Getting Down with Teenage Sex in Thailand – why adults need to grow up about the sex taboo

 | Thu 15 Aug 2013 14:25 ICT

The traditional practice of suppression in Thailand is proving to be quite problematic, as the teen pregnancy rate escalates.

Thailand reportedly has the second highest pregnancy rate among 15- to 19-year olds in the world, after South Africa, and UNICEF has recently placed Thailand on top of the list of teen pregnancy in Asia.

For claiming to be such a refined country with women who are exquisitely “ree-ub roi,” we seem to be quite industrious beneath the sheets. We can no longer blame the issue on horny teenagers, who “just wanna have sex,” as the Health Ministry put it.

But there are many other countries filled with promiscuous teenagers itching to get it on. So what’s the difference between teens in other countries and teens in Thailand?

Well, for starters, they know what sex is.

Sex Education in Thailand

In 2012, there was a nationwide health exam for Thai school students that asked: “If you have a sexual urge, what should you do?” The multiple choice answers included: a) Ask friends if you can play football together; b) Consult family members; c) Try to sleep; d) Go out with a friend of the opposite sex; and e) Invite a close friend to watch a movie together.

According to Dr Samphan Phanphrut, director of the National Institute of Educational Testing Services, who oversaw the exam, the question was intended to verify students’ ability to recognise and act on their sexual impulses appropriately. The correct answer was: a) Ask friends if you can play football together.

My (and many other people’s) reaction: WTF. This question is a clear sign of Thai people’s natural instinct to immediately suppress feelings that are deemed “impure.” I didn’t realise it was wrong to experience sexual urges.

“The problem lies in society’s values which require study and fostering appropriate values among at-risk groups,” said former Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Needless to say, the test attracted responses of outrage and incredulity once copies of the test went viral online. Dr Pusadee Tamthai from Thailand’s National Commission for Women’s Affairs, said the indirect wording of the question, paired with its many possible answers, proved educators’ inability to reach their students.

“Children are growing up so much faster today than in the past, but because sex is taboo in Thailand, they seldom learn about sex from their parents or family, so they depend on magazines, the internet, and their friends for information,” she said. “The way that students communicate with their teachers is hierarchical and not very open, because in our culture of respecting the elderly, there’s an emphasis on taking care of what you say rather than talking freely and without judgment.”

Other countries have different approaches to sex education and better access to family planning, according to Leo Bryant, advocacy manager at Marie Stopes International (MSI), a British reproductive group with clinics worldwide. “In the Netherlands, with one of Europe’s lowest pregnancy rates of four adolescent births per 1000 women, sex education begins in primary school.” In Thailand, there are 70 adolescent births per 1000 women.

Sex has proved to be quite a daunting subject for Thai students, who expressed severe shyness at school sex talks recently held in Bangkok, hosted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to raise awareness of adolescent pregnancy. The campaign consisted of sex talks with students, and discussions with a celebrity romance novelist, teenage parents, and the director of the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand.

“The school activity was designed to be an entry point to reach out to the schools to promote age-appropriate sex-education. Sex talk is still regarded as taboo in Thai society, even though Thai teenagers start having sex at around 16, and one out of every 10 Thai teenage girls has been pregnant at some point,” read the campaign’s website.

“Teachers are prudish and out of touch with Thai kids today and they approach the topic like a biology class rather than talking about the emotional issues involved,” said Visa Benjamano, a commissioner at the National Human Rights Council (NHRC).

Fortunately, there are educators in Thailand who are concerned. Maytinee Bhongsvej, executive director of the Association of the Promotion of the Status of Women, launched a radical programme in schools in Bangkok, covering self-esteem, bodily and emotional changes, gender rights, STDs, and intercourse in general. She said the course is much more than the “sperm and ovary” biology focus of the national curriculum, and, despite being highly controversial, has been met with great success.

“People think that if you talk about sex, you encourage them to have it. But if you keep preaching ‘maintain your virginity,’ you don’t prepare kids for reality,” she said. “We believe that kids should be fully informed because then they can avoid situations that would lead them to problems.

This lead me to my next question: what does sex mean to Thai people? Is it important or does it simply come with the relationship?

Young Girls, and boys, just want to have fun

Example: May, Part 1

Without a doubt, the media plays a great role in influencing teenagers on what role sex plays in relationships. With Thai women stripping all over magazines, it’s no surprise that young Thai girls believe that they will attract men by doing the same thing.

May, a 19-year old Thai girl, said that sex is a given when you’re in a relationship. “It isn’t totally essentially, but it’s natural,” she said.

Originally from Buriram, May ran away from home when she was 16, and got pregnant when she was 17 years old. “I had problems with my mother,” she explained. “My mother hated that I liked going out and socialising more than studying, so I dropped out of school when I was 15 and ran away from home.”

She lived with her friends and found a job at a moo krata restaurant. She admits she was regularly contacted by both her mother and the police, urging her to return home. She ignored them and went on with her life.

On one of her nights out, she met a Thai man five years her senior. Eventually, they started dating, and about 4-5 months into the relationship, she got pregnant.

When she told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he was upset. He had already gotten a previous girlfriend pregnant and insisted he wasn’t ready for another one. He refused to take responsibility and help pay for the child, so they broke up.

May comes from a middle class family, with both of her parents being civil servants. Her mother told her she could only come home if she promised to focus on her studies. So with no more money left and no way to take care of her child, May went back home to live with her mother. She didn’t tell her mother that she was pregnant.

Example: May, Part 2

It wasn’t hard at all to figure out that May was with child, considering the daily morning sickness. When her mother found out, she didn’t say anything. It was an empty response to say the least. “I knew she was angry,” May said, “but she didn’t say anything to me. She stopped talking to me. She didn’t show any emotion.

Again, we see typical Thai-style suppression in response to May’s situation: pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, in this case, the problem would only get bigger and bigger (literally), until it would reveal itself in about nine months. And you can’t ignore a screaming, crying “problem.”

May said she didn’t have a close relationship with her mother. “Thai parents don’t talk or discuss things, and my mother worked a lot, so there was no time to talk,” she explained. “I did, however, have an aunt who had a farang husband, and she was a lot more open, so I talked to her about everything.” She also explained her mother’s insistence that nobody else know about her being pregnant, presumably to save face.

May confessed that she did try to get rid of the baby. She went to an abortion clinic, but it was closed, so she ended up not going through with it.

Side note: under Thai law, only abortions of pregnancies that result from incest or rape or endanger the lives of the mothers are legal. The penalty for performing an illegal abortion is as many as five years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 baht.

She decided to try aborting the baby herself. “I would sit on the top of the stairs everyday and then let myself fall down,” she explained calmly. “I also tried jumping and falling off the bed, but nothing worked.”

It’s awful that someone would want to get rid of something so bad that they’d go so far as trying to kill it, thereby hurting themselves in the process as well. It is just as incredible to hear May describe with such ease and nonchalance how she tried to get rid of her own baby by hurting herself.

She had the baby at 17, and is now in a home for single mothers and children in Chiang Mai, called “The Home of The Swallow.” The home provides a daycare service for her child, while May attends adult-learning school in hopes of becoming a hairdresser. May’s mother and stepdad pay for daycare, but they do not visit.

Baby Steps

Her mother’s response to the situation was poor to say the least. Pretending like something doesn’t exist will not make it go away. If people have no outlet in society to talk about the real life issues and problems that people face, those problems will only get worse.

Neither Thailand’s rising adolescent pregnancy rates nor its quality of sexual education will improve overnight. I’m not proposing revolutionary changes, but it would be nice if Thai people learned to welcome a change of social views and encouraged modernised sex education programmes.

With more people becoming aware of the rise in teen pregnancy in Thailand, along with people like Maytinee Bhongsvej and Dr Pusadee Tamthai, hopefully we can get better at properly educating students on sex and its consequences. All it takes is a few baby steps in the right direction.