Opinion: Sexual violence is about power and portraying on screen does not serve as a ‘warning’

If one thing can be learned from the flurry of tweets under the hashtag #ข่มขืนผ่านจอพอกันที, it’s that a conversation about how Thai soap operas enable rape culture is long overdue.

Scenes of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic abuse are in abundance across the industry, regardless of which actors are starring and which channel is producing.

Any Thai TV drama or series will include some sort of sexual violence against its female lead, who is left to one of two fates: she is either saved in the nick of time by her love interest, the show’s other protagonist, or she is left to suffer as she is graphically raped on our screens.

It seems as though sexual violence is an inescapable element of soap operas – a conscious choice of the writers and producers of these shows.

It leaves the audience to ponder, why must sexual violence be an integral plot device in Thai dramas?

Dramas all over the world have successfully developed the plot and their characters without inflicting sexual violence on their women. A flimsy argument might be made in defense of these shows that they are “bringing awareness” to rape culture in Thai society. Yet, there haven’t been any ground-breaking changes towards undoing the stigmas that surround sexual assault survivors or stimulating conversations about the rife abuse of female autonomy in Thai society.

Making rape or domestic abuse a “necessary” element of Thai soap operas only contributes to rape culture in Thailand rather than addresses it in any meaningful way. Using a rape scene in an episode preview – as seen in the preview for the upcoming episode of Channel Three’s latest soap, “Wife on Duty” (เมียจําเป็น) – only shows just how normalised rape has become in the writing of these dramas.

How comfortable do you have to be with sexual violence to use it in as part of your marketing strategy?

On top of that, how much more violence does the episode have in store, if rape is deemed suitable for a “sneak peek” preview?

A clip of the “Wife on Duty” director explaining her motivations has been circling on Twitter, which shows her justifying the scene as a “warning” to young women about the dangers of reality and the importance of leading a cautious lifestyle.

Rape and sexual violence have always been about power and dominance, and these narratives rely on the age-old misogynism of telling women they are responsible for their own assault.

“Warning” women about such assault perpetuate our already toxic culture of victim-blaming and victim-shaming.

The carelessness and laziness of this kind of writing should no longer be allowed on screen: viewership does not exist in a vacuum.

Victims of sexual assault – of which there are far too many in Thailand – have been through enough violence and shame in their own realities. Televising such actions on screen does nothing but glorify their trauma. Would it not be more productive to create a drama that stresses the importance of consent and mutual respect, condemning rape rather than normalizing it?

It’s worth noting too how this is not particular to one soap but has been the case for decades. The same criticisms could be levelled at a Channel Three soap from last year, “My Husband in Law” (อกเกือบหักแอบรักคุณสามี).

The one-dimensional antagonist is defined only by his actions of abuse, raping his wife and later kidnapping the female protagonist of the series.

A recent One31 soap, “The Last Promise” (ขอเกิดใหม่ใกล้ๆ เธอ), also featured the female lead being kidnapped and assaulted by a lifelong stalker. These soaps attract a variety of audiences, young and old.

Sometimes, watching them can be an evening activity for the whole family. What narratives are these soaps perpetuating about how women are treated? What lessons are they imparting about how women should be treated?

The popularity of Thai dramas in Southeast Asia, and the ever-growing Chinese fanbase for Thai actors, means that there is a large international audience to this glorified violence too. With increased accessibility to these shows via Youtube, Netflix, and other streaming apps, it is no longer the case that you must understand Thai to watch Thai soaps.

The proliferation of rape scenes has made sexual violence a hallmark of Thai dramas at large, a damning representation of the country on the international entertainment stage.

This is not the first outcry against the graphic sexual violence employed in Thai soap operas, and unless something changes, this will not be the last. Will the entertainment industry finally listen to this wave of criticism?

What matters most is the aftermath. How the plots of upcoming soaps these next few years will change, if at all, is the best arbiter of whether “no” really means “no” in the Thai entertainment industry.

Unless we move away from empty apologies and unconvincing defense, these soaps will only continue to actively facilitate more violence against women.

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