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Water boxing, Asian values and the saint versus slut complex

THAILAND | Thursday, 4 August 2011 | Views [1117]

Posted on July 5, 2011 by Lily

I was hanging out and drinking beer with the other ‘Farangs’ (westerners) on the banks of the village reservoir when a frightening roar erupted behind my right shoulder. I had no idea what was going on. It sounded like a whistling thunder, like steam pressure being let out of a giant valve, like a miniature thunderstorm at ground level. I looked around to see something disappearing into the sky. Immediately after the sound ‘pfffed’ out of existence a group of local Thai village men, all staggeringly drunk, cheered and whistled. As it turns out, I had not been facing imminent death. It was just a giant bamboo rocket packed with gunpowder that had been briefly sent into the heavens before arcing over and stabbing back down to earth a kilometre away exactly like a giant, deadly javelin. No worries.

The rockets

We were at a village festival that may have in the past been created to celebrate the coming of the wet season but which now seemed to celebrate four slightly less romantic phenomenon- explosives, boxing, strippers and booze. The boxing part of this celebration involves a form of muay thai where the two combatants sit on a bamboo pole erected on two other poles in the shallows of the reservoir. It’s pretty simple. If you knock the other person off into the water, you win. If you get knocked off, you lose. If you both refuse to let go and you end up hanging there in a tangle of stubborn flesh, it’s a draw. Some of the farang guys from the farm I was staying at entered the competition. Me and a Dutch girl, Ilsa, wanted to fight each other too- it looked like fun. We approached the registration desk.

The guys organising the line up of fighters started to squirm when we translated our request. After some discussion in Thai, they sort of agreed, talking sideways and distractedly- at first we were told no, then we were told we could fight but we weren’t allowed to win the prize or enter the competition. When we tried to register, we were basically ignored. Ilsa and I shrugged and laughed it off. We could see how uncomfortable our request had made these men- us big white women, coming in to their village and challenging their gender roles. They don’t know what to make of us at the best of times- we talk, act, smoke and drink like men, have sex freely, get married late and don’t have children. What sort of women are we anyway? I sat back to enjoy the hilarious spectacle (and it was actually very funny) of grown men beating each other over the head until they collapsed into a lake and didn’t think about this ‘guys box, women don’t’ thing again until the entertainment started.

At first it was what seemed to be a local young guy wearing this gleaming white suit and green shirt singing crooners to a pop backing track. Cheesy but kind of endearing. After he’d finished, we watched the stage for a second while a disembodied  female voice started plugging through another pop song. Then she appeared- huge white platform boots emerged first from behind the speaker, followed by a jeuvenile body sporting a g-string pulled up purposefully to peek out over what were essentially another pair of underwear. Apparently the real show had started.

What followed was a bizarre parade. Three strippers (who had apparently been brought in from Bangkok or Chang Mai- a local man had proclaimed ‘we don’t have women that beautiful in our village’) began a totally weird, reluctant costume rotation as they took turns singing along on stage with identical voices to identical Thai heart break pop crooners. To make everything even weirder none of them showed any enthusiasm whatsoever for their performance, and one of them looked downright uncomfortable. She fiddled with her clothes and her hair while she sang, her face a heavily made up blank expression of pop culture beauty masking teenage insecurity. Each costume change was lightning fast- unsurprising, considering how little costume there was to change. Maybe us foreigners missed some important cultural understanding, but to me the whole show just seemed so completely inappropriate.

We were at a community celebration in the middle of no-where, on the edge of a reservoir. It was three in the afternoon on a Sunday. The dancefloor was made of dirt. The onlooking people were all peasant farmers with calloused hands and hard faces. The strippers were all teenagers. Small children crawled near the base of the stage. Local women all dressed in the practical pants or long skirts and shirts of the rural Thai watched on with subtle frowns. A couple of drunk local men tried to grab the girls breasts mid performance- they were all a bit early, as it turns out. If they waited until after the gig they’d be free to buy a tit grab for 20 Baht, if they could afford it.

I could just imagine the men from the village council booking the show and getting all excited about it. I wondered how the local women felt about the whole thing. They hadn’t exactly looked thrilled. I was reminded of how I’d felt at the age of sixteen when I was at this guys eighteenth birthday party and a stripper showed up. As all the guys gathered around her hooting and cheering, the girls retreated uncomfortably. Suddenly, my girlfriends and I all felt objectified and sidelined all at once. It was as though the presence of the stripper was a statement. Without having any awareness of doing so, all the boys in the room were collectively saying to all the girls ‘Look- if you were in her situation we could buy you, just like we bought her, and we don’t care if you don’t like it- It’s a man’s world, and don’t you forget it.’

Thai culture, like most cultures, has a fairly schizophrenic attitude towards female sexuality, prostitution and the status of women.  As Lin Lean Lim explains in her excellent book ‘The Sex Sector’, patriarchal social structures, a culture of ‘saving face’, poverty and  a lack of education typical to many countries in Asia make the region a particular breeding ground for these kinds of sexual double standards. Lim’s analysis was played out in front of me at the village festival, where it was not acceptable for ‘respectable women’ to show shoulders or thighs, but it was ok for middle aged drunk men to grab the exposed tits of teenage strippers. If you look at it too closely, your brain starts to hurt.

As I’ve been travelling around Southeast Asia, I’ve found the same dichotomy going on to varying degrees and in different forms, from Islamic countries to Buddhist ones. Hypocrisy is everywhere. Contrary to popular opinion, the biggest business for the sex industry in Asia is actually local. Only a fraction of the prostitution that goes on services foreigners (check out Lim’s book for more details). Societies such as Malaysia that frown on sex outside of marriage and parade themselves as morally upstanding turn a blind eye to local prostitution while their religious police harass girls in nightclubs for wearing short skirts. It’s a complicated mess of money, religion, politics, poverty and culture. Many people in Thailand and other countries in the region actually believe that men biologically have far greater sexual needs than women and that prostitution actually saves ‘innocent’ women from becoming victims of rape by diverting those insatiable needs towards fallen women who are willing to accommodate them and who, lets face it, matter less as humans. So two classes of women are created- one bad class of women to service men sexually for money, the other good class to take as a wife. Sometimes, but very rarely, a woman can make her way from the bad class to the good class by getting married. Most often the transformation happens irreversibly in the other direction.

But before westerners get smug about women’s lib, we’ve got our own perverse version of this double standard. To quote the immortal Dr Dre from his 2001 anthem ‘Housewife’- “And when it all boils down you gonna find in the end, a bitch is a bitch but a dog is a man’s best friend, So what you found a hoe that you like, but you can’t make a hoe a housewife”. Yep. That’s coming from one of hip hops most influential artists not in 1956, but in the year 2001. No wonder there’s this new trend of ‘everything but’ sluts in the US- girls who feel they need to preserve their hymen in an increasingly sexualised and simultaneously conservative culture are labelled with this creative term when they end up doing everything except penetration. We’re sending just as many mixed messages to our kids, so no country is innocent in this. Societies and men and women everywhere seem to be content to allow this double headed monster to live on, despite all the unhappiness it ultimately causes to everyone. What exactly is it, by the way? Ever since I first became aware of it in high school, I’ve called it the ‘saint versus slut complex’.

It's even on T shirts now

Just think about it. You all know it. Everyone knows it. It came up in the news recently, when CNN reported a couple of repulsive comments made by an ‘unnamed General’ from the Egyptian army. The anonymous man was responding to criticism of the Army for detaining, strip searching and giving virginity tests to 17 humiliated women protesters. “The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” He said. “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters.” Whoooah. Bad, bad girls. Camping in tents with men. Obviously, they’re less human than other women. Less strict in standard to the Ayatollah Khomeini and more strict than Dr Dre but it’s still the same basic principal. You could call it a bunch of other names- the ‘good woman versus bad woman’ complex. The ‘wife versus prostitute’ complex. Call it what you will, it’s global, and although it’s not as bad as it used to be in some places, it still shapes the minds and lives of women –and men- everywhere.

I often ask why it exists. I mean, men and women all want to have sex. And everyone wants to have loving relationships. It’s natural. I’ve often wondered why people are still so hung up on all of it, why we go on creating these fake categories of people in order to facilitate sexual activity after we’ve restricted it. Maybe it’s about some men wanting to feel more powerful. It reduces the value of women to their sexual relations with men. It’s a way of controlling women so that they remain property of men. And it’s a way of protecting guys’ egos- so that they don’t feel as though they are just one among many sexual partners. They’re special. If you are a woman with multiple partners- you’re a slut, and therefore not worthy of respect anyway. It’s so powerful that women often internalise and perpetuate it themselves for fear of being put in that category and in contempt of those women who are. They build their own cages and they build cages for their daughters. Fear, pride, insecurity, guilt, judgement and shame become the bars. Society and the men who propagate that kind of bullshit turn the key in the lock.

Here’s a story by way of example.

Tika, a young woman I met at a party in Jakarta, hasn’t had a boyfriend for a few years. That surprised me when she told me. She is a nice, beautiful young indonesian woman with a career. She’s a snappy dresser. She seemed to tick all the boxes. When I asked her why, she said she doesn’t want to give up her independence. Apparently even in Jakarta it’s normal for boyfriends to tell girlfriends what to do. If they don’t like one of her friends, she can’t see the friend anymore. I asked Tika why the women put up with this. She looked confused and slightly concerned. ‘I don’t know. The boyfriends will come pick them up on their motorbikes at night’. We both laughed.

In a perverse kind of trade-off, girls will give up their independent lives in exchange for having someone to pick them up at night. There is an important piece of background information to this. In Jakarta, women who are on the streets by themselves after about eleven pm are widely considered to be sluts- on the same level as prostitutes. That makes them targets. This cultural norm practically gives men permission to harrass or assault women they see on the streets alone at the witching hour. The streets actually do become unsafe. If you happen to work late, or if you want to come home after a late dinner- you better either get a taxi, or have a boyfriend to pick you up. Boyfriends are made to feel important, and powerful. In exchange, girls receive their protection. Sounds like a Mafia protection racket to me. ‘I’ll take care of you’ was a pick up line I heard all the time there actually. A lot of Indonesian guys who tried that cheesy one on me somehow managed to forget that I have taken care of myself quite happily for my entire adult life.

Here’s another story by way of example.

I met a girl in Malaysia who doesn’t wear the hijab. She’s a Muslim, but she chooses not to- she’s a pretty loose Muslim. Her sisters have chosen to wear the hijab. Muslim women are not supposed to smoke. All over Indonesia and Malaysia, everywhere I went, the Muslim women I met who smoked would only do so in their own homes or in secret. If they smoked in public, they were considered loose, immoral, sort of like sluts watered down. So this girl I met who is Muslim and who smokes but doesn’t wear the hijab sometimes asks her sisters to buy her cigarettes when they’re coming home from work. When they buy cigarettes wearing their Hijabs, the man in the shop actually has a dig at them. He tells them that good Muslim women should not be smoking. Can you imagine? A stranger telling a grown woman what she should be doing, with the permission and validation of society? And the sister, rather than telling him to mind his own business, demurely explains that the cigarettes are not for her. Like a child, she explains herself to a stranger who has chastised her for being immoral. How on earth these women accept that, I don’t know. That’s some heavy social conditioning in how to be unassertive.

On that note, here’s another story from Indonesia.

Iskander lives in Bukit Lawang, a village in Sumatra. He’s a tall man with a jolly Dr Hibbert sort of laugh, about 35 years old and he works for the National Parks body there. I met with him to talk about conservation, and the conversation swung to relations between men and women when he asked me how I was enjoying Bukit Lawang. I told him it was great.. except for the trekking guides. A lot of them were pretty sleazy towards me, in a macho, arrogant kind of way that I have very little patience for. It just gets boring. So I told Iskander this, and pretended that I couldn’t wait to be somebodies housewife, and we both had a laugh about it. Iskander explained that the guides want western wives. It’s a status symbol, kind-of like a sports car. Apparently the next big status symbol is to have your own guesthouse. ‘At least the western wife comes first’, I said with a laugh.

I told Iskander what Tika had told me, about men in Jakarta telling their girlfriends what to do. He shook his head in and sort of hissed his disapproval. He said to me ‘I tell you what. You go out into the village, and you ask any woman if she can meet you for dinner. You know what she will say? She will say “let me check with my husband first”. ’ He then went on to explain that there are many women in the village who are unhappy with this; ‘Their husband might tell them, “I want you to stay at home today”, and they will have to stay there, they can’t meet their friends, they have nothing to do’ He said, ‘they get bored, sitting at home, waiting for their husbands. Sometimes they cry, but when the husband comes home..’ he mimicked wiping away tears, and shook his head again. I said, ‘I hope you don’t tell your wife what to do.’ He laughed; ‘No, I am an educated man. My wife is an educated woman, with her own job. She is an adult. She can make her own decisions’. It was the first time I’d heard that, and it was good to hear. I hope it’s true. For him, the problem is ignorance and the solution is education. Culture, society and religion did not come into the conversation. The word sexism didn’t even pop up. He didn’t seem to have any idea that he was being a feminist in his analysis. He just saw it as a social problem, as women being on the wrong end of an unjust culture. He was a humanist, I suppose.

So in an attempt to get my head around all of this barrage of thought triggered by the village festival, I had a quiet moment of thinking on my walk back to the farm. I had to remind myself that yes, these injustices all exist and yes, the world is full of double standards that screw up human relationships and feed inequality and exploitation and sex slavery. But women and men also love each other, just like men love some men and some women love women. Fathers love their daughters, brothers and sisters love each other too. We can just be pretty awful at managing it all, and sometimes we’re downright bastards without even knowing it. Sometimes, families and communities think they are just trying to raise a ‘good woman’, for the sake of the girl herself. Or else they think they’re protecting the family (it’s ok if he sees a prostitute as long as we don’t divorce, etc). It does help to have education- but I know some intellectual sexists too, so it’s not a guarantee. It’s all a bit insane, really. We are getting better but there is a long way to go. I’d love to start challenging it all by getting up on the bamboo poles and boxing it out with Dr Dre, but somehow I just don’t think that’s going to happen, even if the village men do end up letting me register one day- they probably wouldn’t let him enter because he’s black. And with that final layer of unjust absurdity, I’m off to bed. See you next country.

Tags: thailand, women

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