A popular soap opera in Thailand has triggered an outcry over the “romanticising” of rape.
The recent real-life rape and murder of a girl on an overnight train in Thailand has focused national outrage on messages in popular culture that trivialise – and some say even encourage – rape. Even the powerful general who took over the country in a coup this year had to apologise after suggesting women who wear bikinis on the beach were vulnerable to sexual assault.
Many working in TV soaps continue to defend sexual violence, partly as a key to high ratings in a fiercely competitive industry that draws more than 18 million viewers a night – nearly a quarter of Thailand’s population – to network television.
Award-winning director Sitthiwat Tappan even describes some rape scenes as a sort of public service, saying: “There might be a scene where a woman is dressed sexy, and walks past a man who has been drinking, and it shows on his face that he’s aroused and wants her. In the end, she succumbs to the physical power of the man.
“Scenes like this try to teach society that women should not travel alone or wear revealing clothes. And men shouldn’t drink.”
But rapists are seldom punished in TV melodramas, and their victims rarely talk about the effects. That much, at least, is reflected in real life.
Last year, the public health ministry said its hotlines received 31,866 calls from victims of rape or sexual assault. But police filed only 3,300 rape case reports, and made only 2,245 arrests in this 67 million people.
Public concern about rape in Thai society grew this summer, after a 13-year-old girl was raped on an overnight train, then suffocated and thrown out of a window. A 22-year-old train employee has been convicted of the attack and sentenced to death, and the rail authority has introduced a women-and- children-only sleeper carriage, with policewomen as guards.
Indignant newspaper editorials and TV talk shows have triggered a national conversation, while an online petition asking soap operas to stop romanticising rape has attracted more than 30,000 signatures.
“I’m not saying soap operas are the cause of rape in Thailand. But I believe they are part of the problem,” Nitipan Wiprawit, a 36-year-old architect who launched the petition, said. “Soap operas send the message that rape is acceptable.”
As a result of the petition, the national broadcasting commission has organised round-table talks that bring directors and screenwriters together with health and human rights experts to discuss the messages soaps deliver.
In a poll of more than 2,000 youths conducted by Thailand’s Assumption University in 2008, more than 20 per cent of 13-19 year olds said rape scenes were their favorite part of TV shows. The same percentage found rape to be a normal and acceptable act in society.
Yossinee Nanakorn, producer of one of Thailand’s best-known soaps, Prisoner of Love, said rape scenes were sometimes essential.
“Soap operas are all about conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story,” she said. “We try to avoid rape scenes, but if it helps drive the story, then we keep it.”
Feminist scholar Chalidaporn Songsamphan said rape fantasies in Thai culture stemmed in part from traditional beliefs that it was improper for women to show sexual desire before marriage. “When men initiate sex, women have to try to reject it, or say no, to show they are innocent sexually,” she said. “Rape scenes on television reflect this kind of thinking.”