The big story coming out of Thailand over Songkran (Thai New Year) was the three teenage girls who stripped off and danced topless during a street party in the Silom nightlife zone. Photos and videos of the three girls surfaced and the Interwebs immediately came alight with shows of support for the girls and complimentary, witty comments being made about their breasts, and breasts in general. Then it was revealed that the girls are 13, 14 and 16.
It was at that point that people stopped talking about their breasts, despite numerous lewd comments made about them previously, hashtags and all. Did I mention the girls are 13, 14 and 16? Basically, what happened was that hundreds, maybe thousands of people, ended up watching and downloading photos and videos of near-naked Thai school girls. The whole thing was just sick, but apparently nobody was bothered by it.
The resultant furore over the incident saw the three girls tracked down and forced to apologise at a police conference, wearing balaclavas to protect their identities, because they are minors. The girls were also fined 500 baht each. The major complaint has been the hypocrisy of the case, because Silom is renowned as an area where you can find sex shows, prostitutes, gogo bars and other such things.
Thailand’s culture minister Nipit Intarasombut demanded “society come out and criticize” the girls for their moment of madness. Then it surfaced that the culture ministry's website featured a large painting depicting three topless nymphs. It was even speculated that the three teens may have been influenced by the painting.
The whole incident is, of course, farcical, but what troubles me is that people appear to be getting worked up about the wrong things. Nobody is asking why three teen girls were there in the first place, nor the dangers they may have been in. Thailand's Twitter-based observers did not appear bothered about three near-naked school girls dancing in front of a huge crowd of drunk men. The girls could quite easily have found themselves in a situation where they were prone to sexual assault, surely.
Parading the girls in front of the media was ridiculous. Why have the parents not been interviewed? There are underlying issues here, but they won't be addressed because all the focus is on the girls, rather than their families and rather than Bangkok society as a whole.
Reactions from expat circles have been somewhat critical of Thais for being shocked about the incident, as if viral videos of topless teens should somehow be accepted because Bangkok is "famous for its tolerance and notoriously wild nightlife".
Chalidaporn Songsamphan, an associate professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, said Thais were uncomfortable when sexuality was displayed in public. And, she said, the anger directed at the topless dancers was a way for people to channel their frustrations about wider social problems, like alcoholism, low test scores among students and teenage delinquency. (NYT)
I don't think this is something unique to Thailand. I'm sure if three near-naked teens danced in Trafalgar Square there would be a similar outcry. Many people feel uncomfortable when "sexuality" is displayed in public. Heck, two men were thrown out of a pub in London last week for kissing, and the general consensus appears to be that most people don't enjoy watching others kiss in public. What to make of it all?
Sanitsuda had a few things to say in a Bangkok Post column:
The fury only came after Culture Minister Niphit Intharasombat lambasted the three teenage girls for offending the country's culture.
What about the culture of heavy drinking? What about the rowdy crowd and the culture which treats women as sex objects? What about the commercial culture that pushes for girls' early sexuality or makes women think that flashing the flesh is a sign of self confidence?
Our culture maintains the good girl/bad girl divide to endorse men's sexual promiscuity, which allows the business of sexual exploitation to prosper.
The culture of blaming it all on bad girls allows the real culprits to get away with murder.