Endangered Relations: Negotiating Sex and AIDS in Thailand
Guest, Philip, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Endangered Relations: Negotiating Sex and AIDS in Thailand. By Chris Lyttleton. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000. 260 pp.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) swept into the consciousness of most Thais in the early 1990s. The transition from a situation of relatively little information on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS, and to some extent official denial of the threat of AIDS, to a situation where the government spearheaded efforts to make the public aware of the disease was extremely rapid. This book provides a description and interpretation of the content of the media messages that were associated with this rapid change as well as analysing how residents of two northeastern villages in Thailand interpreted these messages.
It was only at the start of the decade of the 1990s in Thailand that concerted efforts were made to influence behaviour believed to be associated with the spread of HIV. Initial efforts concentrated on instilling fear by associating certain activities with a certain and painful death. Over time, media messages became more sophisticated in presentation and less focused on death while retaining an emphasis on a small range of behaviours, most notably those associated with commercial sex. In Chapter 1 of his book, Lyttleton provides a description of the media messages used in the AIDS campaigns and an incisive content analysis of the media messages. He makes it clear that the media approaches adopted were not "value-free". Instead they focused on certain behaviours and underlying values and left unquestioned other values or institutions. Efforts were directed towards creating a "field of danger" with commercial sex at the heart of the danger. Yet commercial sex itself was rarely questioned. The solution proposed to limit the danger was, and is, the use of condoms in commercial sex.
Chapters 3 through 6 focus on HIV/AIDS and sexual relations as viewed and interpreted by villagers in northeastern Thailand. These three chapters provide a wide range of information and are a valuable contribution to ethnographic accounts of sexuality and sex in rural Thailand. Some of the author's most interesting insights are in relation to how institutional arrangements relating to exchange of money influence understandings of sexuality and relations between the sexes. He describes how, at the village level, exchanges of money are inextricably linked to sex. For marital sex the link is made through the payment of bride-wealth. For pre-marital or extra-marital sex occurring between a man and woman the linkage occurs through fines paid by the male partner and imposed by village authorities. Fines for sexual transgressions related to pre-marital sex can be converted into bride-wealth if the transgressing couple marry.
The description of the monetary base of sexual relations in village life is extended by the author to help understand the role of commercial sex in northeastern Thai. Lyttleton suggests that the fining system associated with pre-marital sex provide one basis for widespread acceptance of paid sex. However, he also draws on his ethnographic research in the village to indicate that there is a range of acceptance of engaging in commercial sex by men and in becoming a sex worker by women. He argues that there are a variety of forces operating in Thai society and that individuals internalize these often conflicting forces in different ways resulting in a range of behaviours and outcomes. Thus not all Thai men visit sex workers and not all poor Thai women become sex workers.
The strength of the book lies in the integration of the content analysis of media messages related to AIDS and the ethnographic-based analysis of sexuality in village life. …