Thailand Intimacy & Healthy (Adult) Sexuality Research Report
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Culture of Face and Shame
Thailand is a society that operates around the construction and presentation of positive images (phap-phot) and in which public exposure of a reality (khwam-jing) that contradicts these images, even when its truth is widely known, is often a source of scandal. In some cases, such as lese majesty laws relating to defamation of the monarchy, Thai law punishes those who damage the public image of a hallowed institution, even when the revelation may be generally known to be true. In Thailand truth is only occasionally a sufficient justification for publicly exposing an unpleasant reality. Those Thais who "buck the system", "make waves" or draw attention to the contradictions between public images and private realities, are often subjected to legal and extra-legal sanctions, and "going public" on a controversial issue can be a dangerous enterprise in Thailand. For example, Thai journalists writing about local political and business affairs for regional newspapers have historically suffered high assassination rates, with local "godfathers" (jao-phor), "influential figures" (khon mi itthiphon) and "dark forces" (amnat meut) allegedly with connections to the military, police, local government and business interests often dominating local affairs. Interpreting Thai politics, society and culture is therefore a complex and often tedious task of piecing together disparate facts, and there is often a disparity between what one needs to know in order to be an informed observer of Thai affairs and what it is possible to publish or say in public.
In everyday life, Thais rarely judge their actions by any abstract criterion of right or wrong, sin, or virtue. Instead, within the culture of maintaining positive images, they are much more concerned with how they appear to others and how they measure up to others' expectations. Thus, "rightness" and "wrongness" tend to be socially specific rather than morally abstract notions within Thai culture, being more closely aligned with notions of propriety than of sin.
In this context, loss of face is often a devastating experience for a Thai man or woman. Loss of face is much more than an embarrassment, because it means that one has been judged inappropriate, whether in action, appearance or word, and entails loss of the esteem of others. Thai has a rich vocabulary to refer to shame and embarrassment that draws on the notion of "face" (na); for example, sia na ("to have one's face damaged") to lose face; khai na ("to sell one's face") to lose face, to do something shameful; na na ("to be thick faced") to be thick-skinned, to be shameless or untouched by other's views of one's behaviour; na taek ("for one's face to break") to suffer a minor embarrassment.
The importance of keeping up appearances, and the presentation of a public face of politeness, unobtrusiveness, calmness, and respectfulness, is, as Daniel Wit (1968:61-62) observes, not just a phenomenon of social interaction, but something that influences many Thais' self-image.
A Thai does not wish to lose "face"be obviously embarrassed or otherwise have his dignity or status impaired. This attitude may go so far as his not wanting to engage in a private self-analysis whose result might be inimical to his own self image.
When so much social value is placed on conforming to expectations of appropriateness, there is very little support for expressions of individuality or eccentricity within traditional Thai culture. In Thailand "being oneself" or "finding oneself" are not culturally sanctioned pursuits, or justifications for individual or eccentric behaviour. Being appropriate or conforming is by far the dominant social ethic. The Thai individual does exist but, in Niels Mulder's (1979:108) words, he "is used to seeing himself and others as members of groups or according to the social attributes of position". In a society based on collective or group values, what others think of oneand not simply how others act in relation to onebecomes a significant social force for ensuring conformity. Loss of face or social standing is consequently often perceived as a personal tragedy, and so the threat of loss of face exerts a major coercive force.
Thai Sexual Culture
Buddhism isolates desire and craving, of whatever character, as the roots of evil and the cause of the human suffering from which it seeks salvation. Nevertheless, there is a surprisingly pragmatic attitude to sexual activity among Thai laypeoplemonks being strictly celibate. There is no self-disciplinary or self-denying attitude to sex among men in Thailand. Sexual impulses are commonly viewed as a "mood" or arom, a pent-up emotional state in need of release. The commercialisation of sex is also more prominent and more accepted, implicitly if not explicitly, in Thailand than in the West. While traditionally this commercial pragmatism in sex has been limited to the marketing of women for male consumption, in recent years both heterosexual gigolos and, to a larger extent, male homosexual prostitutes have also become common.
Sex may be discussed explicitly among same-sex peers, but almost never in mixed groups of men and women. Allyn (1991a:150) comments:
. . . sexual matters are not typically discussed by the Thai among themselves. Most parents do not give the facts of life to their offspring and there is little sex education conducted in school. These matters are seen as private and embarrassing. However, while sex is not directly discussed . . . sexual matters are alluded to in a positive light, . . . it is common to tease and joke with others [about sexual matters], particularly the newly married. What is significant here is that bawdy banter is done in front of children. The banter is usually positive: "Did you have fun last night?" "Was last night happy?" "How many times?"
In further discussing Thai attitudes to sex, Allyn (ibid.:153) observes:
Most social discussion about sexuality is about heterosexual behaviour. . . . Decent girls don't flirt and don't encourage boys to flirt back, so gaining the attention of a boy is done circumspectly, often through a third party. Good boys want decent girls, and playing around with decent girls is [considered] bad. Prostitutes are not decent . . . but it is better to go to her when the mood needs satisfaction rather than defile a decent girl.
Attitudes to sex in Thailand vary between classes, and opportunities for sexual experiences also differ markedly for Thai men and women. The upper class, sections of the Western-educated middle class, and Thais from a Chinese cultural background often express prudish attitudes towards sex. In part this prudishness appears to have been influenced by nineteenth and early twentieth century Western attitudes to sex, in the case of the Thai upper classes, and by Chinese culture's more conservative attitudes towards sex, in the case of the Sino-Thais.
Rural and urban working-class Thais, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population, generally have much more liberal attitudes towards sex, explicitly valuing the pleasure of sexual activity. Among most ethnic Thais sexual desire is commonly regarded as a "mood" (arom) in need of release (rabai), and when a Thai man has a sexual mood, it is expected that he will act upon it to obtain sexual release. The idea of suppressing sexual desires, except for Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly involvement, is not a part of traditional male sexual culture.
Food metaphors and the idea of "flavour" (rot-chat) are commonly applied to sexual enjoyment. Just as Thais enjoy variety in their foodeating the same type of food every day is regarded as boring (na-beua) and flat (jeut)so, too, the quest for variety and novelty in sexual experience is valued positively. The cultural valuing of variety in food, sex and other sensory experiences can itself be used to justify experimenting with homosexuality. It is not uncommon for Thai men to justify their interest in homosexual sex in terms of seeking out a "new flavour" (rot-chat mai) of sexual pleasure or a desire for a "change of flavour" (plian rot-chat). "I'd like to give it a try" (yak lorng du) is also a common justification for having sex with another man, just as "Do you want to give it a try?" (yak lorng du mai) can be used as a non-threatening sexual request between masculine-identified males who do not consider themselves to be predominantly homosexual.
Regarding the positive valuation of sex and sexual desire in Thailand, Allyn (1991a:162) comments:
Feeling ngian (a vulgar term that is equivalent to "horny") is accepted, and even Thai women are supposed to enjoy their sexual experiences, albeit not as freely as Thai men. . . . Thai heterosexual pornographic videos often feature prolonged scenes of stimulation of the female, in contrast to Chinese hard-core material where intercourse is engaged in comparatively fast.
Concern among heterosexual men to provide sexual pleasure to female partners is shown by some working-class Thai men's preparedness to scarify their penis in order to increase women's sexual satisfaction. While this scarification has a strong element of masculine sexual braggadociothe incision is typically performed in the presence or with the help of male peersit is justified in terms of supposedly increasing a woman's sexual enjoyment. The most common form of penile scarification is fang muk ("inserting pearls"), where small glass or plastic beads are inserted under the skin of the penis. A less common form of scarification is called ben (from "Mercedes Benz"), where a triangular shape similar to the Mercedes Benz marque is cut onto the top of the penis, below the glans. This scarification is believed to increase friction against the clitoris during sex and to increase a woman's pleasure.
While Thai male sexual culture is elaborate and positively sanctioned by prevailing attitudes, Thai women benefit far less from the pragmatic and generally liberal view of sex, and there are great differences in sexual expectations between the sexes. In socio-economic and cultural terms, the status of women has traditionally been higher in Thailand than in most other Southeast Asian countries. Women have historically controlled household finances, and in villages and small towns they have dominated local level small scale economic activities such as the marketing of produce and cottage industry products. Thai women continue to play an important economic role as middle-level shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Despite this, Thailand remains a male-dominated society and women's opportunities for sexual expression are restricted compared to men, who have few limits placed on their sexual conduct. As Keyes (1975:290) notes of the situation in villages, "If one is to play an active role in village affairs one should be male, own some paddy fields, and head an independent domestic group."
However, rapid urbanisation, socio-economic transformation, the impact of Western ideas via print and electronic media, the opening of discussion of sexuality in light of HIV/AIDS, mass tourism and increasing numbers of Thai men and women travelling and studying overseas, are together leading to major changes in Thai sexual attitudes. These changes are apparent in increasing freedom in partner selection, lessened importance of woman's virginity at the time of marriage, a decrease in the age of first sexual intercourse for both men and women, and more open discussion of sexual matters, especially among the young, educated and urban sections of the population.
Source:An Abridged Excerpt from Chapter One of
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