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The Battle to Take Rape off Thailand’s TV Screens

In Thai soap operas, rape is often shown as a vehicle for revenge or a path to true love. Now activists are calling on producers to stop romanticizing the crime and feeding into the country’s culture of gender inequality.

Written by Helen Roxburgh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Thai flower vendor watches a soap opera on television at his shop in Bangkok. Anger is growing against the country's soap operas with their storylines about rape as a path to revenge and romance, which critics say trivialize – and normalize – sexual violence. AP/Sakchai Lalit

To avenge his father’s death, Pathvee hunts down the only daughter of his father’s enemy, harasses her and rapes her. Then she falls in love with him and they live happily ever after. It might sound unlikely, but this is the plot of the popular Thai soap opera “Unending Fire of Passion,” which is far from unusual among Thai soaps in turning sexual violence into romance.

In “Sunset at Chao Praya,” the hero, Kobori, forces his new wife to have sex with him. In “Missing Heaven,” the lead character Kavee rapes the heroine Narin for family revenge, and in “The Power of Shadows” a handsome male character drunkenly rapes the female lead. In almost all cases, the women end up ultimately falling in love with their attackers.

A study by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation found that 80 percent of Thai soap operas, or lakhon, depicted rape or sexual violence in 2014. Characters who commit sexual violence are also rarely – if ever – held to account.

“The depictions of rape on TV relates to the concept of ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’ in traditional Thai society,” says Yupa Phusahas, senior program officer at nonprofit organization The Asia Foundation, Thailand. “If the female character is a good girl, the depiction of rape sometimes signals the male character’s love and affection for her. If the female character is a bad girl, the rape is punishment for immoral behavior or lack of virtue.”

But now public anger is growing as critics accuse these shows, typically broadcast during prime-time viewing hours, of normalizing rape. And the condemnation of soap opera rape is compounded by national outrage over real-life cases of sexual violence, including the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl on a train in 2014. A petition launched that same year calling for an end to romanticizing lakhon rape now has over 60,300 signatures.

In April, Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) launched guidelines for producers, encouraging them to be “cautious” when depicting violence against women and to include content that addresses men’s sexual responsibilities.

While the guidelines aren’t as stringent as activists were pushing for, they are seen as a step in the right direction. In July, NBTC took action against the makers of a TV soap called “Club Friday” over a scene where a female villain is raped as another character films it. The commission fined the channel 50,000 Thai baht ($1,400), forced it to increase the program’s audience suitability rating and said those scenes would be cut in future re-runs.

But even with threats of a penalty, activists say directors and producers are often reluctant to bring about change, particularly because soap operas depicting sexual violence, nicknamed “slap and kiss,” have consistently brought in higher ratings.

“Most television soap operas are adapted from famous old novels containing rape storylines in which female protagonists are raped by male protagonists,” says Jaray Singhakowinta, professor of sexuality studies at Bangkok’s National Institute of Development Administration. “Some of them are so popular that they have been made into movies and television soap operas more than 10 times since the 1970s.”

Singhakowinta says producers often justify rape storylines as a mere reflection of the real world. Some even argue that watching these scenes “offers a symbolic escape” to those who might commit rape, he says, a theory he vehemently rejects.

“The media’s excessive reproduction of rape rather informs female audiences that men’s sexual aggression is normal, and to an extent acceptable,” Singhakowinta says. “Media producers never include a legal consequence of rape.”

According to Thailand’s National Research Institute, about 30,000 rape cases are reported each year. Naiyana Supapueng, head of the Teeranat Kanjanauaksorn Foundation, a gender equality group, has predicted the real number is probably 10 times official figures, as most rape cases never reach the legal system.

Several factors stop women in Thailand from reporting rape, including community pressure. The Pavena Foundation, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of women and children, said that of the 656 cases they worked with in 2015, most of the victims were raped by stepfathers, friends or neighbors.

Thailand also struggles with a male-dominated legal system, few female police officers and a blame culture. “Rape has not been on the priority list of criminal cases that police officers will take seriously or investigate, unlike drug-related crimes or homicide,” says Yupa Phusahas, program officer at international development organization The Asia Foundation.

Victims who do report the crime often have to walk into all-male police stations and face unsympathetic questioning about what they were wearing, what they did to provoke the attacker and why they were out late.

There is even a grey area over the linguistics. In the Thai language, two words can describe a rape: bplum, which means “wrestling” and can also refer to forced sex
that ends in a relationship, and khom kheun, which is used to describe rape as a criminal act.

Last year, the government launched a campaign to teach schoolgirls self-defense and dispense advice on how to protect themselves from sexual harassers. But sex education in schools remains limited. A UNICEF study released this year found that up to 41 percent of male school students in Thailand have “problematic attitudes” toward gender and sexuality, while most teachers do not receive training on approaching topics such as sexual rights, gender and violence.

Critics say the portrayal of rape in popular culture is a sign of ongoing gender inequality in Thai society. “The roots of the problem cover all institutions,” says
Matcha Phorn-in, director of Thai-based rights organization Sangsan Anakot Yawachon. “We need to change the mindset of society and give out new messages, and we need to send these messages into families, the education sector and the media. We need a justice system that will make sure there is justice for women as well as men.

“When it comes to violence in these soap operas, it’s not just about rape. It’s about the broader issue of who controls the system.”

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