Nitipan Wiprawit was watching television with his family when the soap opera plotline that he detests appeared once again on screen: a man bribes a hotel clerk to trick the woman he loves into thinking that there’s only one vacant room.
In the hotel room, the man tries to force her to have sex. Comical music plays in the background making light of the situation. By the series’ end, they fall in love.
Thailand’s prime-time soap operas often depict sexual harassment and rape as a way to seduce or woo a woman, or as punishment for bad behaviour.
In June 2014, after watching that scene, Wiprawit decided he’d had enough.
“How can we tell our children to respect each other while we still agree to have these plots?” asks the 38-year-old architect.
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Wiprawit took his complaint to Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) with a Change.org online petition. He wanted to stop the depiction of rape as something normal and his petition garnered more than 59,000 signatures.
Wiprawit was the first viewer to publicly campaign for change, says Chanettee Tinnam, a media lecturer at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, who was tasked with writing the first ethical guidelines for television programmes to address the “dignity of women”.
The new guidelines are extensive, Tinnam says.
A brief draft provided by Tinnam suggests the regulations will encourage directors to be cautious when depicting violence against women, advise against showing women as victims and include content that addresses men’s sexual responsibilities.
The NBTC will unveil the finalised codes in a seminar on women in media on Friday.
Many television soap operas are adapted from old, popular Thai novels with storylines where the rape of female protagonists is commonplace.
Traditional construction of ‘good’ Thai woman
Some novels are so popular, such as Koo Kam, which is the source material for six melodramas and four films made as recently as 2013, that they’ve been adapted into movies and television soap operas multiple times since the 1970s. That was the decade when these stories found a wide audience, according to Thai media and sexuality scholar Jaray Singhakowinta.
“I think [in the 1970s] they captured the Thai mentality. People enjoy watching them and they guarantee high ratings. Producers like this kind of marketing recipe,” Singhakowinta says.
In these soap operas, “good” women or female protagonists are portrayed as sexually naïve and it’s expected that the men must initiate a liaison, explains Singhakowinta.
“The patriarchal notion of ideal womanhood is probably to blame for this repetitious portrayal of rape in Thai TV soaps. Although female virginity isn’t taken seriously by Generation Y men and women, it is still being employed as a symbolic measurement of feminine virtues in soap operas,” he says.
The traditional construction of a “good Thai woman is the adaptation of the Victorian value of women: pure, virginal, submissive, desexualised, good daughter and mother,” says Lakkana Punwichai, a social critic, weekly columnist and host of a weekly show about her take on the news as a woman, called “In Her View”.
In Wiprawit’s opinion, a soap opera would not “incite directly a person to rape someone, but reflects many things in Thai society or in the attitude of the police towards a person who has been raped”.
But he believes plotlines that reinforce rape as normal or romantic and where perpetrators don’t get punished may indirectly influence people not to report real-life sexual violence.
According to the Thailand Institute of Justice, between the years 2008-2013, an average of 4,000 rape cases were reported to the police and 2,400 arrests were made. But most rape cases go unreported with an estimated 30,000 cases a year.
“This is in part cultural, and in large part because the police are not really well positioned to help women, due to lack of women officers, inability to use rape kits, and also the legal system’s bias against pursuing cases of sexual assault by partners,” says Saman Zia-Zarifi, the Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
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In 2014, thousands of citizens began to ask for tougher penalties for sex offenders after the brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl on a crowded train travelling to Bangkok.
Thai celebrity Boom Panadda started a campaign calling for the death penalty for rapists, which collected 130,000 names.
Thailand only has the death penalty for people found guilty of crimes related to drug trafficking and murder. Sex offenders can receive jail sentences between four and 20 years, and fines ranging from 8,000 baht ($229) to 40,000 ($1,145).
“There are real problems in the implementation of the laws and providing women with protection and justice,” says Zia-Zarifi. In some cases, jail sentences have been reduced if the convict cooperates with the police and exhibits good behaviour.
Following the campaign launched by Wiprawit, the debate about sexism in soap operas has grown.
Wiprawit has been invited as a representative of the audience to roundtables organised by NBTC where directors, writers and experts discuss the messages they are conveying to the viewers, and especially to children.
“One brick in the foundation is not a house, but it could make the house stronger. To stop this attitude in media we have to take care of the first brick,” Wiprawit says.
“Maybe I am not doing a big thing, but [it] is a first step to change the social wrong attitude which [is] still supporting the culture of rape.”