Readers' Submissions

Ladyboys, an Alternative View Part 1

  • Written by Tommaso
  • January 8th, 2014
  • 9 min read



ladyboys


I have recently returned from a month long spell in Thailand. It was vacation time for me and to relax among other pastimes I also enjoy reading. This year, besides reading the customary Stick Bible and the submissions of his many followers, the subject of my reading was trying to understand how Thais view sexuality and this included the phenomenon of ladyboys. I have put together a few notes and divided them into three parts. Some sections are in italics as what I wanted to say had already been expressed much better by someone else. Where possible, references have been provided. I hope you find them interesting and to make it more digestible I have asked Stick to break it into three parts.

Whenever, wherever on this earth, we will find people who contravene gender boundaries. I'm not talking about the small ways of 'queering' gender, such as the lesbian separatists who wore dungarees in the 1970s. I mean the big ways: not just queering gender, but crossing gender. I mean the drive that makes people risk so much to represent a gender they feel is theirs, and yet is very different to the social, cultural and legal expectations of their birth sex. Whatever culture, country or epoch you choose to research, you will find a history of individuals who, if they lived now, we might now refer to as trans people.

I would suggest caution when using our words. 'Transvestite' originated in 1910 from the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who would later develop the Berlin Institute where the very first 'sex change' operations took place. 'Transsexual' was not coined until 1949, “transgender” not until 1971, and 'trans' (a very British term) not until 1996. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of 'androgyne' was recorded in 1552, but it has only been in the last 10 years that people have claimed it for themselves to describe a state of being in-between, or having both genders. 'Polygender' is a late 1990s Californian invention used to describe a state of being multiple genders.

This is by no means a complete list of words used by people to describe themselves. Long before Hirschfeld, other cultures had developed their own terminologies to describe 'trans' people. From the Hijra of India, to the Fa'afafine of Polynesia, the ladyboys and the tomboys of Thailand, and the Takatāpui of New Zealand, there are a myriad of words used by trans people to describe themselves.

Transsexual people have also become much more visible and in Thailand they proliferate like nowhere else and are tolerated like any other individual unless, that is, you happen to read the views of some readers on this website.

According to a documentary made by the English TV station channel 4 called “Middle sex”, there are approx. 300.000 ladyboys in Thailand with a population of 63 million. Consequently 1 out of every 100 Thai men is a ladyboy (List H. & Askegaard A. (2006) Bangkok ladyboys).

The current domination view of sex is something produced out of a socio-discursive regime of sexuality which attempts to use the notion of normality based upon biology as their basis. When talking about sex, it needs to be understood as not something biological, natural and created through nature. There is no biological basis for it to work as the grounding foundation upon which the superstructures of gender and sexuality can be placed upon. (Grosz, E. Volatile Bodies.1994)

Sex is typically viewed as something that includes impulses, desires, wishes, bodies, pleasures, behaviours and practices. These notions belong under the category of sexuality in our case, where as sex will be referring to the realm of sexual difference. (Grosz, E. Volatile Bodies.1994)

It must be understood that current views on what sex, sexuality and is gender, is something that has been created through society and been influenced heavily by Christian values. It has put upon a focus on what the body should do versus what it actually can do.

Consequently when talking about gender it is typically considered an extension of the current societal views, that builds upon the idea of what a body can do and the morphologies of bodies. (Grosz, E. Volatile Bodies.1994)

This denotes that the views of what is normal, proper and right regarding sex, sexuality and gender is all cultural, which are founded on misconceptions of how bodies perform and how they should perform. The restrictions placed upon these matters originate from the cotemporary and past moral codes of conduct thus creating the ideas of sex, sexuality and gender that is constructed from cultural and society norms. There is a conflict when looking at the three concepts as there is volatility in the core of it all, which is the fact that when looking at what a body can do, the potential actions it can perform can stand at odds with what is considered normal. (Grosz, E. Volatile Bodies.1994)

The Thai culture is strongly influenced by Buddhism with 90% of the population practising it. The Buddhists believe that your life does not begin with birth and does not end when you die. They believe that you have several lives in which you should earn merit.

The teachings of Buddha are followed in order to keep the karma pure. It is said that if you die with a pure karma you will be promoted to a higher karma, but if you have a bad karma you will be born in a lower form of life where you will have the chance to cleanse your karma

The Thai people have a certain way of greeting and behaving around other people, this is called the Wai. These rules of the Wai is a sign of respect and greeting. If there is a difference in age, the younger person has to start the Wai. Also if the people have a big social distance the Wai will not be returned.

Politeness, respect and self-control are very important values for Thai people and they start with the Wai. Many of the rules they have on behaving can be related to the Buddhist religion. Big fights in public are not acceptable, this is because they believe that angry people attract the wrath of the spirits and this could result in violence and tragedy. Also it is not a good idea to criticize someone in a public place, loss of face is a big disgrace to a Thai person. This is why they avoid confrontations and will look for the most suitable compromises in a difficult situation. However if it is not possible to compromise in the situation one of the arguing persons has to retreat without losing face.

In the social relationships there is a certain hierarchy, which means that one person is superior to the other. This is for example shown in clothing, age, jobs but most importantly in family. Family is a very big value in the Thai culture. Thai families are generally closer than the western families. This is for example illustrated in the fact that most of the time a family lives with different generations under one roof. It is in the family where a Thai learns the first values of how to behave.

The father of the family is seen as the leader, however the mother plays a big role in the children’s life and in the finances of the family. The women see the role of the mother as an ideal, the women in the rural societies have a lot of power as they have to nurture the family. As they have to nurture the family they are specialized in economic occupations which empowers them. A common expression in Thailand is that a good woman “wakes up earlier than her family and sleeps later then her family”. The role of the nurturer for a mother is also idealized in the female code of social and sexual conduct.

In Thai tradition a kulasatrii, a virtuous woman, has to be sophisticated and proficient in household duties, this means graceful, pleasant while being unpretentious about her social manners and conservative in sexuality. The western world sees this as an undermining of the women, however the Thai women see this as an honour and a sign of dignity. The image of the kulasatrii is nowadays still an ideal goal that women want to reach, while they have to adapt to the changing society.

Not only have the women had an ideal place in the society also the men have ideal images. There are two ideal male images in the Thai society. These two ideals come from the Buddha’s biography, where he states that the Thai men are either monastic and recluse or secular and householder. The monastic and recluse ideal man is the one who pursues the life of the Buddha. Whereas the secular and householder image is an embodiment of the masculine features which are also found in a lot of other cultures like: authority, courage and sexual prowess.

Children know their place in the family hierarchy at a very early age. Their place in the family will also determine their place in society and jobs. Furthermore the children are given certain tasks to gain responsibility, these tasks become bigger when they become older. Whereas they grow older they also gain more rights for example they are allowed to say what they think in family discussions and their ideas will be taken into account when an important decision has to be made.

The biggest responsibility for the children is the fact that they have to take care of their parents in their old age. This is seen as an honour as the parents gained a lot of wisdom over the years and have an honoured place in the family (huahinexpat: online). As long as you respect your family and obey your duties in the family there is a possibility that the family will not interfere as much in your private sexual life.

In marriage the Thai people take the karma concept to explain an unexpected overwhelming infatuation. They say that they were meant for each other and that it was their destiny, or that they had made merit in their previous life.

According to the Buddha premarital sex, is forbidden. The notion of love and lust is brought to children on a very early age to keep them from having sex before marriage. When these notions are explained, love is seen as pure and noble, whereas lust contains the opposite of these virtues. One of the Buddhist precepts even refers to rape and sexual abuse of children to illustrate lust and the danger of lust.

In the contemporary image of the ideal marriage in Thailand the woman and the man live together in a harmonious and respectful relationship, where the man is seen as the one who provides provision and security and where the woman is seen as the one who has the domestic responsibility. Also the man is the one who makes the decisions and the woman is the one who supports and stands by the decision her husband made.

The subject is often avoided and teaching their children about it frowned upon. If sex is mentioned at all it is in a playful manner, for example with newlyweds that get teased with questions like: “Was it fun last night?” However since 1978 children get educated about sex in school but it is limited to reproductive issues and sexually transmitted diseases.

To be continued
Tommaso