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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Sex: younger and more often

Chiang Rai, Thailand, October 2004: Way up at the northern tip of Thailand, where it leans against Laos and Burma and where you can follow the Mekong a few miles upstream into China, lies the rural province of Chiang Rai. Narrow roads wind over rolling green hills where only a few years ago opium was the primary cash crop. Most of the harvest has moved over the border into Burma but here and there relics remain, like the expensive houses scattered amongst villages, faded posters from the Thai government's War on Drugs and the Opium Museum in the town of Sop Ruak, which both honours and denigrates the world's most famous drug.

Chiang Rai is one of the six provinces that comprise Upper Northern Thailand. Two hundred kilometres to the south lies Chiang Mai, for centuries the capital of the kingdom of Lan Na ("A Million Ricefields") which was only fully integrated into Thailand in the last century. To the foreigner's eye, the differences between the Upper North and the rest of Thailand are minimal, but to the native they are keenly felt, from local traditions to local dialect, local artisanship to local diet. And do not forget the few thousand members of hill-tribes, frequently denied Thai citizenship, who survive at subsistence level or as marionettes for tourists to buy souvenirs from and photograph.

One difference between Lan Na and the rest of country - a difference that may be impression as much as hard fact - is a more relaxed attitude towards sex. Statistics are not available but there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that in the Upper North in the mid twentieth century sex between unmarried couples was no great shame and sex between two young men was a more or less acceptable, if seldom discussed, pastime. Such sex appears to have been integrated into daily life; with gay bars and venues non-existent, men would meet and establish friendships and partnerships in parks, in friends' homes, in schools and in the streets.

But where sex is concerned, life is never simple and for women there was a darker side to this frivolity. In the dirt-poor villages and paddy-fields a daughter could be as much a hindrance as a help. When brothel-owners from Bangkok offered parents substantial - in their eyes - sums of money if their daughter came and worked for them, many parents could not refuse. And while some went willingly, others, some as young as twelve, were sold as slaves whose virginity was highly prized, and who, once that virginity was taken, could then be forced to serve several men a day.

Despite protests by women's rights groups and others, the situation was slow to change. In 1984 a fire in a Bangkok brothel claimed the lives of several young women who were chained to their beds, and by the end of that decade it was clear that sex work was a major conduit for HIV. These issues fuelled hard-hitting campaigns against child prostitution, trafficking and AIDS, altering the face of female sex work in Thailand. Today there are fewer brothels, few, if any, women who have been sold into the sex trade and far fewer children abused.

Meanwhile, research began into male behaviour. One of the focuses was the army, which began to survey its recruits' sexual lives. All Thai men are eligible to be drafted, but most of those who end up in uniform are from the poorer and less educated sectors of society - including the Upper North. Although results varied, it appeared that in that part of Thailand at least one in ten soldiers in their early twenties had had sex with another man.

High rates of HIV infection (between six and twenty-seven percent) were also revealed, both among soldiers who had had sex with men and among male sex workers in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, this information did not catalyse widespread information campaigns for men who have sex with men in the region - or anywhere else in Thailand - and even today little information on HIV/AIDS is targeted at gay men.

But not only army recruits had experience. A 1999 survey of over 1,700 students between the ages of 15 and 21 in Chiang Rai showed that nine percent of the young men and eleven percent of the young women identified themselves as homo- or bisexual. It also confirmed that homo- / bisexual youths tended to have had more partners than their heterosexual counterparts - partners who were mostly of a similar age to themselves. Furthermore, there appeared to be much less pressure on them to "perform" with women than with the previous generation, for whom a girlfriend or a visit to a brothel was almost an imperative rite of passage.

These figures suggest that young men are becoming sexually active earlier. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests other change. Thirty years ago in Chiang Mai, a friend tells me, young heterosexual men went to public parks to have sex with men because their girlfriends were virgins and they could not afford to pay a woman. Today, at least one in every two Thai girls under twenty has sexual experience, which would suggest that fewer young heterosexual men would seek sex with men. Nevertheless some still head for the parks, not from physical need but to make money for such "necessities" as a mobile phone or to pay off gambling debts.

The Chiang Rai survey also reveals that one in four homo- / bisexual youths had been subject at least once to sexual coercion - and of these almost forty percent had been raped. Compared to their heterosexual counterparts, twice as many reported occasionally feeling lonely and a smaller percentage considered they had someone in their family they could talk to. But on other issues there was little difference between the two, suggesting that most young gay men in the far north of Thailand are at ease with themselves and their lives. 

But if sexual mores in the Upper North really were once more relaxed than in the rest of Thailand, that no longer seems to be a case. Recent surveys show that in many parts of the country the age of first sex among teenagers of both sexes is continuing to fall. There are reports of partner-swapping and voluntary prostitution by girls as well as boys and Thai gay internet sites are buzzing with the photos and words of teenagers advertising themselves and seeking partners and attention.

The libertarian in me accepts these changes, but the educator is more cautious. With little awareness of the risks of infection and pregnancy, not to mention the emotional maturity to deal with the consequences of raging hormones, sexually active teenagers in Thailand and elsewhere may be risking too much too early in their lives. In a survey last year of Bangkok men who are sexually active with other men, seventeen percent were HIV-positive - and the highest rates of infection were among 18 to 22 year olds.  Experimentation is inevitable, but unless the physical and psychological implications of sex are fully understood, the best balance between freedom and restraint, between knowledge and innocence, between joy and regret, is unlikely to be found.

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