MARK VANLANDINGHAM and NANCY GRANDJEAN
Many observers of Thai society have been puzzled by the persistence of unsafe sexual practices in the presence of a widening HIV epidemic.1 Recent surveys indicate that most young Thai men have visited prostitutes, and many do so without the protection of condoms ( Nopkesornet al., 1991; Sittitraiet al., 1991; VanLandingham, 1993). The government and various nongovernmental organizations have invested heavily in educating people about the dangers of these behaviours, and this strategy has succeeded in improving the level of understanding that many Thais have about AIDS. Still, a significant proportion of men who appear to be aware of the potential consequences continue to engage in unprotected sex with prostitutes.
We argue that this behaviour is not as paradoxical as it may seem on the surface, given the long history of multiple sexual partners for men and several contemporary cultural features that are consistent with sexual risk-taking for young Thai men. To support our argument we draw upon data we collected with our Thai colleagues in a northern Thai city ( Chiang Mai) and attempt to synthesize these data with other analyses of Thai sexual behaviour and Thai culture.
Our reliance on data from northern Thailand limits the degree to which our observations can be generalized to other regions of the country. The north has relatively high rates of HIV infection, and may have higher rates of prostitution and visiting of prostitutes than other regions. But other empirical data (see, for example, Knodelet al., 1994; Sittitraiet al., 1992) as well as the Thai literature and ethnographies that we draw upon focus on other regions of the country and are consistent with the cultural interpretations we make. Still, generalization to areas outside the north should be made with caution, since potential regional variations in sexual practices and norms have not been systematically investigated.
We gratefully acknowledge the study participants for their willingness to share their private lives with us. The paper benefited from discussions with Han ten Brummelhuis, Philip Guest, Gilbert Herdt, Carl Kendall, Charles Keyes, John Knodel, Anthony Pramualratana, Chanpen Saengtiechai, Werasit Sittitrai, Somboon Suprasert, and Chayan Vaddhanaphuti. Any errors of fact or interpretation, however, remain our responsibility.