Giles Ji Ungpakorn & Numnual Yapparat
Recently an article about sexual abuse and assault by Thai social activists was published in the English version of Khaosod newspaper. The article, written by Teeranai Charuvastra, was an example of shoddy, shallow, tabloid journalism. It made unsubstantiated accusations against Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a labour activist who is currently in jail for lèse-majesté. It was full of sensationalised innuendos and gossip but no actual facts or analysis. [ See http://bit.ly/2x7FGTm ]
Sexual abuse is a very serious issue and therefore we need to be clear about what it is. When we are talking about sexual abuse of adults, we are talking about a sexual act where one person is non-consensual. Such acts vary from lewd and inappropriate comments directed at someone, touching someone’s body without their approval, even if it isn’t touching someone’s sexual parts. Sexual abuse also includes pressure or violence used to have non-consensual sexual intercourse.
It is important that we understand that pressure for non-consensual sex often arises from an imbalance of power such as in the relationship between teaching staff and students or managers and ordinary employees. In any organisation or setting where there is a significant imbalance of power, sexual abuse can occur.
Now, in the context of Thai society, where Victorian moralism about sex is prevalent, many people, including some women’s rights NGO activists, confuse the issue of having many sexual partners with sexual abuse. The two are totally different. Those with backward Victorian moralist attitudes condemn sexual behaviour outside marriage. For these people having many sexual partners is incorrectly seen as being the same as sexual abuse. But having many sexual partners who are all consenting adults and looking for new consenting partners is not sexual abuse. Neither should women who consent to sex with men who have many partners be regarded as “victims” or “immoral women”. However, this is exactly the view held by conservatives, including some women’s rights activists. Did the NGO activists who were interviewed by Khaosod hold such views? We also have to remember that sections of the Thai NGO movement supported the destruction of democracy leading to military rule. This included people who claimed to support women’s rights.
Of course, there is an issue of lack of respect for women among certain male activists who boast about their sexual exploits and encourage others to see these women as “loose women” to be ridiculed. This is not the same as sexual abuse, but it is a serious lack of respect for women and a lack of consciousness. In other words it is a sexist attitude against women. We should not tolerate such behaviour.
The shoddy Khaosod article was so shallow that it failed to consider any of these complex issues seriously. It slandered Somyot as being a “predator”, looking for “victims” just because he may have had many partners. As far as I know, Somyot does not brag about his past partners and I have not heard or seen any evidence that he has abused anyone sexually. The original article failed to interview him before publication. He was only interviewed in prison afterwards. Somyot then asked how sexual abuse was defined and the evidence for the accusations against him, but the article twisted this to imply that he was guilty and supposedly had not denied the unsubstantiated charges.
Despite the fact that political or labour activists are not angels and some will not be above committing acts of sexual abuse, labour activists do not have any significant power over ordinary workers and cannot pressurise them this way into non-consensual sex. The article failed to discuss the fact that competent activists or militants can often be seen as very attractive personalities by people around them, leading to multiple consensual relationships.
This shameful article also published the name of an innocent woman labour activist who had refused to make any comment about Somyot, thus implying all sorts of innuendos and causing unnecessary distress to this person.
The article was also cowardly because it did not investigate those in power, but sought to raise unsubstantiated accusations against a powerless activist. The junta and its friends would love to see Somyot smeared with these accusations. Yet the journalist concerned failed to investigate the many occasions when women factory workers are coerced by their line managers into having sex in return for promotion and of course it failed to investigate questions of serious abuse of women by King Wachiralongkorn.