“You know, Bangkok is really a man’s city,” argued the editor at a magazine that I write for. We were discussing the sometimes ill-defined role of expat women in this city. In many ways, I agree with him. While there may be some opportunity for women in the corporate world, it is still dominated by the male gender, and leisure activities and advertising in particular seem to be directed far more often at expat men. I would argue that this is due, in large part, to the dynamic between Western men and Thai women. This dynamic ranges from the sordid – for example, the massive sex trade in Thailand – to the symbiotic – the overwhelming number of relationships (long-term or otherwise) between Thai women and Western men. Whichever part of the scale you examine, the dynamic is deeply engrained, and the opposite – Western women with Thai men – rarely occurs. It creates a strange, sometimes unwelcoming environment for Western women.
I share an apartment building with a number of single, Western female teachers. Without exception, all of them are attractive, intelligent, decent people. Not all of them are looking for relationships, but those who are interested are starting to realize that Thailand probably won’t deliver the goods. The majority of Western men who arrive here with their singleness intact soon pick up a Thai girlfriend. Todd has already been asked multiple times if he’s single. This is not a criticism of cross-cultural relationships – I’m sure that many of them are very genuine. However, there is something strange about a environment in which the most eligible, appealing western females can’t find a date, but even totally revolting western men are immediately snatched up, should they be willing.
I’ve discussed this topic with a variety of Bangkokians, some of them Thai, some expats. I’ve asked why they think that Thai women are so attracted to Western men, and I’ve received a variety of answers. Some say that Thailand’s male-to-female ratio is skewed, with females dominating the demographics. Others (my female Thai friends, mainly) say that many Thai men are hard to trust, and expect women to play a traditional, subservient role. I suppose this would also provide an explanation as to why you rarely see Thai men and Western women together. Western men offer more freedom, and often, more money. As to why Western men are attracted to Thai women, it’s pretty straightforward: Thai women are beautiful, often docile(in comparison with Western women, at least), and are perhaps less demanding than Western women.
The sex trade provides an additional layer of complexity to this situation. I will save an in-depth examination of the sex trade for a later post, but suffice it to say that the sex-trade in Thailand is rampant. Shows, bars, and straightforward prostitution are considered normal entertainment by many expats. It is so widespread that my friends who work for NGOs combating the trade estimate that few families in Thailand remain totally unscathed by the trade. While it should be mentioned that a great deal of the trade targets Thai men, a highly visible portion of it focuses on Western men. This further contributes to an alienating environment for Western women.*
I have to admit that I was surprised to discover the imbalance in expat gender roles in Thailand. While I was aware of the sex trade and skewed relational dynamics before we arrived, I didn’t consider some of the less obvious ramifications that they would carry for me and my expat female friends. As a married woman, I sometimes feel vaguely unwelcome, as though I should apologize for nabbing an eligible farang. For my unmarried friends, the situation is far more disappointing.
As always, I welcome your feedback. Feel free to challenge me if you disagree with my interpretation.
* Obviously, this in no way compares to the dire situation faced by Thai sex workers.