‘Rape culture’ in Asia: Real life problem or Western-biased stereotypes?

By Zofia Reych

Thailand’s government has introduced a new law regulating the way sexual violence against women is depicted on TV. But will it have an impact on curbing rates of sexual assault in the country?

“She can resist, and she can run, but she’s gonna get raped. And we’re going watch it – again and again and again”, read the opening sentence of an article published in 2014, just a couple of weeks after a 14-year old girl was raped and murdered on an overnight train to Bangkok. Her case outraged the country, and the public demanded capital punishment for the rapist. Indeed, he was sentenced to death two months later.

Concerned for the safety of their passengers, the State Railway of Thailand introduced women-and children-only carriages. The media turned their attention to the problem of sexual violence, and the discussion was quickly focused on its trivialised portrayal in Thai soap operas known as lakorn.

Thai lakorn: is it the root of the problem?

From a Western perspective, the way rape is depicted on Thai television is shocking. Yet it is precisely these scenes of sexual violence that gather the biggest audience in Thailand, and have them on the edge of their seats. It is for those moments that the chatter stops in the rooms of teenage girls gathered to watch lakorn together. After all, a rape can be a beginning of a beautiful romance.

Until now, producers were eager to capitalise on the public’s appetite for scenes of sexual assault and, according to a REFERENCE study, gender-based violence could be seen in eight out of 10 lakorn. Two scenarios prevailed. A “good” and sexually naive woman, often a virgin, is forced upon by the male protagonist. She can give in to her secret desires while simultaneously saying no. He then apologises for his act, and often by the end of the story, they are married.

Alternatively, a “bad” woman can be punished for her scheming – also through rape.

Appalled by such scenarios, the architect Nitipan Wiprawit started in 2014 a campaign against romanticising violence against women. “[They report] rape as a crime during the day and broadcasts it as entertainment at night. There clearly is a problem here”, said Wiprawit.

Now, thanks to Wiprawit’s campaign which gathered thousands of signatures, a new regulation has been introduced to reduce scenes which depict sexual assault as socially acceptable. It is a great step forward.

But as much as the media would want to blame TV for high rates of rape in Thailand, the fact is that the abhorrent lakorn scenes are not a cause but merely a product of audience culture. However, we should be wary of generalisations, so that the situation in India does not repeat itself in relation to the ASEAN region.

The world scrutinised India’s “rape culture” after a brutal assault that resulted in a death of a 23-year old student in Delhi in 2012. A flurry of articles appeared, as well as a 2015 BBC documentary attempted documenting the plight of Indian girls and women.

“Rape culture” in Asia: Western-biased perspectives?

However, some argue that as much as such accounts are contributing to the struggle for women’s rights in Asia, they also add to the “rebirth of an ugly, colonial myth”, whereby Asian men are generalised and portrayed as a rampant, degenerate lot capable of nothing but violence.

India is known as a country with an especially low rape rate, though likely a result of the officials manipulating the numbers. On the other hand, Thai statistics look much more probable with as many as 87 reported rapes occurring every day. How many cases going unreported remains unknown. But in a country where one in five teenagers see rape as an acceptable part of social life, the actual number may be much higher.

Whatever the statistics, the West is always fast to condemn other nations. To put things in perspective, it is crucial to remember that the US has one of the highest sexual violence rates in the world – admittedly, it might be due to relatively high reporting and sentencing rates. For instance in Italy, 4.8% of the female population has fallen victim to rape or an attempted rape in their lifetime.

Cases of sexual violence against tourists travelling in developing countries always draw a lot of attention, often resulting in articles on, for example, “how the holiday isle paradise of Koh Tao has become the worst nightmare of every backpacking youngster’s parent”. However, the deaths of a British couple in 2014, as well as a recent case of rape, followed by the victim’s account of local police’s negligence are not to be trivialised.

Prime Minister General Prayuth’s inappropriate, victim blaming comments, as well as his later apology are proof that rape is deeply engrained in Thai culture but also that the Thais are ready for a change. Reforming their beloved lakorn also attests to that.

April’s tragic developments in Indonesia, as well as Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s shocking remarks during the recent presidential race, turned the world’s eyes towards ‘rape culture’ in the ASEAN region. We can but hope that this attention will prompt the authorities to take appropriate action and the public to condemn violence, while not adding to a skewed, post-colonialist image of Southeast Asian culture.