Fluidity of gender and sexuality in Southeast Asia

In popular discourse, there is this fixation with the idea that there exists a set of values/ideals being inherently ‘Asian’, commonly associated with conservatism, particularly with regards to ethics and morality. Interestingly enough, these ‘values’ oft referred to as exclusively Asian are less ‘Asian’ in nature than we might think. Amongst the indigenous peoples of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, there was generally a large degree of freedom and flexibility in the areas of gender and sexual identity, far from the typical conception of contemporary Asian cultural norms and practices.

A lot of anthropological work centred on Southeast Asia argues that the conservatism that increasingly characterises the region is a direct result of colonial presence and influence in the region, and the corresponding introduction of world religions. In fact, these codes of morality were distinctly Victorian ones, in the period of 19th Century Victorian England, which proposed sexual restraint and were closely tied to ideas of morality. These were later introduced throughout Southeast Asia accompanying the expanding overseas British empire.
Some examples of the relative freedom of expression of sexuality and fluidity in gender include the great degree of sexual freedom and authority among the indigenous Javanese women in pre-colonial times, much to the surprise of early Western traders. Women were able to obtain divorces easily, and sought sexual gratification in their relations with men. This observation is well documented, with large numbers of men having undergone painful genital surgery to enhance the sexual experience of women. With growing colonial presence, these practices were gradually stamped out in line with Victorian moralistic views. This is also seen in Valerie Hull’s study of Javanese women in the 70s (Smith-Hefner refers to Hull’s study in her chapter Javanese Women and the Veil), in which she notes that they have maintained a strong public presence and have had the right to initiate a divorce for centuries.

Despite the growing influence of modernity and world religions, fluid conceptions of gender and freedom of sexual expression still exist today, although they increasingly contend with popular notions of morality and sexual propriety and are hence subject to some level of social sanction or disapproval.

Kathoey in Thailand

Kathoey is a Thai term that can refer to a transgendered individual or an effeminate gay, and is sometimes regarded as a third gender as well.
A quick Wiki search shows that back in 2004, “the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The 15 kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.”
In addition, gender is often a highly political issue, being directly related to the civil rights and citizenry. The kathoey are given some degree of political recognition, once again revealing that fluidity in gender in the region. Following the 2006 Thai coup, kathoeys are pushing for a third sex to be added to passports and other official documents. Since 2007, kathoeys can also apply to change their registered sex if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery.

Kathoey in popular culture

Bell Nuntita, a contestant on Thailand’s Got Talent, wowed audiences with her ability to sing in both a feminine and masculine voice

Kuta cowboys in Bali, Indonesia

Bali has become a hotspot for sex tourism, arguably popularised by the Kuta cowboys – Balinese men who exchange love and/or sex for monetary benefits or gifts. Foreign women are known to spend many days on end with these cowboys before returning to their country of origin and some continue to keep in contact with these men, making subsequent return trips to continue their previous engagement and even marrying them in some instances. This is often seen as both a way of life and means of making a living. Surprisingly, many of the Kuta cowboys are married men. While the Indonesian government has tried to limit these activities, these are often not strictly enforced, probably because they have become so central to the Balinese way of life for many of these Kuta cowboys, and also because they constitute a large part of the tourist industry.

Kuta cowboys in popular culture
Depiction of the Kuta cowboys in the documentary film Cowboys in Paradise
Trailer here:

From these we see that culture is dynamic, often the result of the ebb and flow of external influences, which are then adapted to fit with current social systems of being – neither a wholesale acceptance of external influences nor a stagnancy of existing cultural processes. Culture is continually being shaped, reshaped, contested and (re)defined, forcing us to reevaluate any claims that existing ways of navigating the social world are inherently and solely our own.

More pages