Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook (eds)

Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1999. 289pp.
Distributed by University of Washington Press.
ISBN 974-7551-07-1.

reviewed by Katherine A. Bowie

  1. Is virginity important? When would wives prefer prostitutes to mistresses? What constitutes a good spouse? How has the image and position of women shifted over time? What are Thai perspectives on homosexuality? These are some of the questions engaged by this volume Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, edited by Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook. The volume is comprised of fifteen essays written by authors from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, history, literature, linguistics, women's studies, and preventive medicine. In addition to essays by senior scholars including such pioneers of Thai gender studies as Peter Jackson and Penny Van Esterik, the volume also benefits from its inclusion of essays by graduate students, researchers, and community activists. With this combination of older and newer voices, the reader is given a good sense of the state of the field and the cutting edges.
  2. This book's strength lies in its diversity of methodologies and heterogeneity of perspectives. The authors demonstrate the wide range of approaches which can be productively explored to gain insight into gender and sexuality. Some authors rely upon ethnographic participant-observation, interviews and focus group discussions. Other authors analyse sources ranging from women's magazines, novels, cartoons, newspaper accounts, government brochures and non-government organisation publications to language usage and the internet. In addition to the authors' variety of sources and perspectives, the authors are also sensitive to the heterogeneity of views held by Thais themselves with regard to gender and sexuality. They do not assume similarities between rural and urban women; variations of region, age, ethnicity and class are considered. As the editors state in their introduction, 'In contrast to the dominant images of homogeneity, continuity and consensus found in much of the literature on Thailand, the essays collected here reflect the diversity of ways in which notions of sexuality and gender are manifested and contested in everyday social practices, as well as their rapidly changing nature' (23).
  3. Several essays explore the rich, historical dimensions of changing gender roles. Scot Barme's fine essay explores proto-feminist discourses in early twentieth-century Siam. Although these early Thai feminists opposed polygamy and supported education for women, Barme notes they disdained prostitutes and opposed such behaviour as women riding around in cars with their husbands (150). Thamora Fishel's intriguing essay examines two classic literary works, relating changes in marital patterns, gender roles and ideals of beauty to King Vajiravudh's (1919-1925) efforts to incite nationalistic passions. Voravudhi Chirasombutti and Anthony Diller's essay takes an historical perspective on the changing bonds between language and gender ideology by exploring first person pronoun usage, a subject which has provoked considerable consternation for myself and many of my Thai women friends.
  4. Several essays explore attitudes towards sexuality, considering aspects ranging from virginity and fidelity to prostitution. Jiemin Bao describes a special market for young virgin girls among Chinese men based on the Chinese folk belief that sleeping with a virgin will drive away bad luck (67-68). By contrast, Nicola Tannenbaum suggests that amongst Shans, 'female virginity is not an issue'. Drawing upon research with focus groups, Knodel et al suggest that urban Thai men, although preferring to marry a virgin, 'were fairly tolerant of women who have had premarital sexual relations' (105). Chris Lyttleton compares two northeastern villages, revealing that, contrary to a common view, the first sexual experience of the men from these villages was not with prostitutes, but rather with fellow villagers; this encounter may occur before or after marriage.
  5. Several essays suggest that urban middle class women may not find happiness in either marriage or sexual relations. Chanpen Saengtienchai, John Knodel, Mark VanLandingham and Anthony Pramualratana along with John Knodel, Chanpen Saengtienchai, Mark VanLandingham and Rachel Lucas contribute two gripping essays summarising discussions of focus groups of husbands and wives. In a society in which male infidelity is taken forgranted, Jiemin Bao provides moving insight into the Chinese wives who endure their troubled marriages for the sake of the children, while looking forward to celebrating the new life that begins after the death of their husbands. Yet other essays suggest that otherwomen in Thai society may be active initiators of sex, requesting, as Lyttleton puts it, a 'ride on the motorcycle' (35; see also Tannenbaum).
  6. Several essays deal with issues regarding prostitution. Chanpen et al and Knodel et al summarise focus-group discussions. Essays by Lyttleton and Whittaker raise the intriguing issue of the link between money and sexual relations, particularly given the custom of brideprice and fines for sexual transgression. Rachel Harrison's article explores the 'Freudian dark continent' of the portrayal of prostitutes in writings by middle class women, torn between their personal identities as morally and sexually good women, yet progressive enough to engage the topic of prostitution. Whittaker and Tannenbaum engage a contrasting portrayal, that of prostitutes who provide financial support for their families as 'proper filial daughters'. Tannenbaum's essay boldly takes on Buddhism, suggesting that 'there is no good Buddhalogical reason why Thai prostitutes should be presented as "social outcastes"' since the third precept is to refrain from improper sexual behavior, not to refrain from all sex (250). She goes on to challenge the application of Buddhism to scholarly analyses of Thai society more generally.
  7. Essays by Whittaker and Borthwick provide different insights into how contemporary changes in Thai society are affecting Thai women. In contrast to those who have suggested that urban migration and wage labour have provided women with new opportunities and freedoms, Whittaker argues that contemporary changes 'have eroded many of the former bases of women's domestic power within village society' (43). In her discussion of AIDS educational strategies, Borthwick provides fascinating insights into the complex impact of AIDS on marriages and feminism. Efforts by AIDS activists to promote condom usage have met opposition by Thai feminists who do not wish to endorse extramarital promiscuity. Yet efforts to promote monogamy prove double-edged, increasing the pressure on women to provide husbands with sexual services in the home; 'You must be ready for your husband, twenty-four hours a day!' (216).
  8. Other essays explore portrayals of Thai gender in a more global context. Craig Reynolds' provocative essay considers some of the defining moments in which nationalism is engendered. By paying particular attention to sports heroes and beauty queens born overseas, he raises questions regarding the ways in which women enter into the nationalist project, issues regarding sexual hybridity, and the growing discussions of authentic versus synthetic Thainess in the global era. Ryan Bishop and Lillian S. Robinson consider the orientalist Western discursive tradition's fantasy about Thai sexuality. The authors suggest that contemporary tourist literature can be traced back to eighteenth century European accounts of sexual mores in Tahiti, portraying the native inhabitants as pleasure-seeking 'Peter Pans, eternal children who have never grown up.' They conclude their analysis of western tropes of sex workers, wondering, 'was it as good for the natives as it was for you?' (204).
  9. Various authors take different stances with regard to the relative importance of class, hierarchy, gender and sexuality. Barme suggests that class functioned as a more profound category. Bao contributes a wonderfully wrought analysis integrating ethnicity, class and gender. Although traditional gender inequality is often portrayed as hierarchical, Whittaker sees complementarity, 'with each having their respective sphere of responsibility' (45). Tannenbaum suggests Thais have a single unified worldview where power or merit have greater significance than gender. Suggesting that hierarchy is more important than gender, Van Esterik urges us to consider how the Thai sex-gender system might differ from 'dominant Euro-American expectations of binary, clear-cut gender asymmetry and identity-based sexual polarities.' Van Esterik lays out ten propositions or defining features of a possible model of Thai gender which is 'body-based, rooted in material and physiological conditions that mark bodies' (277).
  10. Peter Jackson's exploration of public attitudes towards male homosexuality provides fascinating insight into the relationship between gender identities and hierarchy. While the Thai public responds to 'kathoey' homosexual men as an indigenous and often amusing phenomenon, 'gay' men are perceived as a Western-derived perversion. Jackson argues that since the kathoey performs the sexual role of a wife, desire is appropriated within a heterosexual framework. By contrast, the gay man is a 'man' who desires another 'man', breaching the masculine-feminine binarism that is strongly endorsed as the accepted form of erotic relations in Thailand.
  11. As testimony to a new era of global scholarly collaboration, this book is printed in Thailand and distributed in the U.S. by University of Washington Press. If an earlier era of scholarship focussed on women, this newer generation is taking a broader perspective, including gender and sexuality in a more comprehensive discussion. The authors, the editors and Silkworm Books are to be praised for having the intellectual courage to publish this volume and include essays bound to engender controversy, some in the Thai context and others in the global context.
  12. This book is a smorgasbord of both how much and how little is known about gender and sexuality in Thailand, providing a good sense of the state of the field. Its diverse range of perspectives should spur a new generation of scholarship. Taken as a whole, these essays challenge us to think about changing constructions of Thai sexualities without resorting to the essentialism inherent in idealised gender models.
  13. With appetites whetted by accounts ranging from Anna Leonowen's depiction of nineteenth-century harem life to contemporary media portrayals of sex tourism and prostitution, my insatiable students of Southeast Asia press me for more information about gender roles in Thai society. In the past, I would cobble together a series of references, each needing explanatory caveats. With this edited volume Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, I finally have a succinct answer to their questions.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 6 March 1620 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright