Good Sex for All: How Bangkok is confronting Thailand’s greatest taboo

Illustrations: Thaiconsent, No Word For This
Illustrations: Thaiconsent, No Word For This

Story by Angela Symons

Despite its reputation as a free-wheeling never-never land, Bangkok doesn’t necessarily have a healthy relationship with sex. But that could be changing. 

“I speak directly. I use the words ‘pussy’ and ‘dick’ — I just blurt them out,” said Chitlada “Kui” Promlumpuk, who is known among her friends as Thailand’s answer to Samantha Jones, the sex-positive protagonist of HBO’s Sex and the City.

Her candor contradicts a quietly held truth, as she knows.

“Sex is not something people talk about openly,” she said.

Kui was thrust into the spotlight last year when the hugely popular media platform Echo asked her to host a sex toy review video. The response was unprecedented. It became Echo’s top video of the year, racking up 8.3 million views and thousands of overwhelmingly positive comments.

This is despite the fact that sex toys are classed as “obscene objects,” their trade and distribution punishable with up to three years in prison.

“Even the channel didn’t think people would consider sharing the video, so it was a big thing – obviously the dynamic has shifted in Thailand,” she said. “Thai people are curious.”

A file photo of Chitlada “Kui” Promlumpuk
A file photo of Chitlada “Kui” Promlumpuk

Unspoken, Untaught

It’s no wonder people are hungry for insights. A 2016 UNICEF report on sex education in Thailand concluded that “many institutions teach about sexuality from a point of view that emphasizes the negative consequences of sex and does not cover positive aspects.”

All those surveyed for this story recalled little to no education on contraceptives, let alone pleasure, while the primary focus of sex education in school was abstinence.

This “hear no evil” approach has had subtle, even subliminal effects on Thai society and been blamed for holding back development. 

“Birth control and sexually transmitted disease are still big problems,” said Watjanasin “Note” Charuwattanakitti, the owner of erotic art museum Kamavijitra, Green Lantern, and Palette Artspace.

Museum of Sex: Get off at BTS Thong Lo to find 500+ erotic art pieces and artifacts from Thailand’s history of sex

“Getting pregnant at a young age destroys the lives of teenage parents. Most of them stop going to school. If people in the 50+ age bracket were more open about sex, they could educate their children on how to avoid this situation.”

Nearly 64,000 children were born to mothers under 20 in 2019, according to a study in the Pacific Rim International Journal of Nursing Research, a rate that’s been blamed on the lack of access to contraceptives – and their taboo.

Kui believes sex toys could be a magic bullet. By helping young people engage their sexuality in healthier ways and equipping them with knowledge rather than shame, she believes the teen birth rate might go down. But her views aren’t shared by Thailand’s ruling elite.

When human rights activist Nisarat “Tuk Ta” Jongwisan took to Thai PBS’s “Policies by the People” to pitch the legalization of sex toys back in 2018, she was met with retorts that it would breed sex-crazed teenagers and increase sex-related crimes. The Ministry of Culture’s Salinee Chumsawan suggested that sexual desire could instead be curbed by exercising and meditation.

“That is a very negative view,” Kui argued. “Sexual desire is a natural behavior. It seems unrealistic and unhealthy to try to impose laws on nature.”

Determined to normalize the topic, she has launched her own podcast, Sexducation. Covering everything from female masturbation to the Madonna-whore complex to practical sex tips, the no-holds-barred show has shot to No. 25 on the Thai podcast charts in just five months. Perhaps most surprising is that most of her listeners are either 18 to 22 or over 50.

That isn’t the only sign that Thailand’s older generations are ready to talk about sex in more open terms.

The Bureau of Reproductive Health recently launched a Line-based sex-ed resource called Teen Club. Part of an initiative to reduce Thailand’s high teenage pregnancy rates, the account features useful and straightforward information about contraceptives and how to communicate more openly about sex.

Even so, many women, in particular, still lack the negotiation skills and empowerment needed to advocate for themselves in the bedroom – not just in terms of consent and contraception, but also pleasure. Kui says access to sex toys could play an important role in the latter.

“Some of my female friends don’t even understand what an orgasm feels like,” she said. “It really makes me sad. [Sex toys] give women a better chance to really understand their needs.”

Kui isn’t the only one preaching female empowerment to an increasingly captivated audience.

Photo: Madame Rouge
Photo: Madame Rouge

Enter Madame Rouge, the brains behind Maison Rouge, a women-focused event space that opened in Ekkamai in October amid protests championing women’s rights. The Hong kong-born performer, who requested to be identified by her stage name in order to separate her personal and professional lives, believes Thailand is experiencing a “moment” and might be warming up to more open attitudes toward sex and the body.

“All these young people are finally going against what they’re taught and talking about the female body, abortion, and all that,” she said. “If I was in another city at this time, something like this would have already happened. And maybe five years later, something like [Maison Rouge] would have already popped up.”

Through burlesque shows, sensual dance classes, queer women’s  nights, and workshops covering everything from self-defense to sexual trauma, Madame Rouge hopes to build a supportive community and safe environment for people to learn, heal, share, and explore.

Perching on a pink velvet chaise lounge amid racks of colorful outfits for her burlesque shows, she extols the Thai capital’s need for this. “Bangkok is definitely built for men, both straight men and gay men — they have the entertainment, everything.” For some, it may seem strange to counter male-focused “entertainment” with burlesque — essentially another form of stripping. But Madame Rouge believes burlesque shifts the dynamic from exploitation to one of power.

“The difference is who you’re doing it for,” she explained. While stripping is often a means to an end for performers, burlesque dancers have agency by way of their stage personas. “They are like their own starlet, so it’s for themselves.”

The mostly female audience that Maison Rouge draws speaks to this understanding of the artform. “It’s just nice to see the performer up there having fun, and so confident, so comfortable with themselves,” says Madame Rouge.

“You think you’d be nervous, because you’re really vulnerable—you’re pretty much up there naked. But it’s the opposite, you almost feel invincible,” she added. “That’s exactly what I would call empowerment.”

Maison Rouge performer Ruby Flame. Photo: Maison Rouge
Maison Rouge performer Ruby Flame. Photo: Maison Rouge

Taking nudity out of the shadows and into the spotlight comes with no shortage of ironies unique to a nation where the sex industry hides in plain sight, however. “It’s not easy to do burlesque in Thailand. At clubs, we are not allowed to get down to pasties [nipple covers]. The most we can get down to is lingerie,” she explains of the legal situation.

Nevertheless, audiences can still get their kicks.

Madame Rouge swears burlesque is the perfect event for a date night, because “it’s sexy, it’s sensual, it’s classy – it’s almost like foreplay.”

Censorship of the female body is often taken to the logical extreme in Thailand, with cleavage on catwalks stirring moralistic furor and even the chest of Japanese cartoon Doraemon blurred on TV. At its most sinister, this speaks to the culture of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, which has seen authorities advise women not to dress “sexy” during Songkran to avoid sexual assault and continues to deny rights to sex workers today.

Making campuses equal places for women up to all: panel

Bare breasts haven’t always been a point of controversy in Thailand.

Until mid-20th century dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram outlawed their display in his “civilizing,” Western-influenced cultural mandates of 1939-42, they were a common sight. The latest exhibition at Note’s Palette Artspace, “Pillow Book” by Lamphun-hailing artist Nit Chaingewkham (running through Saturday), harkens back to a Thailand free from Western ideas of indecency and immorality.

In works that combine traditional Thai mural painting with Chinese and Japanese erotic arts, Nit refocuses images of lovemaking as a “natural demonstration within the flow of the universe… an open representation of spiritual expression… dissociated with the taboo of obscenity.”

Couples are invited to utilize the exhibition as a tool to connect: “By contemplating the art in their private space, lovers can provide [replicate] the best of each position, and together achieve the joy in reaching the perfect harmony of Yin and Yang.”

Watjanasin Charuwattanakitti in front of Green Lantern Cafe and Museum of Sex. Photo: Coconuts Media
Watjanasin Charuwattanakitti in front of Green Lantern Cafe and Museum of Sex. Photo: Coconuts Media

Note has been hosting erotic art exhibitions for years at the clandestine, back-alley Green Lantern Gallery; however, neighboring Palette Artspace offers a new level of visibility, its huge floor-to-ceiling windows directly visible from BTS Thong Lo.

Through this exhibition, he hopes to break Thailand’s outdated, colonial notions of a demure and “civilized” society, challenging conservative naysayers who dismiss erotic art as pornography. “I would like to show viewers that, in the past, the topic of sex was very normal,” he explains. By using art to break the silence, he believes the whole of society can benefit. “When we do not talk about sex, does it help our country to develop? No, it does not.”

Resources are evolving, and so, it seems, is the very idea of what a society should be. With event spaces offering couples the chance to engage with sexuality in guilt-free settings, outspoken activists sparking meaningful dialogue about love and pleasure, and protestors championing causes of feminism and diversity, the city seems to be enjoying a sexual awakening.

Maybe soon, like Kui, more Bangkok residents will be willing to say the words they have on their minds.

The Sex Education You Never Had

Illustration: No Word For This
Illustration: No Word For This

SOCIOLOGY

Join the discussion on legalizing sex work with A Day’s “Sex is More” Podcast

ART

Explore the minimal, erotic drawings of Thai artist No Word For This

LANGUAGE

Find out what what BHBT, NG, PT mean with this vocab lesson from “Sexducation”

HISTORY

Head to Green Lantern Gallery (1045 Sukhumvit Rd.) for a glimpse into the history of sex in Thailand, and their latest exhibition on Shibari (Japanese rope bondage)

CRITICAL THINKING

Get to grips with the intricacies of consent by joining Facebook community Thai consent

HEALTH

Visit @teenclub on Line for straightforward information on contraceptives and more from the Bureau of Reproductive Health

This story originally appeared in BK.

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