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Ladyboys, an Alternative View Part 2

  • Written by Tommaso
  • January 10th, 2014
  • 10 min read



ladyboys


Thailand does not have the same construction on sexuality as the west, whereas the West has the common categories such as heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual etc. These terms were not even introduced to Thailand before 30 years ago, and even then they were only introduced for academic reasons. The terms were not enough to describe the many different varieties that the Thai culture has in sexuality for example the ladyboys.

The Thais have quite complex attitudes in regards of homosexuality. On the one hand the homosexual behaviour is stigmatized, on the other hand it is somewhat tolerated due to the Buddhism. However the way the homosexuals present themselves in the social areas is important for the social acceptance. In a culture where the men has a higher rank than the women they have somewhat more tolerance than the women who are homosexual. This is probably the case because it is expected from a good woman to be innocent about her sexuality and normally only show their sexuality with their husband.

The overall norm for the Thai people is therefore heterosexuality and they see homosexuality as something that comes up as the homosexual probably had a bad karma when he/she died in their previous life. Especially educated Thais think that homosexuality exists as a mental illness (International Encyclopaedia of Sexuality: online).

The job opportunities for Thai people are not high, however the family will play a big part in what a Thai person will do for a living. Most of the Thai people will study what their family proposes, if this is not in relation with what one had imagined so be it. The most important to a Thai is that their family is satisfied. It is very rare to see that a Thai chose a career that the family did not want them too. But research on lady boys points out that there are Thais who do choose to make a career without the permission of their parents.

Money nowadays is one of the most important values in Thailand which is desired by every Thai. Where honesty and honour were the most important values, money has taken over that place with the result of materialism. Money gives people power, status and respect, something that every Thai wants to earn in his/her life.

Money is seen as honour and the people who possess money are given a high rank in society and praised. The importance of a person is therefore not rated by his or her personal attributes but by the amount of money they have.

Even though Thailand has a low unemployment rate, the payment for the jobs they do is very low. The fact that someone has a lot of money shows that he or she has a good job, which automatically results in respect for that person.

To undergo gender reassignment there are two common motivations. The first one is when a newborn has both sexes also known as hermaphrodite. In the early stage a decision has to be made to change the sex to female or male. The other motivation to change the gender is when a male or female believes that they are emotionally and mentally different than what they are physically. For the ladyboys there are several other reasons to undergo this surgery. These reasons involve money, prestige and opportunities. (Encyclopaedia of surgery, online).

It is becoming more attractive for younger people to pursue such career as a ladyboy after they have seen how much money can potentially be earned for themselves and their family. The market for the ladyboys comes from the western world, which enhances the ambition to work with western people. Some of the ladyboys therefore want to do the gender reassignment surgery so they can marry a western person and move to the country where they can be registered as a female. In the western world they can have the same job but earn way more than that they would if they stayed in Thailand, which gives the ladyboy a good status.

Furthermore the people in the sex industries started charging more money for the ladyboys than for ‘normal’ prostitutes (Jackson P.A. and Sullivan G., 1999). The ladyboys then became a job with status; they were not the same as ‘normal’ prostitutes. They were kept for the elite group, the group with more money.

This because, according to the ladyboys, they were more aware of how to sell their bodies. With that comes the fact that a lot of the men want to have sex with a ladyboy just to know how it is. Also it has been said that the ladyboys are good sex partners because they know the male body very well. So they know what the man wants which gives them an advantage in the bedroom. (Doppert M., Folia, nr.2, August 1998).

Even though the ladyboys are seen as the dark side of Thailand for many Thais, there still is some sort of respect for them. They earn money to pay for the surgery, which means they have to earn a lot to be able to pay for this. A good example of this is given in the movie “Beautiful Boxer” where Nong Toom keeps on boxing to earn money for the surgery. After the surgery people can obviously see the change they have been through. The change immediately shows how much money they have, this gives the ladyboys a status of people with money. This attracts a lot of the youth because it is not easy to make money in Thailand. And in a country as Thailand this will have more effect, due to the fact that it is so hard to find a job that earns enough money to provide for your family. The ladyboys make three times the amount of money as a person who has a ‘normal’ job in general. The money will be a drive to undergo such a surgery especially for the youth who live under very hard circumstances. (De Lind van Wijngaarden J.W. in Doppert M., Folia, nr. 2, August 1998).

Thanh-Dam Troung defines prostitution as “The exchange of money for sex within a context of relative anonymity and muted emotional attachment” (Troung, Thanh-Dam (1990) “Sex, Money and morality: Prostitution and Tourism in South-East Asia). This statement cannot stand alone, since there can be other motives, especially when dealing with prostitute ladyboys. If one reads different types of prostitution definitions, Kamela Kampadoo writes in the introduction of “Global Sex Workers – Right, Resistance and Redefinition”: “analyses of prostitution need to address and take into account the specific ways in which sexual subjectivity, sexual needs and desires are constructed in the specific context” (Kampadoo 1998:4)

In the book “Thai Tourism – Hill Trips, Islands and Open-Ended Prostitution” the anthropologist Erik Cohen describes the tourist related prostitution as being something not entirely focusing on the direct financial transaction, but with a more social interactionist approach. Cohen is describing how the mechanisms in the tourist-related prostitution form, allows the involved establishing a social contact, which is why a lot of the male tourist develop romantic feelings through their vacation. Cohen explains furthermore that the ambiguity surrounding this particular prostitution-form lies on the convergence of the direct exchange of sex for money, which is described as being a more western hard-form of prostitution, with the Asian and more specifically Thai “lover-tradition”.

This “lover-tradition” is seen as being where the woman’s socio-sexual company is being paid through support, understanding and gifts (Cohen 1996:251-258). This is due to the eternal wish from the prostitutes’ side of finding a provider.

Through the field work done by Marie Bang Nielsen, she points out the importance of taking into consideration the fact that a lot of the male tourist are seeking a love-experience, which therefore causes (mis)understanding of the relation as being romance rather than prostitution (Nielsen, Marie Bang (2002) ”Håb og Kærlighed”, Institute of Anthropology, Copenhagen University).
Cohen describes this form of staged authenticity from the female prostitutes as following: “relationships which are based essentially on economic exchange often camouflage to appear as if they were based on social exchange” (ibid:259). In addition to this the anthropologist Chris Ryan highlights in his analysis of sex tourism that it is important to be aware of the financial element often being blurred by the social interaction. He writes “is the reality of the commercial transaction …. a veil which is drawn over the monetary value of the transaction” (Ryan, C. & Hall, C. M., (2001) “Sex Tourism – Marginal people and liminalities”. London. Routledge).

An example of this confusion can be seen at some of the comments from informants, which Marie Bang Nielsen interviewed through her fieldwork being: “in the beginning I couldn’t figure out if she really liked me or if she just wanted the money” or as another informants said: “my friends believes she’s a prostitute – but they don’t know her at all… things tell me she isn’t.” (Nielsen, 2002:34). These statements obtained by Marie Bang Nielsen, illustrates this social interaction “scheme” which is showing the interaction between the clients and the prostitutes. As a prostitute said: “To have one man pay your bills every month, is just a lot easier than to find a new every night that pays your drinks” (ibid:36).

Strategically the prostitutes stage an emotional connection with the clients, giving them the illusion of a romance and relationship, and then afterwards building up trust, and then the financial aspect occurs. This is for example seen with an informant saying: “Money has never been a part of our relationship” where after he continues by saying that: “yesterday she told me she needed 10.000 bath for her mother’s operation, I wanted to help her out and gave her 10.000 bath plus 5.000 – just in case”. This quotation illustrates how the financial aspect is put into a social interpretation frame (Nielsen 2002: 38).

The relevance for the field work done by Marie Bang Nielsen is giving a specific look upon prostitution, whereas the common view upon ladyboys is that there is a thin line between the ladyboys and the “ordinary” female prostitute. Some of ladyboys are having a harder approach, focusing directly on sex for money, which according to Cohen as earlier mentioned is a more westernized form of prostitution.

The ladyboys are more or less promoted on several websites as a product, which for example can be seen at a website promoting the city of Pattaya: “As with all sexual preferences, Thai ladyboys aren't everyone's cup of tea. Whereas some guys swear they've had the hottest sex ever in Pattaya with a ladyboy, others might have been robbed by a gang of katoeys on Beach Road, or simply despise them as a matter of principle. Ladyboys (or katoeys as the local she-males and transvestites are called in Thai) are a common feature of everyday life all over Thailand. Due to the tolerant nature of Buddhist culture, ladyboys, as well as people with a bisexual orientation, are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transvestites or transsexuals in most Western countries. While the katoey phenomenon isn't restricted to urban areas and you can come across ladyboys in every small village of Isaan, tourist places like Pattaya or Bangkok – worldwide famous for their "naughty" nightlife – attract a large number of Thailand's unique "women of the second category". www.pattaya-funtown.com/ladyboys.html

To be continued

Tommaso

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