Playing to Type – the Sexy Exchange Student and Muay Thai
– This is part of what is likely a series of articles on western female sexuality in Thai gyms – it’s a big topic and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and this seemed like the best place to start. This view comes from my personal experience, and reflection, but also from conversations I’ve been having with women who have trained or are currently training elsewhere in Thailand.
How Are You Drawn?
There’s a stereotypical role that is in male-driven teen comedies – you know, the kind that are about the conquest of losing one’s virginity or a derivation thereof. It’s the hot, kind of disoriented foreign exchange student. She’s from France, or Russia, and she’s sweet and beautiful and more sexually evolved than the other female characters in the movie – she’s EXPERIENCED and sexually available – but she’s also not a whole character. Imagine a movie that opens like this: it’s the front porch of a fraternity house and a guy comes in with a beautiful, confident but kind of coy young woman to introduce to all his brothers: “Guys…” pause while everyone oggles her, “this is Nadia, the foreign exchange student from Russia.” And when it’s revealed that she’ll be staying in the frat house through some housing mishap at the university or whatever, there is a communal gasp between the frat boys and the audience because we ALL KNOW what that character’s purpose is in this plot line. No more needs to be written into her character, it’s already assumed. And then the moment we see a shot of her getting out of the shower and walking down the hallway in just her towel while the unsuspecting house-mates stutter and fall all over themselves as she casually does the “oh hi, what’s the problem?” gag about not noticing her effect, she’s fulfilled the expectation. It’s cemented, regardless of whether she actually has ANY self-awareness of the signals and messages she’s sending.
It’s easy enough to find results from searches like “sexy foreign exchange students in film” and I happened to quickly find a “top 10” list. This quote, introducing the concept for the list, hits the point exactly:
“There are few things hotter than the glorified concept of a hot foreign exchange student. Think about it: it’s a hot girl who has no inhibitions, knows little English and therefore depends on you AND stays at your place. Silver platter, anyone? With that said, here are the 10 girls who helped us all believe in the myth. The wonderful, beautiful myth.”
This is what women are facing in gyms. Especially in Muay Thai gyms in Thailand where young boys live and work for long periods of time – it is a fraternity and a brotherhood and women are not part of it. Period. When the disoriented Falang woman comes into the camp and is perceived as sexually experienced and available, it becomes the same “type” as the poorly structured character in the movie. She serves a purpose in the plot line of young, sex-interested men. And whether or not we’re aware of the signals and messages we’re sending in a culture we do, in fact, find somewhat disorienting, we still need to be responsible to it, even if it’s unfair and sexist.
To reference another movie, I point to Jessica Rabbit and her endlessly quotable line, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” The question that women who want to train seriously in spaces where they will automatically be perceived – to some degree – as not belonging, is how they will be drawn? If there is an immediate assumption that you are a sexually advanced, foreign woman here to fulfill the sexual adventure plot line, that’s how you’re drawn and if you choose to color within the lines of that frame, that’s what you’ll be. It’s incredibly hard to move away from it once it’s inked. Men don’t “unsee” sexual objectification. But if you draw yourself and make it clear that it’s NOT THIS (sexual plot line) but THAT (deliberately UN-SEXED training) and force everyone at the gym, without exception, to color within those lines you’ve drawn for yourself, then you can draw yourself into a broader character and a much more fulfilling role.
From My Experience
From my own experience, which is broken into two parts from the first, short-stay I had at Lanna four years ago and then returning a little over a year and a half ago for my longer-stay, the line-drawings have been a continual process. Four years ago when I first arrived at the camp, the first question asked of me – as is the first question asked of everyone when they first come to the camp – is “how long do you stay?” It’s a simple and straight forward question but the underlying purpose is to determine how much the gym, the trainers, are going to invest in you. If you’re here for a day there is an entirely different set of motivations and possibilities than if you’re staying for a month or a year. Most people are very short-term, staying only a few days or at most a month. Some are there for only one afternoon. When I was in the US I worked as a bartender in a restaurant that was right on the waterfront. As a result of its location it was very busy in the summer and dead in the winter, so most employees were seasonal and we had high turnover. As such, one of my coworkers, who had been working there long before I ever arrived, refused to learn the servers’ names until they’d been there for longer than three months. It sounds mean, but once I’d put in my own time there, watching several years of people coming in all excited and then just disappearing when the temperatures dropped, you don’t form lasting relationships. You form the relationships which are appropriate for a short-term. If you look at a Thai camp, the Thais are there long-term. A lot of the young men have grown up there. Your month-long stay in a foreign country and at a Muay Thai camp feels exotic and is the kind of opportunity that nobody back home gets, so it seems really significant (and it is, to you), for the men at the camp it’s blip. You’re here and gone. The investment in who you are and what you mean to the camp or the individuals who live there – for the actual fraternity – is going to be limited. So when I first arrived and was staying for four weeks at the camp, the investment my trainers and the Thai boys were willing to make in me was appropriately limited. It was, to some degree, generous. But on my first day I was confused by cultural differences – Big was maybe 16 years old at the time and he held pads for me. He would whack me in the stomach and laugh, which made me feel awful until I figured it out, until I learned what that meant in the context of this culture, of the culture of the gym and of men and boys. And when one of the main trainers held for me, before even letting me hit the pad, he pointed to a thinned spot in the fabric of my shirt, just below the collar where the thread-bare cotton might begin to tear and he said, “sexy.” I ignored him at the time, but it was notable. It was the first of many very small “tests” that negotiate where these lines get drawn.
When I came back a second time the investment was much different because I told the trainers right off the bat that I was staying for at least a year. In both my first trip and my second trip I had my husband with me and his presence and even the fact of him changes my status at the gym. Being a married woman is different from being a single woman, traveling alone. But the fact of being married doesn’t make anyone “off limits” and I’ve had to draw the lines myself. I’ve had to take sexual suggestion and invitation head-on and continually say, “not that,” to flirting or sexual innuendo and instead point to sincere, unsexed training and say, “but this.” It’s not big things. It’s a million, never-ending small things. It’s making micro-corrections all the time rather than simply stating, “I’d like to be taken seriously, please,” at the start and expecting that to be respected. And I don’t blame these men for trying, as it’s part of their performance of being men. It’s part of how they interact with women; and part of being a woman – part of the role we’re expected to play – is refusing these little advances. But you have to be able to recognize them for what they are. I think as outsiders we expect our trainers to behave in accordance with their own culture, that anything that’s happening in the gym is happening because it’s okay. But the way Thai men behave with western women and the way they behave with Thai women in the gym is drastically different, just as the way the boys in the Frat House in the film will try to “get in on” Nadia and her unfamiliarity with American cultural norms that wouldn’t fly with American girls.
Take for example something like situps between rounds at the gym. Our rounds are four and a half minutes long with a one minute break. They can be grueling for new people. And the trainers like to make men do pushups and women to do situps between rounds. The particular form of situps vary between two kinds, generally: 1) the bicycle situp where you connect your elbow to your opposite knee in a twist while the other leg extends straight out – the easiest way to see up the shorts; or 2) the trainer stands on the feet of the student while she does standard situps, causing her head to be right at crotch-level when she’s fully sat up – making this look like a 1-minute oral sex pantomime. I’ve never gone for either of these; I do pushups, as I’ve always done. I was never told to do pushups or situps individually – when they call “10 pushups!” I just did 10 pushups and it’s remained that way. When men do situps because they don’t have the strength for pushups, they are told to tuck their legs under the bottom rope; they don’t get the look up the shorts or the blow-job charade. (Some women do this form on their own, using the ropes at the sides rather than the other two forms; certainly the other options are never forced.) Furthermore, when Thai women come to the gym, they don’t get either of these treatments. Yesterday I saw two women, both Thai, doing padwork in the ring and during the break when they were performing situps the trainers put one foot across both legs of each woman to assist her in her situps, the trainer’s body appropriately out of range for any innuendo. When one of the woman’s shorts rode up a little bit, the trainer actually bent down and adjusted them for modesty. I’ve experienced exactly this divide in my oil massage before fights as well: I have to lift my shirt for my stomach and back to be rubbed with oil. Sometimes there are gawkers, usually young teenage boys but sometimes girlfriends of the Thai boys in my corner. My teenage boy masseurs will do one of two things: 1) they’ll tell their girlfriends to look at my tattoo as a way of shocking them, exclamations from the young girls coming out in squeals of horror and delight; or 2) they’ll pull my shirt down the moment they’ve finished rubbing my stomach and only lift it again when they’re ready to do my back, returning the hem to my shorts immediately after. One feels respectful, the other not so much. I’ll let you guess which is which.
But let me be clear that none of this comes off as a jaw-dropping display of inappropriate sexual harassment. In fact, I’d bet that 99% of the women doing situps don’t have an inkling at all that they’re being placed in a position that is “out of order” in any way, for one because there’s no obvious leering and secondly because “modesty” as perceived and performed by more conservative cultures than what is typically found in the sexually liberated West simply doesn’t come to mind. And this kind of thing, these small games, happen in gyms all over Thailand, all over the world, including at home in the west. Imagine a yoga instructor habitually checking form on the spandex-clad women in his gym by standing behind them during poses that could, with an eye toward such things, be suggestive of sex. How many people would notice? Of those, how many would care? In your own culture, what’s the risk? There’s another reason this particular kind of sexual game goes unnoticed by the women who are unwittingly playing along, and that’s that part of the esoteric allure of martial arts is to relinquish control to your teacher, the student a receptacle for knowledge, a formless material to be shaped – it’s inherently submissive. On top of that, the western perception of gyms as places to work hard and be driven by a coach or trainer causes both men and women to submit to their trainers as “drill sergeants,” unquestioning and willing to push hard in obedience in order to show dedication and worth. Sometimes the result is being subjected to relatively innocuous things like exercises that will allow the trainer to objectify the trainee’s body in some way; sometimes, as I’ve heard from women in the US, this kind of mentality allows for far more serious infractions that border on and sometimes clearly overstep the line of abuse. Students, perhaps especially women, feel a desire and need to trust our trainers. We trust that their motives are to improve us and that difficulties and discomfort are necessary elements of transformation – and they are. But that’s assuming also that your trainer sees you the way you ought to be seen, as a student with potential – that you agree on what you should be shaped into through all these methods. While it is not universally so, it is common and pervasive enough to say it, that at the root of many of these problems is the fact and perception that women are not men. Our possibilities are different from those of men; when we enter a gym the likelihood that a trainer will view a woman as a potential champion is far less than the chance that she will be viewed as a potential sexual presence. And so, without awareness, she might be giving herself over to a training method that is far more likely intended to help her reach that sexual potential than whatever athletic achievements she might dream for herself. And when the culture is not your own, it is incredibly difficult to tell when lines are being crossed or whether this is just how it’s done, in this country. (I wrote about this in context of training in clinch here.) I’ve been here nearly two years now and I have a vested interest in tracking these things and yet I still don’t have a clear picture. The ground is always shifting underneath me.
One of my trainers will sometimes come over to me while he’s reading the daily publication from Muay Siam, the national newsletter of Muay Thai. On the back page is a Thai female model, usually in shorts and a bikini-top. He’ll hold the image up next to me and glance back and forth, mockingly trying to figure out if it’s me. The first time I laughed and told him, “can’t be me, I don’t have breasts,” trying to de-sexualize the comparison. But when it happened again I realized the lines hadn’t been drawn strongly enough. It’s “harmless,” but it’s an attempt, as innocuous as he may mean it, to sexualize me, which in turn separates me from the gym. Another of my trainers will sit far too close to me or put his hand very gently on my hand or on my leg when he’s leaning in to see something we’re looking at on my phone or tablet. It’s tiny. It’s nothing, except that it’s not. It’s a very small test to move a line. If I don’t move, if I accept the touch, then I am accepting it for next time also. He wouldn’t do this to a young Thai woman unless he was making advances on her and if he were being well-behaved, he wouldn’t do it at all. This happens in front of my husband. What’s strange about it is that if I were actually a man, this would happen – men are very physically proximate to one another in Thai culture, if they know one another. But this isn’t an “oh, I forgot you aren’t a man,” type of situation. It’s a “let’s see if we can move the line a little nudge” type of situation.
The point is not that Muay Thai gyms are lecherous dens of sexual predation. The point is that you have to be aware of all the meanings, simultaneous and sometimes contradictory, that inform every situation of being twice the foreigner: a western woman in a Thai, male space. You don’t have to refuse all of this. You don’t have to unsex yourself and refuse flirtation that makes you feel good about yourself and comfortable. But you do have to be aware of what you are in that space. If the sexy exchange student doesn’t know what role she’s assumed to play, she can’t make a conscious decision about whether to stick to the script or throw it out the window. But assumptions are being made about her and her sexual availability, whether she likes it or not. And every time she goes in line with the assumptions, every time there’s a “sexy misunderstanding” in the adolescent sexual comedy, she re-inscribes the lines that shape and limit what a woman in a Frat House can be, for herself and for every woman outsider who comes through the door.