OPINION — It’s not okay for a man to rape. Unless he’s drop-dead gorgeous, angsty and appears every night at 8pm sharp, right? Yossinee Nanakorn, a Thai producer, certainly thinks so. She told the Bangkok Post, “If it helps drive the story, then we keep it.”
For there to be such a supply of these rape scenes disguised as love scenes, there has to be a demand. And there is. This demand is concerning, but more alarming is its fuel: the silent justification of rape. Why? Because justification of rape begets victim-blaming, which robs Thai society, as a whole, of agency.
One monumental cause in the justification of rape lies within Thai language: It absolves the perpetrator and blames the victim. Semantically, Thai language is complicit in the justification of sexual violence that occurs on-screen in the country. In Thai, there are two words used to label rape: khom khuen and blum. The former gives an indisputable connotation of crime. The latter, however, enables one to enter into a murky area. Although “blum” does denote forced sex, shockingly, the connotations of this word are not as harsh as that of “khom khuen.”
The word “blum” lends itself to conflation with other concepts such as love, lust, and even seduction. This conflation undermines the non-consensual sex that forms the basis of “blum.” The danger in such conflation is illustrated by Arunosha Bhanupan, producer of the soap opera The Power of Shadows. She defines the word “blum” in “theatrical terms” as “an act of love,” or so she said in an interview. In a discussion of a rape scene on her show — one that has run for years and is known for such scenes — she calls the act “blum” instead of “khom khuen.” She views the act as “not rape [because] it was more romantic [and] they were in love.” In this way, the use of the word “blum” provides the opportunity for absolving the perpetrator and blaming the victim.
Bhanupan’s definition of “blum” leads to the not-so-surprising fact that women are the first to have their agency removed by victim-blaming. More specifically, they lose their “good-girl” personas and, thus, their credibility on these shows. Either submissiveness or purity is often evoked as a factor that leads to her rape because she cannot initiate sexual contact without shattering her sweet image. Conversely, the ubiquitous “whore” on each show has also had her agency removed for common reasons such as her malicious attitude, promiscuity, or clothing. She is portrayed as sexually confident and dressed to match the part in revealing clothes. In both binaries, the inherent factors defining each woman robs them of the ability to self-advocate when their rapes are justified and they are blamed.
Unfortunately, the lack of female power goes beyond the self. When women are perceived as one of two binaries and stripped of the ability to self-advocate, female solidarity comes under threat.
When women are seen as simply one of two possible types, they become a cookie-cutter version of a certain trope. They are stripped of the ability to self-advocate because they lose the right to define who they are. Thus, when the female population is divided in this way, female solidarity comes under threat.
As a woman, I have witnessed the tension between women who feel they have been forced into a role. We often fail to empathize with our sisters and become overly critical of our own gender. To some, this might not seem like such an urgent problem, but to me, it’s a constant reinforcement of a tension that may prevent us from showing solidarity in important situations such as rape, teen pregnancy, and prostitution.
Although it seems as though women are the only gender that are robbed of power through victim blaming, I believe men also experience a loss. This loss was publicly revealed by none other than Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in September 2014. In response to the notorious murder of Briton Hannah Witheridge, he stated: “Tourists think that [they] can put on their bikinis and go anywhere they want. I ask, can you get away with wearing bikinis in Thailand?” In a later statement, he apologized, saying that he “just wanted to warn tourists that we have different traditions and they have to stay on their toes.”
Therein lies an interesting irony in the prime minister’s statement. Men seem to lack the power to control their unparalleled sexual needs. It is not necessarily “bikinis” or revealing clothes that rob men of their senses, but a subscription to victim-blaming. In order to prevent culpability, men are deemed incapable of controlling their sexual urges. In this chain of logic, men become reduced to beings that cannot fight a primal urge. The wider societal implication is men receiving the message that they are not expected to uphold responsibility because their lack of control over lust is anticipated and excused. In this way, I wonder if we are setting our Thai men up to fail.
In any discussion of sexuality in Thai media, especially Thai soap operas, I am very aware of our conservative culture. I accept that certain people are not comfortable with overt displays of sexuality, especially those that include women who do not conform to Thai values. What I cannot accept, however, is them being comfortable with depictions of sexual assault illustrated as a form of love as if this is the only form of union that can function under our conservative culture, because it certainly is not. Despite the endless number of rape scenes, I have seen portrayals of covert consensual interactions that were not preceded with sexual harassment. Ultimately, whether or not we choose to display interactions as consensual is the important question.
As a kid, I was told not to watch “sex” scenes because “I was too young.” But I am older now, and I fear that age has not made “sex” scenes in Thai soap operas any more acceptable than they were 10 years ago. We cannot continue to have such low expectations of men, women, and ourselves. We need to reject justified rape of all women, regardless of how the woman in questions defines or expresses her sexuality. We need to do this in order to reinstate female power and solidarity. We need to reject justified rape by men to reinstate their responsibility for their actions. Because when we reject the justification of rape, we reclaim our ability to define Thai culture and not let victim-blaming define us.
Coconuts Bangkok reader Claire Nanthayapirom is a Thai university student attending New York City’s Columbia University. Got a well-written opinion piece for us? Send it to: email@example.com