“I speak directly. I use the words pussy and dick—I just blurt it out,” Chitlada “Kui” Promlumpuk declares.
 
Her candor contradicts a quietly held truth, and she knows it.
 
“Sex is not something people talk about openly [in Thailand],” she admits.
 
Known among friends as Thailand’s answer to Samantha Jones, the sex-positive protagonist in HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Kui was thrust into the spotlight last year when the hugely popular media platform Echo reached out to her to host a sex toy review video. The response was unprecedented. It became Echo’s “Video of the Year,” racking up 8.3 million views, 21,000 likes, 3,500 shares, and over 2,000 comments—the overwhelming majority of which have been positive.
 
This is despite the fact that sex toys are classed as “obscene objects,” their trade and distribution punishable with up to three years in prison under Thai law.
 
“Even the channel didn’t think people would consider sharing the video, so it’s a big thing—obviously the dynamic has shifted in Thailand,” she says. “Thai people are curious.”
 
Image: Chitlada “Kui” Promlumpuk
 
It’s no wonder people are hungry for insights. A 2016 UNICEF report on sex education in Thailand concluded that “many institutions teach about sexuality from a point of view that emphasizes the negative consequences of sex and does not cover positive aspects.”
 
All those surveyed for this story recalled little to no education on contraceptives, let alone pleasure, while the primary focus of sex education in school was often on abstinence.
 
This “hear no evil” approach has had subtle, even subliminal effects on Thai society that some say have held back development. “Birth control and sexually transmitted disease are still big problems,” says Watjanasin “Note” Charuwattanakitti, the owner of erotic art museum Kamavijitra, Green Lantern, and Palette Artspace.
 
“Getting pregnant at a young age destroys the lives of teenage parents. Most of them stop going to school. If people in the 50+ age bracket were more open about sex, they could educate their children on how to avoid this situation.”
 
As reported by the Bangkok Post, a total of 63,875 children were born to mothers aged under 20 years old in 2019—a figure that has been blamed on the lack of access to contraceptives and the “negative perceptions from service providers and society in general towards teenagers who use birth control.”
 
Kui believes sex toys could be a silver bullet. By helping young people engage with their sexual energy in healthier ways and equipping them with knowledge rather than shame, she believes the teen birth rate might go down. But her views aren’t shared by Thailand’s ruling elite.
 
When human rights activist Nisarat “Tuk Ta” Jongwisan took to Thai PBS’s “Policies by the People” to pitch the legalization of sex toys back in 2018, she was met with retorts that it would breed sex-crazed teenagers and increase sex-related crimes. The Ministry of Culture’s Salinee Chumsawan suggested that sexual desire could instead be curbed by exercising and meditation.
 
“That is a very negative view,” Kui argues. “Sexual desire is a natural behavior. It seems unrealistic and unhealthy to try to impose laws on nature.”
 
Determined to normalize the topic, she has launched her own podcast, Sexducation. Covering everything from female masturbation to the Madonna-whore complex to practical sex tips, the no-holds-barred show has shot to number 25 in the Thai podcast charts in just five months. Perhaps most surprising is her core listener demographics, which fall between the ages of 18-22 and 50+.
 
That isn’t the only sign that Thailand’s older generations are ready to talk about sex in more open terms.
 
The Bureau of Reproductive Health recently launched a Line-based sex-ed resource called Teen Club. Part of an initiative to reduce Thailand’s high teenage pregnancy rates, the account features useful and straightforward information about contraceptives and how to communicate more openly about sex.
 
Even so, many women, in particular, still lack the negotiation skills and empowerment needed to advocate for themselves in the bedroom—not just in terms of consent and contraception, but also pleasure. Kui says access to sex toys could play an important role in the latter.
 
“Some of my female friends don’t even understand what an orgasm feels like,” she says. “It really makes me sad. [Sex toys] give women a better chance to really understand their needs.”
 
Kui isn’t the only one preaching female empowerment to an increasingly captivated audience.
 
Image: Madame Rouge, front and center, with others performers at Maison Rouge / Credit: Maison Rouge
 
Enter Madame Rouge, the brains behind Maison Rouge, a women-focused event space that opened in Ekkamai in October amid protests championing women’s rights. The Hong kong-born performer, who requested to be identified by her stage name in order to separate her personal and professional lives, believes Thailand is experiencing a “moment” and might be warming up to more open attitudes toward sex and the body.
 
“All these young people are finally going against what they’re taught and talking about the female body, abortion, and all that,” she says. “If I was in another city at this time, something like this would have already happened. And maybe five years later, something like [Maison Rouge] would have already popped up.”
 
Through burlesque shows, sensual dance classes, queer women’s  nights, and workshops covering everything from self-defense to sexual trauma, Madame Rouge hopes to build a supportive community and safe environment for people to learn, heal, share, and explore.
 
Perching on a pink velvet chaise lounge amid racks of colorful outfits for her burlesque shows, she extols the Thai capital’s need for this. “Bangkok is definitely built for men, both straight men and gay men—they have the entertainment, everything.” For some, it may seem strange to counter male-focused “entertainment” with burlesque—essentially another form of stripping. But Madame Rouge believes burlesque shifts the dynamic from exploitation to one of power.
 
“The difference is who you’re doing it for,” she explains. While stripping is often a means to an end for performers, burlesque dancers have agency by way of their stage personas. “They are like their own starlet, so it’s for themselves.”
 
The mostly female audience that Maison Rouge draws speaks to this understanding of the artform. “It’s just nice to see the performer up there having fun, and so confident, so comfortable with themselves,” says Madame Rouge.
 
“You think you’d be nervous, because you’re really vulnerable—you’re pretty much up there naked. But it’s the opposite, you almost feel invincible,” she adds. “That’s exactly what I would call empowerment.”
 
Image: Maison Rouge performer Ruby Flame / Credit: Maison Rouge
 
Taking nudity out of the shadows and into the spotlight comes with no shortage of ironies unique to a nation where the sex industry hides in plain sight, however. “It’s not easy to do burlesque in Thailand. At clubs, we are not allowed to get down to pasties [nipple covers]. The most we can get down to is lingerie,” she explains of the legal situation.
 
Nevertheless, audiences can still get their kicks.
 
Madame Rouge swears burlesque is the perfect event for a date night, because “it’s sexy, it’s sensual, it’s classy—it’s almost like foreplay.”
 
Censorship of the female body is often taken to the logical extreme in Thailand, with cleavage on catwalks stirring moralistic furor and even the chest of a bikini-clad character in Japanese cartoon Doraemon blurred on TV. At its most sinister, this speaks to the culture of victim-blaming and “slut-shaming,” which has seen authorities advise women not to dress “sexy” during Songkran to avoid sexual assault back in 2018 and continues to deny rights to sex workers today.
 
[Editor’s note: after this article was published in print, yet another sex scandal rippled across Thailand, as a rape scene was depicted on popular soap opera “Mia Jum Pen (Forced Wife).” According to Chanikarn Kovavisarach of the Thai Enquirer, the director “justified the scene as a ‘warning’ to young women about the dangers of reality and the importance of leading a cautious lifestyle.”]
 
Bare breasts haven’t always been a point of controversy in Thailand.
 
Until Plaek Pibulsonggram outlawed them in his “civilizing,” Western-influenced cultural mandates of 1939-42, they were a common feature of traditional Thai dress. The latest exhibition at Note’s Palette Artspace, “Pillow Book” by Lamphun-hailing artist Nit Chaingewkham (running until Feb 20), harks back to a Thailand free from Western ideas of indecency and immorality.
 
In works that combine traditional Thai mural painting with Chinese and Japanese erotic arts, Nit refocuses images of love-making as a “natural demonstration within the flow of the universe... an open representation of spiritual expression... dissociated with the taboo of obscenity.”
 
Couples are invited to utilize the exhibition as a tool to connect: “By contemplating the art in their private space, lovers can provide [replicate] the best of each position, and together achieve the joy in reaching the perfect harmony of Yin and Yang.”
 
Image: Watjanasin “Note” Charuwattanakitti with artwork from “Pillow Book” / Credit: Palette Artspace
 
Note has been hosting erotic art exhibitions for years at the clandestine, back-alley Green Lantern Gallery; however, neighboring Palette Artspace offers a new level of visibility, its huge floor-to-ceiling windows directly visible from BTS Thonglor.
 
Through this exhibition, he hopes to break Thailand’s outdated, colonial notions of a demure and “civilized” society, challenging conservative naysayers who dismiss erotic art as pornography. “I would like to show viewers that, in the past, the topic of sex was very normal,” he explains. By using art to break the silence, he believes the whole of society can benefit. “When we do not talk about sex, does it help our country to develop? No, it does not.”
 
Resources are evolving, and so, it seems, is the very idea of what a society should be. With event spaces offering couples the chance to engage with sexuality in guilt-free settings, outspoken activists sparking meaningful dialogue about love and pleasure, and protestors championing causes of feminism and diversity, the city seems to be enjoying a sexual awakening.
 
Maybe soon, like Kui, more Bangkok residents will be willing to say the words they have on their minds.
 

 

The Sex Education You Never Had

 

Illustration by No Word For This

 
9AM: SOCIOLOGY
Join the discussion on legalizing sex work with A Day’s “Sex is More” Podcast
 
10AM: ART
Explore the minimal, erotic drawings of Thai artist No Word For This
 
11AM: LANGUAGE
Find out what what BHBT, NG, PT mean with this vocab lesson from “Sexducation”
 
1PM: HISTORY
Head to Green Lantern Gallery (1045 Sukhumvit Rd.) for a glimpse into the history of sex in Thailand, and their latest exhibition on Shibari (Japanese rope bondage)
 
2PM: CRITICAL THINKING
Get to grips with the intricacies of consent by joining Facebook community Thai consent

3PM: HEALTH
Visit @teenclub on Line for straightforward information on contraceptives and more from the Bureau of Reproductive Health