Changing Its Stripes: Thailand’s Culture of Victim Blaming in the #MeToo Era
After a rape and murder of a British tourist in 2014, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, made a controversial statement, that sparked outrage worldwide, “There are always problems with tourist safety,” he said. “They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere.” But, he added, “Can they be safe in bikinis…unless they are not beautiful?”
The implication that attractive women in bikinis were not guaranteed safety in this country sparked immediate backlash. Although the Prime Minister apologised the next day, his apology raised further questions about the prevalence of victim blaming in Thai society. “I am sorry with what I said and if it has caused any ill feelings.” He said, adding “I just wanted to warn tourists that we have different traditions and they have to stay on their toes.” The statement begs an important question: Which Thai traditions require women in bikinis to remain vigilant? To many in Thai society, the answer to that question is three fold —patriarchy, rape culture, and victim blaming.
The notion of victim blaming in Thailand is such a deep-rooted and multi-faceted problem that getting to the crux of the issue seems daunting. Government officials continue to place the blame for sexual crimes against women on the victims themselves. For this year’s Songkran Festival, the Department of Local Administration Director-General Sutthipong Chulcharoen encouraged campaigns admonishing tourists to dress modestly in order to avoid sexual assault and harassment, the Bangkok Post reported. This pattern of implicit and explicit victim blaming from high level members of the Thai government is deeply disturbing. However, these damaging ideas are not isolated to public leadership and are symptomatic of widespread social issues in Thailand.
To get a clearer understanding of the issues women are facing in Thai society today, I spoke with Jadet Chaowilai, a representative of the Men and Women’s Progressive Movement Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to “See Thailand achieve equality between the sexes, by targeting domestic violence and strengthening the community through education.” One of the issues Jadet believes to be a factor in the acceptance of patriarchal attitudes, is that “men believe that they should be the dominant ones in society and this belief is also held by women, which makes tackling the issues ever more difficult.” In a separate interview with Bangkok Post last year, Jadet expanded upon the systemic nature of toxic masculinity and rape culture within Thai society, calling patriarchy “the root of the problem”. “It’s just the thought process of ‘Thai men are like this, so let them just have their way’,” Jadet said, drawing a link between social norms, sexual harassment and rape culture.
Abhorrent gender-based violence has become so acceptable in Thai society, that legislation was introduced in 2016 to try to curb pro-rape narratives in Thai media, with the most egregious depictions in lakorn soap operas. According to ASEAN Today, a common plot narrative within the genre goes as follows: a male protagonist wins the affection of a female character by raping her and, following a season’s worth of drama, the pair wind up a happy couple. Just as disturbingly, women characters on lakorn are often raped as retribution for wayward behaviour. It should be noted that legislation was only introduced after two years of campaigning by Thai architect Nitipan Wiprawit against this particular trivialisation of sexual assault.
Sadly, Thai rape culture is not confined to television sets or the misguided statements of public figures — that culture is endangering women in Thailand every day. In their 2014 Annual Report, the Thailand Institute of Justice cited a study by the One-Stop Crisis Centre (OSCC) that reveals a startling increase in sexual abuse against women and children. According to this study, between the years 2007 and 2013, the number of women and children who contacted the centre to report abuse increased by nearly 60%, up from 52 people per day to 87. Shockingly, the number of cases reported to police was equal to only 10% of the total number of those who called the centre, indicating a vast under-reporting of sexual assaults.
Survivors of sexual assault who do report to law enforcement are often faced with police officers who believe that, “domestic and sexual violence are personal problems and do not recognise rape cases as being legitimate criminal problems,” Jadet explained. This only reinforces the cycle of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and victim blaming. Over the past few years, the British Foreign Office has offered numerous training sessions by experts to educate Thai police forces on how to treat victims of sexual assault, sharing best practices and knowledge to enhance service provided across Thailand to victims, as well as training more police officers in interview techniques. While these are excellent initiatives, more progress must be made.
While it is clear that institutional and governmental approaches to curbing rape culture and victim blaming are important, a wider social shift is necessary. Two Thai women are currently at the vanguard of this movement.
The #DontTellMeHowToDress campaign, spearheaded by model, actress and television host Cindy Bishop, has set out to challenge the notion of victim blaming and attempts to get people talking about the issue that is, unfortunately, much too common both in Thailand and worldwide. The idea for the campaign came to Cindy after reading an article, which was advising women not to “dress sexy” as a way of avoiding being sexually assaulted during the New Year celebrations of Songkran. As someone who had herself been sexually assaulted during the festival as a teenager whilst dressed in a non-provocative manner, it struck a “raw nerve” with Cindy. She did not intend to spark such a movement and said, “The whole thing actually came about unexpectedly.” She was simply reacting to the article and voicing her opinion on social media. But Cindy’s reaction quickly went viral after being reposted by celebrities and receiving numerous responses.
“It was a little too soon for Thai women to come out and name their accusers.”
Whilst visiting an exhibition in Texas, entitled What Were You Wearing? she developed the idea for a stirring exposition, which recently opened in Bangkok. The installation features outfits worn by sexual assault victims at the time of their attacks. For the project, Cindy was tasked with selecting 15 outfits to showcase. She described the experience as “very powerful and emotional.” The outfits ranged as vastly as the victims’ professions and ages, and she wanted to ensure that this was highlighted in the exhibition. “The one that everyone is talking about is an outfit of a two-year old girl; that was very powerful.” The exhibition was a success, drawing around eleven thousand people and encouraging discussion around the topic, which seems to be the main objective for the campaign right now.
Cindy also promotes the values of her campaign at home. Her way of teaching her young children about boundaries, gender equality, and toxic masculinity are simple. “When the kids are playing,” she explained to Citylife, “if one decides it hurts or it’s too rough, then stop means stop, no means no; being a gentleman and what that means; being respectful towards everyone. He is five and it is not even about being a man or woman, it is simply about learning to respect people as people.”
The #DontTellMeHowToDress campaign arrived at a critical moment for Thailand and the global discourse on rape culture and toxic masculinity. In the wake of allegations made against Hollywood film producer, Harvey Weinstein and the spiralling effects this has had worldwide, it seems that Thailand did not react to the #MeToo movement with the same outpouring of transparency and victim support as in many other countries.
Cindy explained her theory of why this particular movement was not embraced, “It was a little too soon for Thai women to come out and name their accusers. In Thailand, you have to have physical evidence, a witness or CCTV footage. You cannot accuse someone of a sexual assault from ten years go. Thai women are not ready to do this. There is more power in many voices as opposed to one and I think that women feel better coming out and saying #DontTellMeHowToDress.” This way of Thai women protesting patriarchal ideas about how they are viewed and treated seems to work well because it is far less confrontational than the movement occurring in the West, and does not directly attempt to topple any one particular perpetrator. Instead, the #DontTellMeHowToDress movement aims to change the ideas of the general public to create a more equal and understanding society.
Law student Thararat Panya is also speaking out on victim blaming. She shared her story after being assaulted by an older student at her university and has since been actively involved in trying to educate and raise awareness of victim blaming. Her story has sparked wide interest and discussion on social media about sexual assault.
Thararat believes that police are “unsympathetic and judgmental and often blame victims. In order to solve the issue of victim blaming, we should talk about rights. If everyone in society understands their rights and the rights of others, there would be no opportunity for victim blaming to take place at all.” She adds, “people focus on the victim’s clothing, behaviour and whether or not they had been intoxicated at the time of the incident. They think that the victim shouldn’t behave inappropriately and that women should dress properly which I think is an absurd idea.”
Looking forward, Thararat “would like to see victims speak out and tell their stories without the fear of being shamed and for the police to have a better understanding and more sympathetic approach to dealing with victims.” She also underscored the role that Thai culture plays in limiting the dialog on sexual assault. “Thailand’s public conversations and knowledge regarding sex are so limited. Education does not pay enough attention to sexual harassment at all.” She said, adding that, “in other countries, celebrities can champion the movement, but in Thailand celebrities are bound to behave by certain conventions.”
Like Thararat and Jadet, Cindy also sees toxic masculinity, victim shaming and their widespread acceptance within Thai society, as a major contributor to rape culture here. “Male entitlement is definitely present [in Thailand]. The attitude of thinking that women are there to let out their frustration or anger is something that needs to be changed through education. Women are also part of the problem — I was born and raised in Thailand, so I understand the culture. Women themselves engage in victim blaming, it’s quite sensitive and quite a heated area to discuss. Many girls are raped by members of their family, their father or grandfather, usually the breadwinner. You see a story of a girl being raped and then it disappears.”
But the #DontTellMeHowToDress movement is beginning to make an impact. Cindy spoke of how her campaign was able to give women who had suffered abuse the encouragement to share their own stories. “A woman was shopping over the road and came into the exhibition. She held my hands and started crying and told me how she had been assaulted when she was seven years old and hadn’t told anyone for years. I’ve had a lot of women share these stories with me and it is really emotional.”
Since sharing her story, Thararat has also made strides in opening a public dialog on these issues. She started a Facebook page entitled “Thai Consent” and a campaign tackling sexual assault at university. She is inspiring other victims of sexual assault to come forward and have the strength to share their own stories. She refuses to alter the way in which she dresses or behaves and knows that what happened to her was not her fault. “The way one dresses has nothing to do with sexual assault so it is not about the clothing. I saw an outfit worn by a child at the #DontTellMeHowToDress exhibition and that touched my heart. It showed that rape can happen to anyone and we need to pay more attention to this.”
Cindy, Thararat, Jadet, Nitipan, and the Men and Women’s Progressive Movement Foundation represent a diverse Thai-lead movement to oppose the rape culture, victim shaming, and patriarchy that is rife within the culture. The challenge is clear: Is Thailand ready to move forward as a progressive and equal society that respects the voices and safety of all its members? It is time for the Thai people to decide.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call One Stop Crisis Centers (OSCC) at Maharaj Nakorn Hospital (Ask for OSCC or social welfare unit), POC: Mr. Phoomjai Burutsapat at +66 (0) 53-936-150) or Nakornping Hospital, POC: Tanyapab Chaiphoon at +66 (0) 53-999-200 for services including: medical assistance, social welfare assistance, incident documentation and reporting, and coordination with any necessary offices or organisations.
You are also advised to contact the consulate of your country of citizenship. A list of all consular representatives in Thailand can be found at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website: www.mfa.go.th/main/en/information/2015