Thailand’s ‘Topless Teen’ Scandal and the Sexual Politics of Southeast Asia

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During last week’s Songkran festival, three Thai teenagers danced topless in front of a crowd in central Bangkok.  The  footage was uploaded to the Internet and went viral, sparking a nation- and region-wide scandal. The police promised a crackdown and politicians denounced the incident as an affront to Thai culture and a national embarrassment. “I demand that society come out and criticize them,” the culture minister said.

Although the affair has indeed led to much societal soul-searching, it’s the government that’s now being critiqued — and rightly so.  Publicly shaming three teenagers (the dancers were reportedly aged 13,15 and 16)  may score political points, but achieves little else. And, given the city’s very public and profitable sex trade, their hysterics are hard to take.

Perhaps that’s why the foreign press seemed to laugh off the story: “Thais Are Shocked, Shocked by Topless Dancers,” read the New York Times‘ ‘harhar’ headline. “No Topless Dancing Please, We’re Thai” quipped the AP.  They’ve got a point, sort of. But let’s unpack the sexual politics a bit.

The press (local and foreign) are right to highlight the state’s hypocrisy on matters of sex and sexuality. As Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor-in-chief of the Bangkok Post, argued in a recent op-ed, the Thai establishment has profited from the country’s sex trade and the police (and ordinary Thais) have been eager participants.  Bangkok’s sex districts  “may have started out as an R&R centre from the Vietnam War,” he writes, “but we as Thais have taken it further and allowed it to flourish.”

And flourish it does. Thailand is the hub southeast of Asia’s thriving sex trade and Bangkok its seething center. The area where the teens danced during Songkran is just minutes from Patpong, a sex district that’s particularly popular with tourists. Here, under neon lights, crowds of (relatively wealthy) foreigners pay a couple dollars to watch (relatively poor) Thai, Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese women put ping-pong balls, razor blades and live animals in their vaginas.

Much of the city’s sex scene is consensual and legal — some of it is not. The country is both a top destination for victims of human trafficking and a source of trafficked persons, including children. Perhaps that’s why the foreign press coverage made me wince. If an American teenager were filmed dancing topless, newspapers would not run glib headlines.  So, why are we laughing now?

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