Friday, 7 August 2015

Thailand, sexualised and hierarchal - a problematic combination.

To many an openly sexualised society is a positive development from so-called conservative attitudes of sex. The freedom to choose your sexuality and openly express it in public, partake in certain sexualised practices, and support individual sexual decisions, can arguably be seen as a strong pillar of a progressive society. However without strong societal foundations backed by sound institutions, or state apparatuses that demonstrate dignity, equality, and humanity, the progressive sexualization of a society can contain unhealthy and destructive traits. Often these negative aspects are overlooked and nervously put to the side due to cultural restrictions, with only common and healthy progressions, such as increased acceptance of LGBT communities celebrated. And although some sexual freedoms are a necessity if human rights principles are going to be adhered to, such as an integral acceptance of sexual orientation, the sexualization of a culture within hierarchal societies can also be detrimental to human rights. This is primarily due to the fact that hierarchal societies self regulate themselves in the questioning of those older than ones self or in a position of superiority. Thus a highly sexualised culture becomes problematic and increasingly perverted. 

Thailand, often celebrated in the west as a sexually and legally liberal country, where tourists and expats alike can partake in activities forbidden or frowned upon in their own country, is more complex and damaged that one might think. Amongst a backdrop of surreal beaches, iconic scenery, mystic temples and ruins, and flamboyant and exotic foods, lies a dark and convoluted world of sexual lewdness, abuse and indoctrination. On the surface iconic and notorious districts within Thailand, such as the city of Pattaya and Patong in Bangkok, can seem fascinating and intriguing, with visitors awkwardly and uncomfortably commenting on how sexualised the districts are. However such intrigue and ignorance at immense and systematic cultural degradation, plays a part in contributing to Thailand’s ‘sexual’ problem. 

I can already hear some of you state that this problem is not unique to Thailand and that almost every country has some form of sexualised issue. However what makes Thailand unique is a mixture of hierarchical customs and a lack of political and societal leadership, which arguably weakens civil society and hinders public virtue.  

With years of political weakness, consecutive coups and political and societal leaders publicly demonstrating a lack of morality, weaknesses and perversions within Thai society are plentiful. Corruption, crime, dangerous levels of nationalism, weak educational institutions, abuse of hierarchy, government and monarchial propaganda and division, has created a fragile and, at times, morally depraved society. Horrendous crimes such as sexual exploitation and human trafficking are still pivotal to aspects of the Thai economy. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous if you like, country in the world for sex tourism, is Thailand. Thousands of foreigns every year fly into Thailand to partake in hideous and disgusting crimes against children, women and men alike. In fact the sex tourism industry in Thailand is so large that without it the economy would take a significant hit and cities such as Pattaya would be in economic ruin. Thus it serves the government well to have such industries, and even having a younger generation that is more accepting of sexual perversion. Common in Australia and other countries alike is the joke one may make after finding out a friend or colleague is traveling to Thailand for a holiday, a joke that nudges or hints at something sexual. A reputation Thailand should not be proud of.

The economic addiction to the sex industry is not necessarily a problem started by Thais, as a large factor in the creation of the multibillion dollar industry lies with the United States military using the Thai port of Pattaya for rest and recreation during the Vietnam War. On this rest and recreation period a large bulk of those visiting Pattaya also demanded sexual services from the local Thai population. Although initial blame can lie with U.S servicemen for advances in the lucrative industry, it also began to service foreign tourists and the Thai elite as well. Thailand’s international sexual reputation can trace its roots back to this period and Pattaya is still ‘notorious' for such reasons. Numerous publications, including GQ, named Pattaya as the ‘sex capital of the world’. 
I understand that every country has its dark side, be in Kings Cross in Sydney or the area surrounding the Moulin Rouge in Paris, however no other country has a sex industry or sexualised culture that is glorified, like that of Thailand. Thailand also contains numerous contradictions, as despite the younger generation being rather sexualised, older generations are both conservative when it comes to their own family, yet are often also blasé about sexual activities occurring throughout their country. One father of two from Bang Sue in Bangkok, in his mid fifties, told me in regards to prostitution in Bangkok, “I don’t care what goes on around the country, people can make their own decisions and I guess it is good for the economy and tourism, as long as no one in my family is involved”.   
If there was the possibility of underaged prostitution in a suburban Sydney or New York street, there would be public outrage, police investigations and moral questioning of the society involved. It is common knowledge in Thailand that underage prostitution by largely trafficked persons is occurring in numerous Thai cities and districts of Bangkok. Although there are vocal critics of such deplorable activities, a large portion of the Thai population is either apathetic to what is occurring or treats it with awkward humour. Often I would hear so-called humour or discussions that were related to activities occurring in red light districts, even by those involved with academia or activist organisations who promote human rights. There was little concern nor attempt to understand what occurs in so-called red light districts in Thailand, leaving open room for an unconscious acceptance of barbaric sexual practices, contradicting human rights. Ecpat International states there are well over 60,000 children involved in child prostitution in Thailand, and that figure does not include youth in their later years of high school causally working as a prostitute. 

The widely accepted belief that prostitution is an ok occupation or activity within society, significantly contradicts human rights, individual equality and is a factor in sexualising youth. With little or no vocal opinions in opposition to prostitution, prostitution has become common within Thailand. It is often discussed with complete acceptance, and it is not uncommon to find those who have, at some stage, been involved within the prostitution business. Upon investigation I found numerous university students within Thailand had partaken in acts of prostitution. This was also significantly more common within the LGBT community. One individual I know, an academic, used prostitution in order to receive free accommodation in Bangkok.

Again, I know what you are thinking, prostitution occurs in Sydney, Paris, New York and in every other city around the world. However it is the general acceptance that is commonly found within society, or the normality that surrounds prostitution that makes it somewhat unique. As discussed, prostitution also does not provide economic benefits to any other country like it does to Thailand.   

Of course there are admirable individuals that assist those who are victims of crime, trafficking and mass sexual exploitation, and there is a powerful and strong advocacy movement against trafficking and social injustices. However if a young Thai woman or man finds themselves working the streets of Bangkok or causally being paid for sex in Chiang Mai, there is an acceptance and even appreciation. It is here an enormous contradiction exists. Social justice organisations and movements seem to deliberately pick and choose their battles, often neglecting to speak up against certain sexual practices or the sexualization process. With a general acceptance of prostitution, it opens up a gap for illegal operators and traffickers to get away with far more than they could if prostitution was not normalise and widely accepted. There is a fine line between both individual liberties and a society becoming more progressive, and liberties and progressive movements hindering human rights, especially with their conscious or unconscious endorsement of the sexualization process.     

The increasingly sexualised nature of certain aspects of Thai society is having a detrimental affect on the rights of children and adolescents. In May this year James Austin wrote an article for the Asian Correspondent on hazing in Thai Universities. He stated, “Students during hazing at worst might be stripped naked, beaten, sexually harassed, forced to crawl through dirty water, even killed (though you would think accidentally), and at the very least, in the negative, be shouted at and humiliated”. Although there are vocal voices against such activities, the vast majority of Thai university students either accept or are blasé to hazing rituals. Similar activities are often reported as occurring within the Thai military, with new recruits having to go through highly sexualised rituals. In the last couple of years websites such as LiveLeaks has showed demoralising and barbaric clips of Thai soldiers performing sexual acts under the supervision of superiors. A Thai solider in training recently told me that sexual abuse is common in the Army, and that “…you just have to accept it and get on with it”, other wise it will affect your career ambitions.  Both examples of widely accepted sexual processes contribute to dehumanising individuals and sexualising Thai culture. It is widely accepted that youth or young adults who have been sexually abused or harassed have an increased likelihood of carrying out similar activities in the future. Again, hazing occurs within other countries, as does sexual abuse in armies, however it is the lack of ability to speak up, challenge the norm or ones superior in Thailand that makes it significantly more problematic and endemic.  

Hierarchical culture within an increasingly sexualised society also is significantly problematic,  especially when it comes to reporting sexual harassment or abuse. The practice of hazing in Thai society is commonly referred to as SOTUS, standing for Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit. Order, linked to the ridged hierarchical system, makes it difficult for young novice students or soldiers to challenge activities those superior to them enforce. A recent and minor example of sexual harassment at a Thai University, involving a staff member and a student, became a complicated mess and largely went unresolved, due to hierarchy. A student, who thought a staff member was communicating with him inappropriately, appropriately communicated his concerns to another staff member, who then cautiously attempted to address the issue. However a senior Professor who was made aware of such a situation was both hesitant and reluctant to act, explaining such incidents where difficult to deal with in Thai society. Thus, the alleged perpetrator largely got off, and the victim received little assurance or assistance. In my view, no one cared at all. Perhaps there is a significant difference of acceptance when it comes to sexual harassment in Thailand compared to other countries. The victim was an exchange student and the alleged perpetrator was Thai, thus perhaps what was largely accepted in Thai society, highly sexualised banter, was not acceptance to the exchange student. After asking a few respected individuals on their thoughts on this case, they all generally explained how hierarchal society limited any ability to investigate such instances, and many senior Thai academics would find it embarrassing thus would rather let it carry on. 

Another example of the sexualised nature of Thai society, is the constant sexual talk that dominates conversation. It was common for academic staff to lead highly sexualised and perverse conversations within students or youth, with awkward laughs common, yet no one having the ability or know-how to complain about such conversations. This creates a cycle where youth believe it is acceptable to talk in such a demeaning and perverse way. As James Austin puts it, “…the oppressed, once endowed with authority and seniority, become the oppressors…”. I was at a dinner in May 2015 with numerous students and some staff members, with some staff members talking in ways highly inappropriate for their positions. The students all awkwardly laughed and reluctantly got involved within the discussion, however I was to learn recently that numerous students were highly uncomfortable with the night yet lacked confidence or ability in a hierarchical society to speak up or condemn ones actions. 

Hierarchy and religion also makes any form of investigation into sexual abuse difficult. I demonstrated an interested in doing research into claims of systematic sexual abuse in Buddhist Monasteries in Thailand. However everyone I spoke to either strong cautioned me not to or were offended in my questioning of the Buddhist establishment. Some individuals, academics, laughed, demonstrating the impossibility of such research, even though there is increasingly ample evidence   indicating enormous incidences of abuse. If a victim was to come forward and make public such abuse, be it at the hands of a Monk or academic, their position within the hierarchy, especially with out numerous witnesses, would make their voice almost worthless and any accusation would likely destroy the victim rather than the perpetrator. Yes, sexual abuse occurs within other countries and religious institutions as well, as seen in the ongoing Royal Commission into sexual abuse in Australia. And it would not be fair to make Thailand sound like the only country with systematic issues, however again, what makes Thailand unique is the hierarchal culture and the lack of ability for accountability or investigation into issues of abuse. Without proper state institutions it is near impossible to bring perpetrators to justice, especially in a society with dominate hierarchal structures. 

Yes, my comments and remarks are largely observational from a recent period of living and working in Northern Thailand and I may have misinterpreted or misrepresented certain aspects. However I strongly believe when it comes to Thailand and its overly sexualised society, change is needed. Perhaps democracy and proper government and independent institutions would help bring about some change when it comes to sexual abuse and harassment, however most change needs to come from civil society and the realisation there are systematic issues. There are positive signs with activists starting to highlight issues related to hazing, sexual abuse in monastical institutions and elsewhere. However the current university generation, which is obviously highly sexual in discussion, manner and thought needs to realise what change is needed and why. 

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