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Sex toy legalisation, Thailand
illustration Marianne Wilson

The fight to legalise sex toys in Thailand

In the ‘sex capital of the world’, it’s forbidden to sell, promote, or even own sex toys of any kind

Sex toys “make teenagers obsessed with sex”. “Only people with HIV or mental problems use them”. They are “immoral” and “increase sex-related crimes”. Those, among others, were the outlandish arguments raised by the Thai authorities when 30-year-old activist Nisarat Jongwisan, from Bangkok, launched the first campaign to legalise dildos and vibrators in the country.

As unlikely as it sounds, ‘the Land of Smiles’ – known worldwide for its prosperous sex industry and its tolerant attitude towards sex – is one of the last remaining countries in the world where the pure orgasmic bliss provided by sex toys is strictly illegal, along with Saudi Arabia and India. “The pleasure machine is fabricated for the sake of tourists, but it remains a taboo for us,” says Nisarat Jongwisan, feminist, pro-LGBT and sexual health campaigner. “We need to raise our voices to start talking more openly about sex and, especially, female satisfaction.”

Around 95 per cent of the country is Buddhist and reverence to its demigod-like monarchs is deeply, engrained in society. Thailand is a deeply conservative society where girls are taught that it’s wrong to have sex and to pursue what they want sexually, not to mention the autonomous research of their euphoric state with the help of shaking plastic penis. As the Thai Culture Minister recently claimed: “sex toys are offensive and against the views of Thailand – and penalties could be severe.”

In the narrow, fluorescent streets in the centre of Bangkok, between ping-pong shows, oral sex menus, and performers enticing you into their venues, everything, no matter how seedy, seems to be somehow legitimate. But if you were to turn up with a sex toy, whether butt plugs, a bondage kit, or a classic vibrator, you’d be risking arrest. According to the Thai Criminal Code Section 287, to sell, promote or even own any “obscene objects” in the kingdom is punishable with up to three years in prison. By this law, created to rule pornography first in 1928, then modified in 2000, it is also immoral to speak about sexual pleasure – TV stations even censor cartoon male characters showing nipples.

Nisarat was spending three months in Australia when she walked into a sex shop for the first time. A Land of Toys opened up in front of her eyes. Her first thought was, “why can’t I have the same privilege of buying whatever makes me feel good?” She came back to Bangkok carrying her first personal vibrator – along with a new desire, “to start a fight to decriminalise sex toys for the happiness and safety of my people,” she says.  And, along with that, to encourage sex-positivity in Thailand where words such as orgasm and climax are banned from public speech.

The first knockback came from her friends and even her boyfriend: “They thought what I was doing was wrong. They didn’t want to know or talk about my new, happy sex life. It makes you look like a bad person.” But Nisarat carried on and launched a petition to ask the amendment of the 287 Section removing sex toys from pornographic items.

“Girls learn from the youngest age that women’s erotica relies on men, who are the only one responsible to deliver sexual pleasure for them,” Nisarat says. “A lot of Thai girls don’t understand masturbation or clitoris stimulation, and even when they are old, they don’t experience orgasm... they never had one.”

But the taboos surrounding sex go far beyond that. When she was a teenager, no one taught her how to use a condom or the pill. “We don’t talk about these things. Women feel guilty when they have sex and they are shy even to go the doctor,” she says, asserting that sex education should start at school. As a UNICEF report on sexuality in Thailand found in 2017, “a majority of students were unable to correctly answer questions about the menstrual cycle, while many female students mentioned emergency contraceptive pills as their main method of contraception and many boys indicated an unwillingness to use condoms.”

“Girls learn from the youngest age that women’s erotica relies on men, who are the only one responsible to deliver sexual pleasure for them” – Nisarat Jongwisan

“The fact that so many students are still left without critical skills to help them navigate their sexuality, is deeply worrying,” Valerie Taton, Unicef Thailand deputy representative, says. “To reduce the high rates of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among young people, we need to equip them with the skills and the self-awareness to make good decisions about their sexual lives.”

According to the same report, only 54 per cent of female students in secondary schools are confident enough to insist on condom use every time they have sex, and 41 per cent of male students believe that a husband may beat up his wife if she is unfaithful to him. “In Thai schools and families, we never talk about sex,” says Pam, a 29-year-old girl from Bangkok, who used to attend the Chulalongkorn University. “I share my intimate thoughts only with a few female friends.”

According to Nisarat, an even bigger problem is that since sex toy importation is illegal, a black market has spread, with a few independent vendors selling illegally on Amazon, eBay and private groups on Facebook, making it impossible to monitor and control the quality of the products and therefore potentially endangering any woman using them.

“The most worrying thing is that we don’t know the material, the provenience and how reliable the packaging is,” she adds. “We don’t even know how much first, second or third hand they are – with a high risk of infection contaminations by unknown sources. Who will be responsible for that?”

But even though they are constantly subjected to the risk of arrest, vendors never give up on their prolific business. “It’s a great deal: since illegal, prices are much higher and there’s not much competition,” says a vendor at the Patpong night market in Bangkok.

After calling the government to inspect the quality of the products, Nisarat recently started doing sex toy reviews and worked along with a lawyer to collect statistics about countries where vibrators are legal. “Some of the most interesting results came from China and Singapore, very conservative countries towards women,” she says. “Dildos are helping women to explore their bodies, to know what, where and how they like to be touched. And so they help them communicate with their partners. The most important thing is now to break the silence, starting from sex toys.”