’t do anything to help her.
In a famous case, Thai rockstar Sek Loso was filmed slapping his wife outside their home in 2014 and the video went viral. She later posted pictures of her bruised and swollen face on Facebook and he subsequently filed a lawsuit against her for 2.5 million baht in damages, claiming that she was trying to ruin his reputation and get his concerts cancelled. This sounds ridiculous, but Thailand’s defamation laws coupled with ignorance of women’s issues mean that cases like this can happen.
The stories provided here are just some examples of the issues surrounding gender-based violence in Thailand. A recent article from the Harvard National Review, ‘The Privileged Lie of Gender Equality in Thailand‘, gave further insight on the issue, stating that a Google search for ‘ข่มขืน’ (khom kheuun, the most serious Thai word for rape) shows mostly links for rape porn rather than news or support sites, something I tested and found to be true (the image search was even more disturbing, showing the dead bodies of real victims). The article also talks about the links between gender inequality and class, showing that while Thailand may appear progressive in some ways, with a previous female Prime Minister and more Thai women holding PhDs than many other countries, the reality of female life in Thailand is far from rosy.
“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.”
It is clear that rape culture and victim blaming are prevalent in Thailand, both in the media and in the law, but that is not to say that attitudes among the public aren’t changing. A petition to stop normalising rape in Thai soap operas has clocked up almost 60,000 signatures, and while I’ve been left downhearted by the things I’ve written about here, many of the Thai people around me, especially my students and coworkers, have expressed a shared disapproval for the same things. If nothing else, articles like this one from Asian Correspondent, asking when Thai soap operas will stop trivializing rape, show that there are people who recognize these problems and aren’t willing to accept such dehumanizing ideas.
This post ended up getting a huge response from Thai media. To read more about it, see my follow-up post, ‘Going Viral in Thailand – The Response to My Post on Rape Culture‘.