An Evolutionary Perspective on Thai Sexual Attitudes and Behavior

By Knodel, John; Low, Bobbi et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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An Evolutionary Perspective on Thai Sexual Attitudes and Behavior


Knodel, John, Low, Bobbi, Saengtienchai, Chanpen, Lucas, Rachel, The Journal of Sex Research


Significant advances in understanding human sexuality have been made by examining behavioral patterns and associated feelings through an evolutionary perspective. Theory and research in the related fields of behavioral ecology, evolutionary anthropology, and evolutionary psychology suggest that men and women have evolved to think and behave differently with regard to sexual relationships. Although environmental conditions and cultural milieu can make male and female behaviors converge, the underlying tendencies of the two sexes differ and rest on fundamental differences in the evolved psychology of being male and being female (e.g., Buss, 1994; Cronk, 1991; Smith & Winterhalder, 1992; Wright, 1994). A variety of approaches and evidence have been used in the literature to assess predictions derived from this perspective, including data from closed-ended survey questionnaires, cross-cultural secondary analysis of ethnographic descriptions, and data derived though experimental psychology studies. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses, but all share the same theoretical base.

Scholars involved in these emerging fields have made little use so far of the recent substantial accumulation of qualitative data on sexual behavior and attitudes that have been generated from research stimulated by concerns about the international HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such data are increasingly available in both the developed and less developed countries around the world. The cultural diversity an complexity across societies call for more in-depth, open-ended types of information on these issues than can be elicited through survey questions. Thus, qualitative approaches are now being advocated and tried (Caldwell, 1993; Kitzinger, 1994; Pickering, 1988; Scrimshaw, Carballo, Ramos, & Blair, 1991; Smith, 1993; Standing, 1992).

We analyzed data on sexual attitudes and behavior of married men and women in Thailand derived through both focus group and individual interview techniques; the project was originally designed to study the influence of wives and male peers on married Thai males' attitudes and behavior with respect to extramarital sex. Unlike survey questionnaires, these qualitative research techniques allow the researcher to elaborate on the questions being asked and encourage study informants to explain their answers, with all the detail being recorded and available for analysis. Moreover, the conversational nature of the approaches fosters rapport, which is crucial when dealing with potentially sensitive sexual matters.

Although in the original project we did not anticipate that the results would be used to explore themes derived from evolutionary theory, a surprising amount of relevant data was generated for this purpose. Our primary goal in the current analysis was to interpret these data in light of hypotheses about male and female sexuality that have emerged from the evolutionary perspective. A secondary goal was to illustrate how, qualitative data derived from focus group discussions and focused in-depth interviews can be a rich complement to the more typical quantitative data used to test hypotheses generated through an evolutionary perspective.

We hope this approach will deepen understanding of Thai sexual patterns; at the same time, our analysis provides an interesting testing ground for the perspective. Thai society and culture are far removed from the West, from which the originators of the perspective come and most testing of the predictions has been based. One notable feature in which Thai sexual practices differ substantially from those prevalent in the West is in the high availability of commercial sex services and the relative social tolerance of their patronage (Boonchalaksi & Guest, 1994). For example, in a recent study of unmarried military recruits, with an average age of 22, 87% reported having had sex with a prostitute at some time (VanLandingham, Suprasert, Sittitrai, Vaddhanaphuti, & Grandjean, 1993).

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