new addition to the HEART is our
frequently is not proper. But if they (married men) go only once in a
while and protect themselves from diseases by using condoms, it is all
right. (Case 18 Lopburi rural male)
Married women have a
less tolerant attitude than their husbands towards married men visiting
prostitutes. Some view even occasional visits as totally unacceptable.
In our focus groups, and undoubtedly in the general public, the majority
of married Thai women clearly prefer their husbands not to visit
prostitutes at all. Mrs S: Hundred per cent, women don't like it
(married men visiting prostitutes). Several: We don't like it.
Mrs S: But sometimes
we can't forbid it since men think it’s ordinary. (Bangkok middle class
Respondent: I don't
see why Married men have to (visit prostitutes) since they already have
families. Women surely don't like it if their husbands do that... They
shouldn't do it at all, especially now when there are a lot of
diseases... If they think they can't live with only one woman, I mean a
wife, they shouldn't get married in the first place. (Case 4 Bangkok
female middle class)
dislike of the practice, some women accept the view that men have a
natural need for sexual variety and thus reluctantly tolerate occasional
patronage of prostitutes by their husbands. For them, and indeed for
many Thai men, it is seen as a form of male entertainment and not as a
serious breach of marital trust. Just over two-fifths of the women
in-depth respondents (compared to about two-thirds of the men) felt
that visiting prostitutes after marriage was ordinary behaviour. This
does not mean they approved of it or thought it was proper but rather
that they saw it as a 'fact of life'. Moreover, wives' tolerance was
typically conditioned on the husbands' visits to prostitutes being
discreet and infrequent, precautions being taken against STDs, and the
costs not draining the family finances.
Respondent: It seems
to be an outlet and a kind of entertainment among men. They do it in
groups of friends if urged by each other. (Case 21 Lopburi urban female)
give us most of the money so we must sometimes let them stray... Not as
a habit. They are allowed to (visit prostitutes) once in a while... if
we are not financially troubled. (Case 2 Bangkok female teacher)
Interviewer: Is it
normal for married men to take prostitutes?
okay for me if they do it now and then or on some special occasions. If
they do it as a habit, they are irresponsible and they may get wives
infected through them. (Case 22 Lopburi urban female).
Some women, who
indicate that they are opposed to their husbands having sex relations
outside the marital union, make exceptions to their general opposition
during times when they are unable to have sexual intercourse with their
husbands for an extended time. They see their husbands having an innate
need of frequent release of sexual drive and thus view situations where
they themselves cannot meet this need as justifying an occasional visit
to a prostitute. Such situations include long periods of marital
abstinence necessitated by pregnancy and recent childbirth. It might
also include situations where employment requires the couple to be
separated for long periods.
Mrs K: There's one
period of time, during a wife's pregnancy, when a man wants to go out
(and see prostitutes).
Mrs P: That's
Mrs M: Yes, it's
Mrs T: There's no
one to release his desire. (Kanchanaburi urban female group)
Mrs R: If I cannot
give him happiness (sleep with him), I would let him do it with
prostitutes occasionally, but he has to protect himself. (Kanchanaburi
rural female group)
responsibilities are often cited as reasons for opposing men’s use of
commercial sex, especially if frequent. It is nevertheless possible for
some women to reconcile a husband’s occasional visits to prostitutes and
his obligations to his family. Thus tolerance, among those women who
reluctantly accept the practice, is contingent on men not squandering
more than they can afford and taking precautions against STDs.
prostitutes by men is often seen as a means of entertainment and thus
not as a serious act of infidelity, entering a sexual relation with an
ordinary (non-commercial) partner is viewed quite gravely. This is so
whether the offending spouse is the husband or the wife. Nevertheless,
there is a fundamental difference in overall views towards male and
Views on women's
extramarital sexual activity are unambiguous. Both male and female
focus-group participants and in-depth survey respondents typically saw
female infidelity as unacceptable and assumed that it would lead to the
termination of the marriage by the man. Indeed it could also lead the
husband to violence, against the wife, the lover, or both.
Moderator: Is it
common for women to have other men?
Mr S: Men just can't
accept that. If the woman does that, it means we have to separate...
Our society just can't accept this kind of behaviour in women... Men
consider themselves as tigers. Two tigers can't live in the same cave.
One must die. (Lopburi urban male group)
Moderator: Can you
stand the idea of your wives sleeping with other men?
Mr S: It's a big,
troublesome deal then. (Laughed) They shoot each other because of this.
(Bangkok male factory worker group)
Respondent: If they
do that (extramarital sexual relations), they are bad women. This is
forbidden. They can be killed by their husbands. (Case 17 Lopburi rural
unacceptability of female infidelity was often explicitly contrasted
with the more lenient attitudes towards male indulgence in extramarital
sex. Unlike men, women are expected to control their sexuality and
devote themselves solely to their husbands, and their families.
Respondent: It is
common for men to sleep with women other than their wives. But as for
women, if they have affairs, it is unacceptable... Such behaviour of
women is against Thai culture. But as for men, it is common. 'The only
thing that women have to keep in mind is that they have to take good
care of the family, make their family happy. (Case 28 Lopburi urban
Respondent: Men are
men and women are women. Women are supposed to behave... If women take
lovers as a revenge to husbands, they will never have them back... It's
the most serious damage a married woman can do to her family. (Case 21
Lopburi urban female)
Mrs M: People in all
societies are like that. If women are unfaithful ;o husbands, they
will be left... But if men are unfaithful, wives will try to solve the
problem. (Lopburi urban female group)
occasional mentions, especially by women, of, situations where it is
understandable, if not socially acceptable, for a woman to seek or
accept a sexual relationship with some man other than her husband. Such
circumstances typically involved a husband who was irresponsible or
abusive towards his wife and family.
Other reasons for
infidelity were also stated, such as boredom or bad character on the
part of the woman, but received little or no sympathy from our study
informants. The virtually. universal disapproval and strong
condemnation of extramarital affairs by women does not mean they are
non-existent. In at least one in-depth interview, a male respondent
tearfully confided his wife's infidelity. Moreover, in a number of the
focus- group discussions, local examples were cited. Everyone agreed,
however, that these are exceptional cases. Survey evidence is sparse on
the subject, but to the extent it exists indicates that almost no women
admit to such behaviour (e.g. Sittitrai et al. 1992).
extramarital sexual affairs with women other than prostitutes are
non-commercial sexual relationships in which men involve themselves are
quite varied, ranging from casual encounters to committed
relationships. While there is a lack of reliable population-based
estimates of the prevalence of extramarital non- commercial sex for Thai
men, there is some quantitative and qualitative research which suggests
that it is not uncommon (Havanon, Bennett and Knodel 1992;
VanLandingham et al. 1995).7 Even if not paid directly, most
non-commercial sex partners of married Thai men will expect some
material benefit in the form of gifts, occasional loans, or outright
total support from their male partners, depending upon the nature of
the relationship with the married man. Men who enter these.
relationships typically understand these expectations. Furthermore, so
7Such data are
undoubtedly very difficult to ascertain accurately in a broad-based
survey. Available estimates of men recently (in the last six or twelve
months) having sex with non-commercial sexual partners range from 5 to
28 per cent (Sittitrai et al. 1992; VanLandingham et al. 1993;
Thongthai and Guest 1995). Even less information is available on the
types and characteristics of the women who are non-commercial sexual
partners of married men or why they enter such relationships (see,
however, Havanon et al. 1992). It seems likely that in most cases such
women are not married themselves, being either single or formerly
married, but reliable statistics are lacking. their wives. In the
extreme case where a non-commercial sex partner is fully supported by a
married male, she is usually referred to as a minor wife by both
Mr S: A minor wife
is known to the society. People know her. The legal wife also knows
about her... You have to be responsible for them the same way you are
for the legal wives. (Lopburi urban male group)
Moderator: Who are
minor wives then?
Mrs M: Those who
are financially supported b our husbands. They may have children by
Mrs T: We have to
share the income with them.
Mrs M: We don't have
as much as we used to have. They are treated just like wives since they
share everything with us. (Lopburi, urban women)
Minor wives and
concubines have apparently been common in Thailand among the Upper
strata for centuries (Wilson and Henley 1994). Moreover, as our study
informants acknowledge, they are clearly still a salient threat to modem
married women. Probably because minor wives have potentially greater
economic and emotional significance for the husband-wife relationship,
this category of non-commercial sex received more attention in the
focus-group discussions and in-depth interviews than did other types
of non-commercial sex partners. In reality, most non-commercial sexual
relationships of married men probably are of a less committed nature
than that with a minor wife. However, wives also see such more casual
relationships as threatening to family security, both in their own right
and because they might eventually lead to a more demanding
minor-wife-type relationship. With few exceptions, women in our study
viewed relationships with minor wives, or women who could potentially
have a long-term affair with their husbands, as either intolerable or as
an extremely difficult burden to bear.
Mrs S: There is an
old saying that it is better to lose gold equal to the weight of one's
head than to lose a husband. Minor wives cause family problems.
Husbands should not take them if they do not want to quarrel with their
wife. (Lopburi rural female group)
would you do if your husband had an affair?
(women) who have such problems must think about their children. Men tend
to be selfish and they are likely to keep both women. Most middle-class
wives can’t do much without husbands' support so they have to stand the
situation. Then, they get used to it. For those who don't have a
financial problem, they may get a divorce since the wives can provide
for their children. (Case 6 Bangkok female cl'erkg)
Moderator: And if he
doesn't really intend to take her as a minor wife but just sees her from
time to time?
Mrs N: Even.if he
doesn't think about it, we women have to think about it. We're afraid
he might take it seriously. (Bangkok slum female group)
Except for the most
casual affairs, even non-commercial relationships that do not reach the
minor-wife stage will normally last much longer than commercial
contacts. Thus wives typically feel far more threatened by ordinary
women who engage sexually with their husbands than by prostitutes, who
require neither extensive emotional nor resource commitment. The
predominant opinion expressed in the focus-group discussion with both
men and women was that non-commercial affairs were worse than patronage
of prostitutes. similar opinions were expressed by women in the
in-depth interviews although concerns about the risk of AIDS from
prostitutes was also very prominent among them, sometimes tipping the
balance in the opposite direction.
Mrs R: To go out (to
visit prostitutes) is better (than taking a minor wife). I think it’s
better to be temporary and it can be finished. In a case of a minor
wife, he must be responsible for her. In fact, he would have to divide
with her the money that he would provide me. Instead of the family
being completely supported, we have to divide into two instead of
receiving the whole amount. Kanchanaburi urban female group)
Respondent: For me,
I won't stand it if my husband has affairs. As for prostitutes, if he
takes them from time to time, it's okay. They do it as a job. If he
has affairs with some ordinary girl, he must be really fond of her. It
means that he doesn't care for me any longer. (Laughed) I won’t stand
for it. (Case 22 Lopburi urban female)
women consider men's taking prostitutes differently if there were no
Respondent: It might
be all right. If he was bored with me, he could take one.
he take mistresses?
absolutely not. He would spend all on her and my children and I would
be in trouble. He would waste all, money and time .(Case 32 Kanchanaburi
reluctant tolerance of their husband's visits to prostitutes must be
understood within this context. Thai wives are less threatened by their
husbands' occasional visit to a prostitute than by their taking up with
a ordinary woman, as a girl-friend or, even worse, as a minor wife.
Non-commercial sex partners of any sort, and minor wives in particular,
are seen as threatening the very core of family because they represent
potential resource reallocation from wife and children to other
recipients outside the present family; so it is not surprising that
occasional visits to prostitutes are tolerated. Some women even seem
to adopt a conscious strategy of permitting commercial sex visits in
order to prevent the greater threat posed by non-commercial affairs.
Given the Thai view of male sexuality, which includes the need for
variety, some infidelity seems likely if not inevitable. Permitting
visits to prostitutes means this need can be met without risk of
serious resource loss to the family.
wives believe it's better than taking mistresses. I hate both, either
prostitutes or mistresses. Some wives are forced to take the idea of
husbands taking prostitutes as better. (Case 19 Lopburi urban woman)
Mrs N: I can accept
when my husband visits prostitutes but he must protect himself. It's
better to let him go and pay his money than having another woman as a
regular partner. I accept it when he goes out, I told him to pay in
return and not to do it for free, because free of charge might cause a
constant attachment. That will hurt us if he has someone else and he
keeps supporting her. Let him go out if he wants a change of taste.
(Bangkok middle class female group)
Mr B: I got this
idea from my wife. After I got married, she asked me not to have a
minor wife but she allowed me to visit prostitutes. When you visit a
prostitute, you pay for her and that’s it. But if you have a minor
wife, you have to keep paying or giving her money. If my wife doesn't
allow me to visit a prostitute, I must have a minor wife. It's natural
for a man to feel bored, so he has to look for something new. (Bangkok
middle class male group)
of commercial sex, however, is also seen as unacceptable by women (and
many men), for it also drains familial resources and heightens the risk
of bringing disease to the family. At the same time, non-commercial
sex of any sort, especially serious girl friends and minor wives, is
universally regarded as unacceptable by married women. It is typically
when familial resources are in question that wives object most strongly
to husbands’ extramarital affairs.
Current views of
Thai sexuality are linked with the social construction of gender, which
is itself but one component of a broader system of social relations and
expectations between men and women in Thai society. While it is
important to recognize that there is much diversity in views among
individuals, there are still reasonably distinctive patterns that have
emerged from the focus- group discussions and individual in-depth
interviews with married men and women. There is a clear consensus among
Thais that sex is more important for men than for women and that men by
nature have a need for sex that requires frequent outlet. Also, in the
view of many, men need some variety in sexual partners. Our informants
often stated that men become bored if limited to a monogamous
relationship and that a desire for an occasional break from one’s steady
partner is a natural inclination for men. The premarital and
extramarital commercial sex patronage by many Thai men is consistent
with these general views of both our married male and female
informants. In contrast, women are thought to be far more in control of
their sexual desires, which are in any event far less intense than those
of men. There was also no expression of a need for variety as part of
female sexuality. Instead, many women viewed their own sexuality as a
means for providing satisfaction for their husbands' needs.
Both men and women,
but particularly women, perceived that male sexual satisfaction was a
necessary (if not sufficient) element in a successful monogamous union.
The responsibility of a wife to please her husband in sexual relations
was seen by some women as part a strategy to accommodate men's stronger
sexual needs and thus reduce the risk of husbands seeking alternative
outlets that might threaten the security of the marriage. At the same
time, in the discussions of what makes a good spouse, satisfactory sex
was generally seen by both men and women as secondary in importance to
more general personal compatibility, mutual understanding, and
fulfillment of complementary responsibilities as defined by the
culturally embedded gender system.
women dislike all forms of male infidelity, but the social construction
of male sexuality in Thailand conditions the degree to which women and
men view various farms of male extramarital relations as threats to
their marriages. Occasional commercial sex patronage was generally not
seen as an act of marital betrayal by either the men or the women,
though many of the women were concerned by the threats posed by AIDS and
other STDs. Both men and women also noted that excessive commercial sex
patronage could result in financial hardships and marital conflict for
the man's family. These qualifications are essentially pragmatic
concerns rather than moralistic or ethical ones. This is in sharp
contrary to prevailing views in most Western societies, where commercial
sex patronage by a husband is likely to viewed as a serious breach of
marital trust and could be potentially devastating to couples.
new addition to the HEART is our
The differing social
constructions of male and female sexuality also form the basis for a
prevalent double standard in Thai society with regard to sexual
behaviour. It is permissible for single men to seek sexual release with
prostitutes. The idea of single women paying for sex is probably
unimaginable and the idea simply never arose in any group discussion or
in-depth interview. Some tolerance exists for a single woman to have
sex with her regular male partner, especially if the couple is committed
to eventual marriage. More casual noncommercial sexual relationships
are less tolerated but the shame associated with them is mainly directed
towards the woman. Loss of virginity for a woman is seen as detracting
from her attractiveness as a potential wife for another suitor, although
for many urban men in our study this is a secondary concern. Virginity
for single men is considered an oddity and thus not expected as a
characteristic for a future husband.
The double standard
is pronounced with respect to marital fidelity. There is virtually
uniform strong condemnation by both men and women of married women who
are unfaithful to their husbands unless there are extraordinary
mitigating circumstances. In contrast, men are quite tolerant of
occasional extramarital commercial sex outings as long as they are
infrequent and discreet. Also some Thai wives are reluctantly willing
to tolerate an occasional visit by their husbands to prostitutes. This
stems from a perception that men need some sexual variety and that in
the male quest to fulfill this need, visiting prostitutes can serve as
an alternative to involvement with a non-commercial partner that might
drain emotional and material resources from the current marriage.
impression provided by our study informants is that children are
considered a more central focus of marriage than the sexual and
emotional intimacy of the conjugal bond. Thus it is not surprising that
the financial threats posed by husbands' non- commercial sex partners
were the most feared aspects of male infidelity for married Thai women.
This is not to argue that affairs between married Thai men and
non-commercial partners have no emotional effect on the men's wives or
that male infidelity does not engender a sense of emotional betrayal.
Some Thai couples undoubtedly share much emotional intimacy within their
marriage. Moreover, if the husband is indiscreet in either his
patronage of prostitutes or affairs with non-commercial partners, the
wife will lose face. But general expectations that Thai men have
‘natural’ needs for sexual variety temper the degree to which Thai women
take these extramarital liaisons as a sign of personal rejection,
especially when they only involve occasional relations with prostitutes
in the course of male entertainment activities.
Thai patterns of
sexual behaviour are currently in flux. More companionate forms of
marriage are probably becoming popular among Western-educated urban
elites and eventually may diffuse to the more general population. More
dramatically, the AIDS epidemic is undoubtedly serving to make
longstanding patterns of male sexual behaviour more costly and less
common. Future patterns of Thai sexual behaviour and views of gender
and sexuality, however, will necessarily be based on those that prevail
at present. Thus gaining an accurate view of current Thai perceptions
is an essential step for mapping changes that either are induced by
programmatic interventions or come about from less deliberate forces set
in motion by the epidemic and the changing socio- economic context in
which it is occurring. As the present study shows, the systematic
collection of qualitative data by the use of focus groups and focused
in-depth interviews can contribute significantly to the expanding base
of knowledge on matters that only a decade ago were almost completely
absent from the social science research agenda.
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