TW: This post, along with some of the articles it links to, contains subjects involving rape and sexual abuse.
I’ve recorded a new episode of the Two Ladies in the Kingdom podcast. This is a solo episode and the first one I’ve ever done on my own. I decided to use it as an opportunity to talk about sexual assault in gyms and in Thailand, not only in a general sense but also my own personal experience of it. Years ago, I was the victim of an attempted rape by an instructor at a gym here, and after struggling with how to talk about it for a very long time, I feel it’s finally time to get it out there. To listen to that podcast episode, click the image above or listen here. This post is a follow up to the podcast, for those who’d rather read than listen, and for me to explore it all further. I’ll start by telling my own story before exploring how similar things happen in other gyms.
In 2010, I’d just graduated and left home on a backpacking trip that started with two months in Thailand. I spent one of those months at a Muay Thai gym in the North. It was my first time travelling alone and my first time training full time, so the whole experience was very new to me. While I was learning Muay Thai, I was also learning a lot about the culture and about myself, too.
I settled into the gym nicely, loving the training and getting along well with everyone around me, especially a group of guys from the UK. We trained together, ate together and sometimes went out together in the evenings, too. On one of those evenings, we were heading out to some bars, and while we were getting ready, they told me that one of the trainers was coming with us. I hadn’t worked with this trainer before or even really talked to him, but the guys seemed to like him a lot. He held pads for the fighters and since I was just a beginner at that stage, our paths barely crossed at the gym. The only time I had any interaction with him is when he would drink with the guys outside the rooms we were staying in. While we were there, one of the guys told me that the trainer would be ‘looking after’ me and that I should stick with him. I didn’t need a chaperone and was offended that they thought I did, but assumed it was just some sexist assumption they’d made, or what they thought was a protective measure, since I was the only girl in the group, and let it drop. They kept talking about what a great guy he was, as if they were selling the idea to me. I wanted to go out and have a good time, and I had no intention of staying with this guy the whole night just because they’d told me to, but I wasn’t planning on wandering off and leaving the group anyway.
Our gym was quite out of the way, so we all went to the centre strip of clubs by motorbike. There were four of us; an English guy and an Irish guy sharing one motorbike while I sat on the back of the trainer’s. The night was going fine and I don’t recall if I was drinking or not, but the other guys certainly were. Later, when we’d moved from a quiet reggae bar to a nightclub, the Irish guy pulled me to one side to have a chat. By this point, he was pretty drunk. His eyes had that glazed-over look and he was slurring his words. The reason he wanted to talk to me was to tell me, rather sternly, not to go home without him or the others. ‘Promise me that you won’t leave on your own‘, he said. I had no idea why he was saying this or why he was so serious about it, but since he was so drunk, I just put it down to him being protective (although ironically, he seemed barely even able to look after himself), and nodded along. I was sober and wasn’t going anywhere, anyway. Once he was done, he went back to the dancefloor with the others, while I stayed off to the side, doing my usual introvert thing, and shortly after that, we all had to leave abruptly. Irish and English had somehow started a fight. With that, we decided to call it a night, so hopped back on the motorbikes and headed back home. We didn’t get far before Dumb and Dumber made a swift U-turn to go back in the other direction. It seemed that they weren’t satisfied and wanted to go back and finish the fight. That left just me and the trainer, and we certainly weren’t going to follow them back, so we continued on our way.
During that motorbike journey, while the trainer was driving, he started touching my legs. I suddenly realised how vulnerable I was and just how little control I had over the situation, which caused me to wonder if he really was going to take me back to the gym. He did, but instead of dropping me off at my room around the corner, he took me straight to the gym, where he stayed. I wasn’t going to my room, I was being taken to his.
He took me into that room and before i knew it, I’d been put on a mattress and he was on top of me. He started pulling my trousers down and I immediately pulled them back up, but he only did it again. The fact that I didn’t want to be undressed wasn’t an issue for him. We went back and forth like this a few times before he resigned to pinning my hands above my head so that there was nothing to stop him. I’d like to be able to say what I was thinking at that moment, but I can’t. There was just nothing; I was frozen. You might be thinking as you read this ‘why didn’t you fight back?’ ‘why didn’t you hit him or push him away?’ Before I’d been put in this position myself, I might have said the same thing. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to do that in real life. People respond to fear in different ways, but my response was to freeze. I couldn’t even make a sound, let alone scream. It almost felt like my body was betraying me by not allowing me to defend myself in the way I thought I should, but now I know that this was a very normal reaction. When it seemed like my brain was able to function again, and I felt that there was physically nothing I could do, my only thought was ‘I’m just going to have to wait until this is over‘. At that point, I was unable to grasp the reality of what was happening to me. I went into a space in my mind where I couldn’t feel anything, detaching myself from it all. It wasn’t until he was about to penetrate me that I was able to move, and at a last-ditch effort, I responded in the only way I knew how; by covering myself up. I put my hands between my legs as a barrier to try and stop him. It seemed futile, since when I’d done the same with my clothes earlier, he’d just forcefully carried on, but somehow, it worked. He suddenly stopped, as if he had realised what he was doing, and began apologising to me. This was incredibly confusing to me, not just because there was no way that he couldn’t have already known that this wasn’t consensual, but because I’d never heard of a rapist being apologetic. This wasn’t how I was taught that rape happens. A frightening emotional display followed, during which he repeatedly asked me to punch him in the face, perhaps as though that would somehow even the score between us. Of course, I didn’t. Still frozen in fear, I just waited for an opportunity to escape. That wouldn’t come for a while. While I was still on the mattress, he lay down next to me and wrapped his arms around me so tightly that i couldn’t move at all. At the time, it could have been mistaken for a warped act of remorse or even affection, but it was just another way to control me. I had no idea how long he would keep me there, and still now, I don’t know how long I was in that room for. All i know is that it was daylight by the time I got out.
I went straight from the gym back to the block of rooms where I was staying, pulling a light scarf out of my back and wrapping it around my neck along the way. Even after I’d managed to dress myself and leave, I still had the urge to cover myself. Before going to my room, I knocked on the door next to it, where the English guy was staying. Of everyone at the gym at that time, he was the one I got on best with and I assumed that he might be worried that I hadn’t been back. Upon opening the door, he asked where I’d been and why I had a scarf around my neck as it was so warm. I had no answer for either question, so took the scarf off. Unbeknownst to me since I hadn’t yet got to a mirror, in doing so I revealed bruises on my neck. That prompted the story to come out. While telling him, I still hadn’t processed what had just happened to me. I hadn’t yet accepted that I’d just escaped an attempted rape. It took some time to come to that realisation.
How did the Gym Respond?
Word got around to the other guys at the gym and later that day, they arranged some kind of meeting whereby they all asked me what happened and urged me to tell the gym manager. Still in a haze, I reluctantly nodded along and soon after that, the English guy drove me to the gym to have that uncomfortable conversation. The Thai manager spoke great English and thankfully, he made it as easy as he could have done. I didn’t have to say much before he turned around, marched directly to the trainer’s room, banged on the door, and ordered him to leave while I was still standing there. Gyms don’t always take action like this when such issues occur. Sometimes, they’ll let the trainer go quietly, after which he’ll easily get a job at another gym because his other gyms in the area won’t have been warned about him. There’s no formal register, which means that there’s no way to blacklist a trainer. In other cases, the matter won’t be addressed at all and the trainer will keep his job, even if the victim is believed. If the trainer is well-respected and a central figure of the gym, it’s likely that the situation will be swept under the rug as a way to avoid losing face and drawing attention to such an sensitive situation, which could tarnish the gym’s reputation. Gym owners have a conflict of interest when it comes to taking action against sexual abuse at all, let alone reporting it. They’re independent businesses and making such things known could be harmful to their image and income.
The people I was training with seemed to respond in a supportive way initially, but things quickly turned sour. The English guy took me on a day trip in an effort to take my mind off things the day after it had all come out at the gym, but when I was still visibly unhappy in the following days, he started berating me in front of his male friends. ‘Cheer up‘, he said. ‘It could have been worse’. ‘You walk around with your face tripping you all the time!‘ Obviously I was spoiling all of their fun. I never went out with any of them again, and on one of their many drunken nights that followed, he came back at 4am and knocked on my door. Ignoring the knocking only prompted it to become louder, and eventually he became so aggressive that he actually punched my door open, breaking the lock. Instead of entering the room, he ran back into his own as if to pretend that he hadn’t done anything, and when I got up to confront him about it, he kept his head down and mumbled an apology. Incredibly, this guy continued to hit on me for the rest of my time at the gym.
The Irish guy, who had been so adamant that I should stay with him that night but then left me shortly after, was no better. Although we had absolutely no interaction, not even speaking to each other since that night, once we’d both left Thailand some time later, he sent me a disgusting Facebook message completely out of the blue. You can see that exchange below.
He was promptly removed from my ‘friends list’ and forgotten, but despite that, he somehow felt compelled to send me this a year later:
Needless to say, he was blocked after that. A third man who was also out with us on that had nothing but disdain for me. He was very close with that particular trainer and seemed to be resentful that his trainer and friend had left because of me. This made me wonder how many others I’d been training with had felt that way.
How did I Respond?
As you can already tell, I wasn’t in particularly good company, to say the least. It was hard enough to get through it all while being alone in another country without anyone I felt I could talk to, and feeling as though I was surrounded by assholes made it even worse. Telling people at home wasn’t an option. I thought of how worried and helpless they would feel and couldn’t bring myself to do that to them. Instead of reaching out, I spent a lot of time alone in my room, where I attempted to begin processing the situation I was in by writing a journal. I didn’t go to training for a week, only leaving my room to get food and take walks by myself. I couldn’t face anyone at the gym, knowing they’d all heard about what happened felt too embarrassing and shameful for a while. I couldn’t help wondering what people were saying about me. Besides, I didn’t feel like doing much at all, let alone training. During that week, I thought about my next step. I considered leaving the gym, knowing that most people would advise me to do so, but the idea of going anywhere seemed too much to handle just yet, and I couldn’t muster up the emotional strength for it. At the same time, I thought about how much I’d wanted to train, and how the whole purpose of my time there was to do just that. I refused to let anyone else take that chance away from me and after that week, I was training again. The trainer was gone and soon, those other guys would be leaving as well. After they left, they were replaced by much better training partners. Some women arrived and there were two who I instantly connected with. They don’t know it, but they helped me heal. I’m glad to say that I still have wonderful friendships with them now.
While I was able to end my stay there with a more positive experience, it was an incredibly difficult time for me, filled with doubts and self criticisms that have continued to stay with me even in the years afterwards. Within that swirl of emotion was a lot of guilt. I felt guilty for going out that night, for getting on that motorbike and for not fighting back or screaming. Most of all, I felt guilty for allowing myself to be so tormented by an attempted rape, which I’d escaped more or less physically unharmed. As I’d been told by those guys at the gym, it could have been worse. I didn’t know that I was justified in feeling the way I did.
Rape Culture in Thailand and in Martial Arts
In a previous post, Rape Culture in Thailand, I wrote about how Thai soap operas normalize sexual violence by frequently using storylines in which the main female character is raped and later enters into a relationship with her attacker. This sometimes even culminates in marriage because he feels a responsibility to take care of her after hurting both her and her reputation. Writing that post made me realise that I had a certain amount of first-hand experience of this, because although that trainer was thrown out of the gym, he continued to pursue me afterwards, insisting that I accept his apologies and allow him to take care of me by being his girlfriend. It was mind-boggling at the time, but now I understand that I wasn’t in an isolated position. A British woman who was raped in Pai in 2015 had a similar experience. She spoke to the press about how her rapist offered to marry her.
“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.”
It’s not just soap operas promoting rape culture. Durex Thailand once posted a Facebook ad translating to “28% of women who resist eventually consent“, almost encouraging rape. While I would never attempt to justify the actions of the trainer who tried to rape me, I can see how his actions were part of a much bigger picture, and that they were encouraged by social conditioning.
In martial arts,the dynamic of the trainer-student relationship makes it difficult for victims to see when they are being manipulated. It can also make a victim’s team mates less likely to believe them. Ryan Hall wrote about this in ‘The Dangers of Hero Worship’, which came as a response to the rape of a member of Lloyd Irvine Martial Arts Academy by two of her teammates in 2013. You can read more about Lloyd Irvine himself and the kind of environment he fostered at his gym here. As well as this story, there has also been news coverage of reported rapes by instructors in yoga and gymnastics, more in BJJ (here and here), and this one from a Muay Thai gym in the US.
“What I came to realize is that we, as students of the martial arts, as people, really, become deeply emotionally attached to the idea of a superhuman individual or group of individuals who, in our minds, must possess privileged knowledge that allows them not only to be an incredible fighter (Or politician? Or pastor? Perhaps a high-profile university football coach?), but also a shining example of humanity.”
Trainers are often held up on pedestals and reporting sexual assault by them or other well-respected people in a gym can cause a potentially dangerous backlash. Lois Ann Dort wrote about a ‘sex abuse scandal’ that occurred at the Women’s Muay Thai program at Muay Thai Institue Rangsit Stadium in 2001. One of the camp’s resident female fighters, Salita Nakasem, made allegations of sexual misconduct against Amnuay Keitbumroong, the institute’s founder and president. These allegations saw her departure from the gym, as well as that of many of her female teammates. This effectively put a stop to the women’s fights at Rangsit, which was once the biggest stage for female Muay Thai in Thailand. They resumed some time later and I fought there several times in 2013-2014, but there is no longer a women’s camp there.
“The coach/athlete relationship of subordination mirrors the Thai patron/client relationship, which reduces the ability of the client/athlete to refuse the patron/coach’s commands. The female fighter, Salita Nakasem, at the Rangsit camp respected her coach/patron and was indebted to him for the life chances she received. In March of 2001 she left the Rangsit camp and accused the camp owner of sexual harassment. The charges of sexual harassment against the coach, Amnuay Keitbumroong, a respected figure in Muay Thai circles is likely to damage her own career more than his. The coach has made counter charges against Salita and the other fighters that left the camp with her, stating that they stole from the camp and took drugs. Her new coach, Chanai Pongsupah owner of Sasiprapah Gymnasium, said “Now that she has been selected for the national team she should grow up and stop sulking about little things”, making light of the incident (Bangkok Post 25/03/01)”
The comment from her replacement trainer is indicative of the response that victims of sexual assault can expect to receive once going public. I was also made to feel that what happened to me was just ‘a little thing’ and had my behaviour put down to ‘sulking’. It’s somewhat comforting to know that Salita had support from her teammates, who joined her in leaving that gym. As someone who’s been a victim of sexual assault myself, I’m inclined to believe others who make such allegations, but I can imagine that others in the gym may feel torn. One BJJ student took to Reddit seeking advice after allegations of rape had been made against their head instructor. You can read that post along with the thread of replies here. The poster states that after a police investigation, charges were dropped, so they were unsure as to what to believe. Unfortunately, this is the nature of rape cases because it so often goes unreported. Even when it does, it involves a lengthy and invasive process for the victim, which is unlikely to see their rapist convicted at the end of it. In Thailand even more so, as the Thai police are known for victim blaming. In previous high-profile cases of foreigners being raped in Thailand, they’ve blamed victims for being ‘drunk and senseless‘, for wearing a bikini and for going to dinner with their attacker beforehand. This week, when two British men were raped in Phuket, they couldn’t even get police to take them seriously. “The police in Phuket just laughed“, they said. This is what one police office had to say about a case of a Dutch woman being raped in Krabi.
“Someone doesn’t just rape (a tourist) out of the blue… The man and woman go together to have drinks at a bar until closing time, then they go off to do the thing that they do and in the morning a rape is reported to have taken place.”
I imagine this is what would have been said about my case, had I reported it. Even without knowing all of this at the time, I knew that reporting it to the police would be fruitless and chose not to.
Why not Name and Shame?
I’ve chosen not to name the gym at which my assault took place or the trainer responsible for various reasons. First of all, that gym appears to be under new ownership and I don’t believe it would be fair to drag its name through the mud for something that the new owners are likely to be completely unaware of and are not responsible for. I’m not interested in starting a campaign against anyone involved. There are also strict defamation laws in Thailand that would make it a dangerous venture if I was. Through social media, I’m able to see what gym that trainer currently working at and duly avoid it (I refuse to even visit the province it’s in), and that’s all I feel I can do. The purpose of this post isn’t to name and shame, but to bring this issue to light and start a conversation. Publishing such a personal story has been incredibly difficult and my only reason for putting myself in such a vulnerable position is for the benefit of others who may have experienced similar problems. Writing this post and recording my story has made me realise how I’m still dealing with it now. I still ‘switch off’ and mentally detach myself from my body at times in the same way I did that night, and I still struggle with feelings about how I dealt with how it all happened. For me, this is the only way to make something good out of it all. This is how we take our power back.
If you’re interested in talking more about this topic and aren’t sure who to turn to, the Muay Thai Roundtable Forum has a Women’s Only section for those who feel more comfortable sharing things in a less public space.
Other links you may be interested in:
‘Women, Clinch and Sexuality in Thailand – Perils of ‘Bplum’ and the Eros of the Neck‘ by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu.
‘Sexual Assault and Rape in Sport‘ by Helen Owton.