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Thailand (formerly Siam) has long been a site of fascination for Westerners. Despite a long history of interaction with neighboring Asian societies and in recent centuries with the West, Thailand remains distinctive within one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions of the world. Thailand's comparative cultural homogeneity and its maintenance of political independence throughout the period of Western colonialism have shaped Western observations of the country just as they have inspired Thai people's understandings of themselves. In coming to terms with the "Thailand" that is the subject of this book, it is necessary to describe how this country has come to be known and how observers have attempted to understand both its uniqueness and the aspects of sociocultural life that it shares with other Southeast Asian societies.
This book contributes to an ongoing dialogue between Thai endeavors at self-exploration and self-presentation and, more predominantly here, Western understandings of Thai experience. In focusing on recent concerns with gender and sexuality now familiar in Western academia, it also engages and is implicated in long-standing discourses about Thais as gendered and sexualized beings. These discourses, whether produced by Thais themselves or by Western observers, are aspects of wider political, economic, and intellectual processes that have been influenced by the sexualized gaze of the orientalizing West. It is not possible to ignore the extent to which Thailand in the late twentieth century bas come to be represented internationally in terms of highly sexualized images. Thailand is now an icon in broader discussions of sexuality among Westerners, and an increasing number of observers of the sexual routinely incorporate accounts of the country. Thailand's sex industry, the development of one of Asia's earliest and initially most virulent HIV/AIDS epidemics, and the way in which these influence even academic Western imaginations deserve some preliminary remarks here.
The themes and concerns explored in the following essays emerge from a body of knowledge about and attitudes towards the people of Thailand that are characterized as much by stereotyping and mythicizing of the "exotic East" as by critical attempts to understand Thailand's difference from and similarity to other societies. The studies of Thai gender and sexuality in this volume are therefore concerned with critiquing Western orientalist fantasies in addition to analyzing the specific features of local discourses, behaviors, and cultural practices. One of the tasks of this essay is to survey the frameworks, myths, and fantasies within which knowledge of Thai gender and sexuality emerge.
A theoretically important aspect of this collection is the consideration of how gender and sexuality intersect with what historically have been seen as gender-neutral or desexualized aspects of Thai society and culture. The essays are concerned with inscribing eroticism and gender difference within the body of knowledge of Thailand. As Bishop and Robinson note, while the signifier "Thailand" has been linked with "sexuality" in popular Western discourses, many academic studies have in fact studiously avoided the issue, effecting a desexualization of knowledge and an implicit degendering. The interplay of gender and eroticism with other factors--such as social organization, history, and literature--is the fruitful basis of the writings assembled here.
Understanding gender and sexuality requires an appreciation of the diversity of local discourses within which meanings and fantasies of masculinity, femininity, and eroticism are constituted, and also of the social practices that constitute men's, women's, and transgendered people's lives in diverse public and private situations. Historical, cultural, and media studies are as important to this task as ethnography. The essays in this volume explore many of the possible approaches to understanding gendered and sexualized selves in Thailand. In addition to extended ethnographic field observations and selective samples of interviews and focus group discussions in both villages and urban areas, our authors also interrogate a diverse range of cultural forms. These include women's magazines, novels by female authors, newspaper "news," royally inspired nationalist discourses, HIV/AIDS prevention programs, the complexities of linguistic usage, and the preferences and biases of both Thai and Western experts in the analysis of Thai society. By concentrating on diverse aspects of Thailand's social and economic transformations in the twentieth century, this book explores trends of cultural divergence and reinforcement that emerge out of sites of engagement and resistance to dominant ideologies and processes. By bringing together recent research we hope that others will be stimulated to further examine gendered and sexualized processes in their analyses of Thailand's social, cultural, and economic transformations.
In this introductory essay we summarize some of the distinctive features of Thai social organization and cultural life commonly mentioned in academic studies as well as critically assessing the intellectual project of seeking to understand Thai gender and sexuality. We trace arguments about Thailand's supposed cultural uniqueness and outline the historical development of Thai gender and sexuality studies. We use these reflections to indicate some of the ways in which this book's contributors engage issues in Thai studies and contribute to cross-cultural understandings of gender difference and eroticism.
DEFINING GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN THAILAND
Gender concerns culturally and socially mediated understandings of femininity and masculinity and the way these inform other categories, including transgenderism. "Sexuality" is a variable element in relation to gendered identities, denoting the role of eroticism in reinforcing not only a sense of self-understanding, but also contributing to and articulating one's place within hierarchies of power and status. As Van Esterik observes in her study, in the case of both gender and sexuality, issues of performance and identity, desire and pleasure are important.
Rubin (1984) has argued that we need to separate gender and sexuality on the grounds that the hierarchies of dominance in these two spheres are separate, and one cannot entirely be explained in terms of the other. This, of course, is based on the analysis of dominant Western patterns of subordination and marginalization of groups such as women and homosexual and transgendered people in accordance with their categorizations along these lines. Such analysis has accompanied the development in the West of identity politics based on both gender and sexuality and, to some extent, on attempts to challenge marginalization.
However, many of the following studies show that the applicability of distinct categories of gender and sexuality and of identities based upon this differentiation need to be questioned in Thailand. Most contributors have little difficulty identifying notions of gender, or of gendering processes. However, the degree to which identity construction is based on attributes such as gender or sexuality, and the extent to which these are linked or separable, are complex issues which Tannenbaum and Van Esterik point out are unclear in the Thai case and which Jackson suggests are changing, at least in some groups.
Linguistic evidence suggests that in Thai discourses gender and sexuality need to be considered as aspects of a single complex rather than as separate categories. A single Thai term, phet, denotes a broad range of phenomena that in contemporary Western discourses are separated out into:
1. biological sex (e.g. phet phu "male," phet mia "female")
2. gender (e.g. phet chai "male"/"masculine," phet ying "female"/"feminine")
3. sexuality (e.g. rak-ruam-phet "same-sex love" or "homosexuality," rak-sorng-phet "bisexuality," rak-tang-phet "heterosexuality")
4. sexual intercourse (e.g. ruam phet "to have sexual intercourse," phet samphan "sexual relations")
Phet is an exceptionally rich and productive notion in Thai, defying precise definition or translation as "sex," "gender," or "sexuality." In many ways the diverse nuances of phet are the focus of this book. While not always referring to this term explicitly, all the following essays document and explore manifestations of this important Thai concept, bringing Western knowledge to bear on the task of unpacking and explicating one of the most multivalent and polysemic words in the Thai language.
Because of the difficulty of assuming ready translatability of terms such as gender and sexuality to the Thai context, in places we use the compound expression "sex/gender" to avoid awkward structures, on the understanding that the slash " / " marks a problematic and uncertain articulation, a boundary of ambiguity and confusion undergoing redefinition and reunderstanding in a rapidly changing society. It is one of the purposes of these essays to begin the task of understanding the meaning of the slash that articulates the relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality, both historically and today.
THAI DISCOURSES, WESTERN DISCOURSES
In addition to being aware of fundamental differences in conceptions of sexuality and gender, we also need to be conscious of the different interests and motivations of Thai and English language research about Thailand. Thai language discourse produced by Thai researchers for Thai readers is an effort at self-knowledge and self-representation. In …