CHIANGRAI TIMES – Her hands running with sultry precision down her teen curves, she sashays across the stage, her bikini-sized jean shorts stretching just barely below her bottom. Pop sensation Turbo Music is so young she still has braces on her teeth, but that doesn’t stop myriad middle-aged men from clawing at her legs and private parts, eager to put paper bills anywhere their fingers might reach.
This is modern Thailand: a nation home to the first-ever airline staffed by ladyboys, the highest number of sex-change surgeries worldwide and a seeming openness to sex rarely seen – or enjoyed – anywhere else in the world. But ask a local teen how to put on a condom, or the ways in which HIV is contracted, and you will likely be met with a blank stare and shy giggle. Despite an education system that has created one of Asia’s highest rates of literacy, Thailand has the second-highest number of teen pregnancies in the world, the highest rate of HIV/Aids in Asia, and year-on-year increasing rates of STD infection among its youth.
The country’s “top-down control of thoughts and behaviour” in its schools is partly to blame, says Bangkok-based blogger Kaewmala, author of Sex Talk, which analyses Thai culture and sexuality. “Sex isn’t always a taboo subject in Thai culture … [But] what is ‘appropriate’ is often narrowly and strictly defined by those who aren’t always in touch with reality.”
Last year it was Turbo Music’s single Itchy Ear that drew attention to the divide between Thailand’s hyper-eroticised image and its surprisingly conservative culture. With lyrics describing a bodily “itch” desperate for a scratch and a YouTube video watched over 17m times, the band – and its message – attracted a flurry of criticism about “amoral Thai behaviour” and the “taboo nature” of sex in Thai culture.
This year, it was an claim by the National Economic and Social Development Board that Facebook was partly to blame for the country’s unwanted teen pregnancies, citing seducing messages and video clips as an issue.
Then there was a nationwide health exam for high school students that asked: “If you have a sexual urge, what should you do?” Optional answers included: a) Ask friends if you can play football together; b) Consult family members; c) Try to sleep; d) Go out with a friend of the opposite sex; or, e) Invite a close friend to watch a movie together.
The correct answer, according to Dr Samphan Phanphrut, director of the National Institute of Educational Testing Services, which oversees the exam, was (a): Ask friends if you can play football together, whether the exam taker was a boy or girl. The question, he told local media, was intended to verify students’ ability to recognise – and act – on their sexual impulses.
Copies of the test posted online quickly attracted messages of outrage and chagrin, with commentators lamenting the lack of parent-child dialogue on sex and the state of the country’s education system – sentiments that some politicians echo. Dr Pusadee Tamthai, of Thailand’s National Commission for Women’s Affairs, says the indirect wording of the question, coupled with its many possible answers, only proved educators’ inability to reach their students.
“Children are growing up so much faster today than in the past, but because sex is taboo in Thailand, they seldom learn about sex from their parents or family, so they depend on magazines, the internet and their friends for information,” she says. “When they do learn about sex at school, the way that students communicate with their teachers is hierarchical and [therefore] not very open, because in our culture of respecting the elderly there’s an emphasis on taking care of what you say rather than talking freely and without judgment.”
Luckily, there are some educators in Thailand who are listening. Maytinee Bhongsvej, executive director of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, has launched a frank approach to sex education in the capital, where a comprehensive programme – encompassing self-esteem, bodily and emotional changes, gender rights, STDs and intercourse – has been rolled out to some 100 schools around Bangkok. The course, she says, far surpasses the “sperm and ovary” biology focus of the national curriculum and – despite being highly controversial – has met with great success anecdotally.
“People think that if you talk about sex, you encourage them to have it. But if you keep preaching ‘Maintain your virginity’, you don’t prepare kids for reality,” she says. “We believe that kids should be fully informed because then they can avoid situations that would lead them to problems.”
Tamthai, who hopes to see a programme like Maytinee’s as part of the national curriculum one day, is restrained in her hope. “That starts with being honest with each other,” she says, “and that’s a lot to do.”