Domestic Violence in Thailand
Seldom publicly acknowledged, violence against women is a long-standing social problem rooted in the values of Thai society. It takes many forms, from rape and sex trafficking to psychological abuse, and often has a long-term impact on individual victims. Nearly half of all victims of domestic violence in Thailand report physical injuries ranging from bites and cuts to broken eardrums and bones. More astonishingly, in around 10% of these cases, the perpetrator stalked and injured victims at their work places. Domestic violence affects family members as well. In half of all reported cases, children witnessed the violence, leaving victims to worry that their children might perpetuate this vicious cycle of domestic violence in the future. Why is this problem so severely overlooked? What allows it to continue?
Prisoner of Love
Thailand’s primetime television dramas, known as lakorn, have long used sexual violence, especially rape and verbal abuse, to attract viewers. Plots often revolve around a male protagonist who verbally abuses and rapes a female lead, who falls in love with him nonetheless. Plot narratives are contextualised in such a way as to make acts of sexual violence seem legitimate and even desirable in certain cases. Violence is used to fuel love relationships. It is also portrayed as a justified punishment for women who ‘misbehave’ - the male lead usually rapes her as a form of ‘revenge’, perpetuating a harmful notion that rape is justified and sometimes inevitable. The theatrical glamorisation of sexual violence dates back to at least 1971, and the popular lakorn สวรรค์เบี่ยง (sawan-biang) or “Heaven Diversion,” which has a protagonist who verbally abuses and impregnates the female lead against her will. The dara has been remade five times, receiving ‘most popular lakorn’ awards on multiple occasions. More recent dramas, such as the 2021 เมียจำเป็น (mia-jum-pen) or “Wife on Duty,” continue to promote the idea that sexual violence is sometimes ethical, an appropriate punishment deserved by a female antagonist.
2008 version of the fan favorite สวรรค์เบี่ยง. Source: Ch3Plus
Television shows and the popular media inevitably has a massive influence on audiences. In many countries, the media has been used to draw attention to the plight of women in society. In the United States, Netflix has released a series inspired by Stephanie Land's memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive. It examines the struggles of a young mother, Alex, as she escapes an abusive relationship and raises her child in a bureaucratic system. Audiences follow Alex’s struggle to get subsidised childcare without holding a job and being denied jobs because she lacks childcare. When she finally finds a job as a maid, she must limit her work hours in order to receive government assistance. She was also ashamed to seek help to a domestic violence shelter, believing that she did not belong at there because the abuse she experienced was emotional rather than physical. Maid’s nuanced and empathetic storyline serves as a criticism of the poor welfare services for victims of domestic violence in the United States.
American drama limited series Maid (2021) by Netflix. Source: Filmyt
In contrast, the Thai entertainment industry is notorious for remaking the same shows time and time again. Storylines never move past the toxic relationships of abusive male leads and their submissive female partners. Often women fight each other to gain male attention. Generations of young girls have grown up watching their media heroines be victimised by sexual violence or use violence in turn to take down other women for male validation. The storyline of จำเลยรัก (jum-loey-rak) or “Defendant of Love” involves physical violence, verbal abuse and rape. It has been remade seven times in the last six decades. Reproduced and shown to younger generations, these dramas normalise abuse, bringing outdated values into a new era. Why are the same misleading, discriminatory shows made over and over again? When will Thailand start producing meaningful shows that reflect our current economic and political system? Lakorn producers are not entirely to blame; they are simply keeping up with audience demands. Sadly, it seems that many people in Thailand enjoy watching abusive lakorns. Rape scenes remain a fan favourite and, as long as audiences continue to demand them, the entertainment industry will steadily oblige.
But why do outdated rape scenes remain a fan favourite despite changing times? In conservative Thai culture, female sexuality is depicted in black and white terms; demure virgins are associated with purity and innocence while women who ‘want it’ are labeled as bad and tainted. Women are expected to deny sexual advances and say “no” - despite wanting to say yes - which might explain why rape can kind of come in as a moral loophole. After all, being raped (in fantasy) means engaging in forbidden sexual activity without violating societal norms. It is a passive way for women to satisfy their sexual desires without having to run the risk of slut shaming - their risqué intentions are covered by a faultless act. The problem with this plot resolution and seemingly harmless fantasy is that it encourages real crimes against women, violent sexual acts that lack all traces of media glamour.
As ordinary people, it is tempting to believe that the only thing we can do to stop the production of sexually-violent lakorns is to boycott them and demand the removal of rape scenes. After all, activists believe that when used for the right reasons, cancel culture is a useful tool which allows citizens to raise their voices together and strike back against the oppressive system. Another step towards ending sexually-abusive lakorns is to respect the sexual choices women make and end slut shaming. Rape should not be construed as a way to escape from the judgemental norms in our society.
Role of Religion
Popular Buddhism is another factor that heavily influences Thai people and culture. Though not an official state religion, 93% of the Thai population self-identify as Buddhists. Unfortunately, certain aspects of Thai Buddhism are inherently misogynistic. In local Buddhist practices, women are treated as inferior to men; their main role is to support male monks in various temple activities and provide offerings to earn religious merit. There is also common perception that women will only ordain as nuns if they have nothing to do, have suffered from past relationships, or have had severe traumatic experiences. Nuns tend to be looked down, in marked contrast to their male counterparts, who can ordain to make merit for their parents, to seek enlightenment, or simply for the experience. Buddhist teachings explain that the circumstances we face today are a consequence of how we lived our previous lives. Among Buddhists who align their thoughts with the doctrine of karma, there is a common belief that there is no escaping karmic consequences, that being abused is the result of sins from past lives, and that victims should learn to endure suffering. Monks in Thailand have been known to advise victims of domestic violence to remain patient, to be compassionate with their abusers, and to remember that suffering is a consequence of past sins.
Women offering food to monks for religious merit. Source: WildaboutTravel
Traditional Thai Values
Similar to most cultures, traditional Thai culture reinforces the idea that men should be the head of the family (หัวหน้าครอบครัว). Women, on the other hand, are given the role of the prim and proper housewife - gentle and obedient. The role is summarised by a Thai metaphor, ‘the hind leg of an elephant’ (ช้างเท้าหลัง), which reinforces the idea that women should be submissive and obedient to their husbands. Speaking on International Women’s Day this year, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha used the expression, stating that while men tend to excel in their careers, women are adept at household chores due to their attentive and caring nature. He also said that women should be emotionally composed, acting as the cool water that keeps men calm to maintain a safe society. Such gender roles have long been a part of Thai society. They can be traced back to laws from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which recognised wives as the property of husbands who were free to subject them to corporal punishment or even put them up for sale. Although things have improved considerably since then, modern Thai families are still influenced by such traditions, remaining silent about marital issues and conflicts. This is especially true of elite families, where women refrained from discussing domestic strife in order to protect the family’s honour and social status.
Depp-Heard Defamation Case
The court dispute between Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has recently fostered political discourse on gender-based violence. Although it was considered a legal win for Depp, as the jury awarded him damages, the trial is ongoing and Heard intends to appeal the verdict. During the trial, Depp garnered more public sympathy than Heard, with people on social media calling her a psycho, a liar, manipulative and deserving of what happened. Domestic violence experts fear that the backlash against Heard will discourage survivors from coming forward with their experiences of abuse. Cases of sexual abuse are already severely underreported because victims understandably engage in a cost benefit analysis before speaking out, and often conclude that it is better to remain silent because people might not believe them. With Heard facing so much negative commentary on social media, other victims of sexual abuse may be hesitant to speak out for fear of drawing the same level of disbelief and disapproval. At the same time, male victims of sexual abuse have said that seeing a powerful and wealthy man like Depp experience domestic violence has encouraged them to be more vocal about their own experiences with abuse. Searching ‘Johnny Depp’ or ‘I’m a survivor’ on Twitter will generate multiple tweets by survivors who feel empowered by Depp’s choice to speak up. Although social workers are unsure if the number of males reporting cases of sexual violence will rise following this trial, they believe that the case has encouraged more dialogue and awareness that males are also victims of sexual abuse. No matter which side one takes, the underlying message of this trial is that sexual abuse is unacceptable, regardless of one's gender, position or partner. Domestic violence is a serious social problem that can only be addressed if everyone works together to end it and provide support for victims.
Why there is still hope
Recently, an eighteen-year-old filed charges against the deputy leader of a political party in Thailand, an individual alleged to have sexually harassed over twenty women. Public anger over his actions is growing and some are calling this Thailand’s first #MeToo movement, a public conversation on sexual assault cases in the country. Activists have been increasingly critical of the prevailing culture in which powerful men avoid punishment by paying their victims to remain silent. Perhaps Thais are finally becoming more socially aware and Thai society is progressing away from glamourising sexual violence. It is a first step towards providing support and justice for victims of domestic violence but we still have a long way to go. Whether emotional or physical, domestic violence is a serious social problem. It remains incredibly prevalent and there is a good chance that someone you know has had such experiences. Take notice of the people around you; most of the time, victims need help from third parties to escape the vicious cycle of abuse.
To our survivors, we see you, we hear you and we believe you. We will fight for you and hopefully our intolerance of injustice will be the start of our long but promising journey towards equality.
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ผู้จัดการออนไลน์. “นายกฯ เปิดงานวันสตรีสากล ชี้ ช้างเท้าหน้า-หลัง ไปด้วยกัน ปัดโกรธใคร เชื่อทำดีได้ดี ไม่เจ้ายศเจ้าอย่าง.” MGR Online, 8 Mar. 2022, https://mgronline.com/politics/detail/9650000023106
I would like to express my special thanks and gratitude to Associate Professor Verita Sriratana of the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. The completion of this essay would not have been possible without her assistance and support throughout the whole process. I am eternally thankful for her kindness in offering me this marvelous opportunity. Thank you for patiently guiding me. I would also like to thank my friends Dagem, Naomi, Tonkaow, and everyone at the feminist society. I really appreciate their help.