The usual storyline
Thai soap operas are very popular in Thailand. They are called Lakorn, and their portrayal of women has recently been questioned. In lakorn, it is far from rare to witness rape scenes. In fact, these are exceptionally common, according to the Thai Ministry of Health, 80% of Lakorn feature scenes of rape (For examples here, here or here).
Within the storylines, these events occur either to punish the female villain character, or as an act of love, when the hero rapes the heroin. This might be the most disturbing fact, that these acts of violence are mistakenly presented as acts of romanticism and love, and in the end, the heroine usually ends up falling in love with her attacker. In these series, men never get punished for their actions, and women never press charges against them.
Producers have been questioned about this conception of “love”. According to them, it is not possible to represent consensual sex scenes; indeed, the virgin heroine has to be shown as a “good woman” and thus can’t initiate sex. She has to refuse intercourse in order to preserve her virtue, so the only representation of sex that is possible is through rape so as to preserve the woman’s moral virtue. Then, since she is no longer a virgin, the only possible “moral” resolution for this character is to marry her attacker. In most cases, the rapist ends up apologizing, and marrying his victim. Women are considered “spoiled” if they have been raped, so her marrying her rapist, for whom she eventually falls in love, is the only way for her to remain a “good woman”. This conception of rape as an act of affection and not a violent and cruel act of power and domination is a dangerous message to spread on TV. Scenes glamorizing violence against women “promote sexual harassment as a form of entertainment and punishment”.
Consequences on Thai society
In Thailand, two words exist to describe rape, one is Bplum, which means “wrestling” and which can also be used to refer to forced sex, but is deemed acceptable. The other one, Khom Kheun, refers to rape as a criminal act. In soap operas, rapes are viewed as Bplum and aren’t portrayed as violent or criminal acts but more like a demonstration of affection and love. This dichotomous conception of rape reflects the perception about rape in the Thai society. Lakorn have been accused of reinforcing the perception that rape is an acceptable act.
Indeed, after a series of highly mediatized rape cases, Lakorn have been accused of promoting rape culture, and have been held responsible for crime rates in Thailand by showing rape as something acceptable, and actually romantic. As activists are trying to “denormalize” rape, those rape scenes are seen as counterproductive for educating people about the incredible violence of such an act.
In Thailand, statistics indicate that a woman is raped every 15 minutes, resulting in 30,000 cases per year. Only 4,000 of them are reported, and out of those, only 2,400 end with the arrest of the attacker. More than two thirds of all rapes are committed by people close to the victim.
Many victims chose not to report the crimes in fear of the ordeal that is the process of pressing charges. Most police officers are male, most of them lack of sensitivity and compassion, and often enough they are stressing the victim with inappropriate and irrelevant enquiries about the clothes they were wearing and/or on their attitudes and behavior, which may have provoked the rapist. One other barrier to denunciation is the fact that in Thailand, the statute of limitation for rape is only of 3 months, meaning that the victim can no longer press charges after that period of time.
Even if the situation is evolving in Thailand, victims are still carrying the burden of protecting themselves. Girls are recommended a stricter dress code, or to avoid going out at night. At the same time, boys are hardly ever educated on the notion of consent. If lakorn can’t be held responsible for the existence of rape in Thailand, they contribute to a great extent in normalizing these acts by failing to present this issue as one of violence and domination.
A growing intolerance to such violence
Nevertheless, this situation could change. Many viewers are now complaining about seeing this type of violence against women on TV. These shows have been condemned for promoting gender based violence and rape culture (you can find more explanation on rape culture here). Many viewers are criticizing the cynicism of certain channels reporting rapes as criminal acts during the day and romanticizing it at night. One online petition (that can be found here) has gathered more than 60 400 signatures to ask for the end rapes scenes in Lakorn.
In order to tackle this issue, in April 2016, Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), produced guidelines for TV producers inviting them to use “caution” in showing such scenes and encouraging them to include a storyline about men’s responsibility. Now, TV producers need to take into account the risk of being fined if they fail to respect the established legal frame.
The problem is that these shows have always brought high ratings to the channels; the fines would have to be high enough to act as an effective deterrent. NTBC’s action might not be enough without society’s understanding that such behavior can not be considered as acts of love or desire.
Leads for change
Apart from portraying women as victims of violent crimes, Thai media usually only portrays women as family figures or sex objects. Producers usually argue that they are not the ones promoting an outdated image of women in society, but merely reflecting the actual state of society. However, one could argue that this doesn’t represent the actual contribution of Thai women in society. As an example, Thailand is the 5th country with the most PhDs awarded to women (57%) and it also has one of the highest rates of women working in scientific research (51%) in Asia. However, storylines reflecting these numbers are still to be found in Thai soap operas. Involving more women in the media industry might be a good way to start.
Nonetheless, some TV producers are taking a more innovative turn. For example, Thai drama “Hormones: the Series” portrays the life of teenagers in a way that has been presented as more accurate. By showing sexually active female characters owning their own sexuality, the show has been proven to help young people better understand sex and contraception.
However, topics such as sex have been widely criticized and seen as “undermining public morality”, which demonstrates that addressing the topic of sex is always controversial. Having a female character who is both sexually active and a positive role model still seems like an impossible combination. If an unmarried woman with an active sex life continues to be a “threat to public morality”, it is likely that lakorn will keep on featuring rape scenes in their stories, because “good women” will still be seen as incapable of having a sexuality outside of marriage.
Educating young minds to such topics could be a step forward for Thai society. According to a UNICEF study from 2016, up to 41% of male vocational school students have problematic attitudes on gender and sexuality.
If nothing is going to replace the role of parents or the role of school in sex education, media should also take its share of responsibility in educating young minds, by avoiding the broadcast of stereotypes or the normalization of violence.
Harvard International Review – Violence in the Media, March 2016 – http://hir.harvard.edu/article/?a=13011
Thai Woman talks – In Thailand, collective responsibility is the best tribute to rape victims, July 2014 – https://thaiwomantalks.com/2014/07/16/in-thailand-collective-responsibility-is-the-best-tribute-to-rape-victims/
Asian Correspondent – Rape and romance: When will Thai soap operas stop trivializing sexual abuse?, January 2016 – http://asiancorrespondent.com/2016/01/thai-soap-operas-rape/#MzgLpgu87zUbfcC8.97
South East Asia Globe – Forced seduction, problematic rape scenes persist in Thai soap operas, September 2016 – http://sea-globe.com/rape-scenes-thai-soap-operas/
Coconuts Bangkok – Rape culture – from the Ramakien to the railway, we’re all to blame, July 2014 – https://coconuts.co/bangkok/features/rape-culture-ramakien-railway-were-all-blame/ – Rape remains a serious problem, but reported rates in Thailand not especially high, March 2014 – https://coconuts.co/bangkok/news/most-thailands-rape-victims-are-students/
News Deeply – The battle to take rape off Thailand’s TV screens, November 2016 – https://www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls/articles/2016/11/08/battle-take-rape-off-thailands-tv-screens
UNICEF – Comprehensive Sexuality Education taught in most schools in Thailand, but students still not fully equipped to use what they learn in real life, May 2016 – https://www.unicef.org/thailand/media_25469.html
Thailand Institute of Justice and Cambridge University – Women’s access to Justice, Perspectives from the ASEAN region, November 2016 – http://www.tijthailand.org/useruploads/files/womensa2j_asean_final.pdf
The Nation, Thailand portal – Teenage drama adds maturity to Thai television, July 2013 – http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Teenage-drama-adds-maturity-to-Thai-television-30210576.html