Rape Culture: From the Ramakien to the Railway, we’re all to blame

Note: This piece was prepared before last week’s tragedy and was held from publication out of sensitivity to the situation.

 

She can resist, and she can run, but she’s gonna get raped. And we’re going watch it – again and again and again.

Night after night, turn to any channel and along with the scheming bad girls and funny ladyboys, there’s one thing no television drama is complete without.

“I started in Thai lakorns when I was 14 or 15, and I’d done like seven rape scenes by the time I’d actually done a kissing scene in a Hollywood movie,” said Sara Malakul Lane, a British-Thai model-actress who left Thailand to pursue a career in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the enthusiasm for women-in-peril goes back to Sita’s abduction in the national epic of the Ramakien. But a millenium later, rape remains coded in the DNA of Thai drama, as no television series is complete without sexual violence against a female character. Generations of young woman have grown up watching their media role models and heroines succumb to sexual violence.

Last week the scourge of sexual violence surged to the forefront of national consciousness with the rape and murder of a child by a railway worker, and as the usual portions of blame are assigned, we should examine our own complicity in its power.

 

The Power of Story

Indeed an unbroken line of victimized women stretches from ancient epics to digital television. Go back nearly a century to our our first film, “Double Luck,” where such rape-tainment was a central narrative device.

Among archival footage released last month by the Thai Film Archive, a minute of film’s footage shows a woman restrained and molested against her will by a dark-skinned, mustachioed villain.

 

When Double Luck was released 1927, the 90-minute film went on to break the vintage box office with 12,130 tickets sold. A few strips from the film were recovered 70 years later, and now we’re left with only a brief, sexually violent memory of Thailand’s first film. Trace that to comedian Mum Jokmok’s misogyny-rich “Tas Rak Asoon” released last week. Consistent with the signature humor of most of Mum’s films, its a toxic blend of his own ego and battering women to put them in their place.

 

Not to lazily assign blame to the media. After all it’s a marketplace supplying what people demand, which apparently is a whole lot of rape.

Contrast that to media markets outside of Southeast Asia, where depictions of rape are considered abhorrent. In the popular drama “Game of Thrones,” the mere intimation of nonconsensual sex drew wide rebuke and sharp looks from The New York Times and Forbes. In the United Kingdom, hundreds of complaints poured in earlier this year about a rape on “Downtown Abbey.”

Yet tastes and mores differ, and a large portion of the Thai audience, both male and female, seem to take pleasure in a woman, especially in TV dramas, being assaulted by a good-lookin’ guy.

When girls gather for slumber parties, often to watch lakorn and gossip, it’s the rape scene that always stops conversation, as every soul leans in to indulge in the violence with rapt attention.

 

The Madonna-Whore’s Dillemma

Living in a conservative culture we’re taught a morality neatly divided into black and white; modest virgins are good, women with “want it” are bad.

Denied sexual agency and expected to say “no” – even when they’d rather say yes – young women might find the idea of virtuous virgins forced into intercouse somehow exciting. After all, being raped – in fantasy – means experiencing forbidden sexuality without violating social mores.

It’s kind of a passive-aggressive approach to sexuality without the risk of slut-shaming. Rape becomes a kind of moral loophole, wherein the intention may be naughty but the action blameless.

So maybe some of us are a little turned on by rape. That would be okay if its grip on our cultural conscious didn’t too often translate into very real, horrifying crimes and some notion that it can be an acceptable punishment or consequence for its victims.

Rape fetishes are one thing; actual rape is another.

Even before rail worker Wanchai Saengkhao’s heinous crime seized the national consciousness, so much unbelievable rape happened to keep online news sites well supplied with clicks. In April alone, a 71-year-old raped and killed a 17-year-old; a man raped the remains of a 75-year-old woman; two teens gangraped a pregnant woman; and a 17-year-old girl was found dead with a wooden stick in her vagina. Just yesterday a transgender woman attempted to rape a 72-year-old woman here in Bangkok.

These are only some of the cases which get reported in the media – a small subset of a small subset.

Thailand’s official rate of rape – given current census projections – is about 0.95 rapes per 1,000 women. That would be above average rates in most European nations but less than the United States, which after a staggering 15-year decline has a rate of about 1.1 rapes per 1,000 women.

But in a culture that shames rape victims – a previous railway rape victim described how she felt forced to leave Thailand – the rates are likely much higher as many are thought to go unreported.

 

Rape a ‘weapon of power’

The irony of rape-fetishizing in lakorn is its role as moral fiction supporting socially conservative values. In the alternate, soap-opera universe, the female leads always represent the good girls of society’s norms and morality, and are always virgins, regardless of their backgrounds or other factors.

This fact is always advertised by the character herself or by the villain-hero when he apologizes for “taking her virginity” after he rapes her. In these “morning after” scenes, the rapist-hero usually ends up apologizing and the characters end up getting married because he’s tainted her.

It’s the least he can do for making her “damaged goods,” right?

In the Ramakien, the blame for every rape is laid at the feet of its victim’s sinful attractiveness.

After being raped, the women are stigmatized as spoiled goods, like fruit that’s lost flavor.

After being “gifted” to Gautama, most-beautiful Ahalya is raped by Indra. For this, Ahalya, whose name means “the unplowed,” is condemned and punished, according to “Five Holy Virgins, Five Holy Myths” by Pradip Bhattacharya. In older versions of the tale, she willingly consorted with the great god, but that’s the enduring attitude: women bear the blame, willing or not.

Just fast forward to vile-but-representative comments online, where some have suggested the 13-year-old violated while sleeping on the train probably first flirted with her attacker and possibly consented to sex before being murdered. A blame-the-victim mentality is alive and well.

On Saturday, the military junta weighed in, saying “sexually provocative media” is responsible for all the rape, as if all the gyrating Baitoeys and Gybzys are to blame for provoking men to rape.

Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, according to Khaosod, admonished celebrities not to dress provocatively.

Despite how it’s been misrepresented to generations of viewers, off the screen, real rape is an act of violence and power – not desire.

As much as in Africa, where it’s been employed as a weapon of war, rape was a weapon wielded against dissident women during the turbulent 1970s, according to Professor Sudarat Musikawong of New York’s Siena College.

“Marginalizing the women’s movement during the 1970s and forgetting the gendered violence against female activists during the Cot. 6, 1976 massacre enables masculine nationalism,” Sudarat wrote in a 2011 paper.

The suppressed history of students massacred at Thammasat University in 1976 echoes today in the vitriol of some. In June a royalist put a bounty on Thammasat student and transgender provocateur Aum Neko.  Earlier this month, her brutal rape was graphically described in detail in a “parody” inside a nationalist-leaning newspaper, along with that of Red Shirt fugitive-in-exile Jakrapob Penkair.

“Prepare for the excitement, Bangkwang prison!” it read. “After the inmates have gone without for too long, the Junta is preparing to shower the inmates with happiness by sending [Jakrapob and Aum Neko] as presents. All of 3,000 inmates’ happiness will surely be overflowing the prison.”

The article was deleted online, reportedly due to unauthorized images of inmates, Matichon reported.

What the rape culture seems to propagate is a certain permissiveness and tolerance for the crime. Notoriously, its perpetrators notoriously go underpunished.

Since the young Kaem was killed late last month, some examination of our attitudes about sexual violence and intimidation have surfaced alongside the usual finger-pointing. Whatever the future we chart in Thailand, it should be informed by a thorough look in the mirror.

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