Kathoey: Thailand’s Ladyboy Sirens

Originally posted 2015-06-20 13:20:44.

Phuket, Thailand. Midnight: Bangla Road is packed with tourists. They’re mostly Westerners and Russians, but many Asians and a smattering of Indians. There seems a disproportionate number of unattached males. The music is very loud, and throbbing. Outside the bars, on elevated stages, Thai girls are dancing provocatively. They’re tall, fantastically beautiful, and seductive. They look, and move, like supermodels, but with better bodies. Then you realise: there are other Thai women here too, but they’re short, cute and pretty, not at all statuesque or magnificent. Alongside  the kathoey, Thailand’s famous trans women, they are all but invisible, like candles next to a searchlight. It’s easy to see who has the attention of the gathered men.kathoey

On stage, one girl rolls her dress down to her hips so that her naked breasts and torso – she sports an intricate tattoo on her back – are shown off, as she wriggles to the thrumming music. Her body is as flawless as a Greek goddess’ and her dance mesmerising as a Siren’s: you just can’t help but watch and smile at her exquisite insouciance.

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Her own grin is wide and genuine: she is no miserable sex-slave; this girl loves performing and is basking in the rapt attention of her audience.

Many of the girls here have already had Genital Reconstruction Surgery, although this is relatively unusual in SE Asia; they are as proud of their modified bodies as teenagers with a new car, and as enthusiastic about displaying them.

Everywhere, the dancing kathoey engage the watching men; they call out to them, beckon with their hands, seduce with a flick of their luxuriant hair or a flash of dark eyes. Breasts, buttocks and even more are flaunted, always with an outrageous gesture of false modesty: bashful these girls are not. A girl — tall and spectacularly beautiful — lifts her already microscopic dress and squats to show herself, engaging me directly with her eyes. My companion — herself TS, but intact, huffs. ‘Still not a real girl,’ she shouts into my ear, over the deafening racket.

Fifty and hundred-baht notes are flying onto the stages like confetti, and the more explicit the dancer the more she earns. A girl slips onto an empty bar stool beside a middle-aged Western man. As she does so she daintily rucks her dress up round her waist, holding her knees together in a gesture of completely false modesty; she’s just saving the surprise. Like many of the girls, and discovering this has not required guesswork, she’s wearing no knickers. A moment later the man turns, smiles at her, looks down, and smiles even more. Business is about to be done.

kathoey

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This is the popular view of kathoey, as trans women are known in Thailand.  As so often the case, however, this view is distorted, for the coyote dancers and bar girls are only a small fraction of the total. Nor are they by any means dominant even here, for there are far more natal women selling sex and titillation. Pattaya, for example, prior to Covid,  had an estimated 10,000 sex workers, of whom only 10% or so were kathoey. It is their forwardness, their relentless self-marketing that makes them seem so numerous. And make no mistake, every one of these dancers, as well as the other kathoey circling the crowd like sharks, are available for private entertainment.

‘Lub you longtahm, hansum mann.’

Prostitution

Prostitution has very little stigma in Thailand, and a successful one can make £3000 or more a month, much more than a teacher or an office worker. Although prostitution here is illegal, it is an entrenched part of Thai culture, and the main market is indigenous. Recent studies suggest that 75% or more of Thai men employ prostitutes. Visits are given as birthday presents, business sweeteners, even by wives to their husbands when they themselves are pregnant. The business is not the result of ‘sex tourism’, although that represents a lucrative addition to it.

In any case, sex-regulatory laws here are not there to protect males, either men or kathoeys. They are there to protect girls and women, whose virtue, especially before marriage, is valuable. Nobody gives a hoot what males are doing; their virtue has no value. If the laws are applied at all, as regards kathoey sex workers, it is simply to enhance the salaries of the local police officers.

Most Thai transwomen do not become so in order to work in the sex trade. However, some are attracted to the job, partly because, like all Thai, they are expected to help support their families, partly because their hormones, breast implants and other surgery are expensive, and partly because of the pleasure they get from affirmation: one proof that they are beautiful women is that men will pay to be with them.

kathoey
Dancers at Alcazar, Pattaya. Pic: Rod Fleming

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Other careers

However, far greater numbers of kathoey work in offices, banks, shops, salons, restaurants. They are models, showgirls, actresses, entertainers, even air-hostesses. Many are teachers; I know of one who is the ‘headman’ of her village. Others run businesses of all sorts, some with turnovers running into the tens of millions – of dollars, not baht. Many have degree-level education or higher.

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Though the numbers may appear high, Thailand is not a TS paradise.

Discrimination is widespread, and families may reject them, unless they can send money home. Although proposed changes to the Constitution that might help have been reported in the Media, at present it remains impossible for a Thai to legally change gender. Since the production of an identity card is mandatory in many everyday transactions, having the wrong gender markers causes much distress and actual hardship. Many other petty and unnecessary obstacles confront kathoeys and complicate their lives.

However, any kathoey will say the same: ‘I was born this way; I’m a woman inside’. It is not a matter of choice.

kathoey
Thai singer Bell Nuntita, who is kathoey.

Causes

There are two distinct forms of Male-to-Feminine expression, that is, where a person born male desires to appear to be a woman, . These are HomoSexual and non-homosexual. The former are exclusively attracted to men from early age. They are often referred to as HSTS or sometimes, ‘transkids’, because they typically present Sex Non-Conforming (SNC)* behaviours while very young, However, these individuals do not transition only because they are homosexual. This is one factor in a cluster which identify them.

While there are differences between ethnicities, HSTS tend to be small, lightly build, slender, neotenous (baby-faced), naturally feminine in deportment and manners and usually are unable to ‘be’ men successfully. In fact, it would be reasonable to suggest that feminine ‘gay men’ are actually HSTS in disguise — often because they live in a homophobic culture like the West.

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Why HSTS occurs remains uncertain, although a huge volume of evidence now supports the idea that it is due to abnormalities in the delivery of hormones to the developing foetus. This can cause a syndrome we call Sexual Inversion, in which a male individual is feminised and vice versa.

Less likely, the reason might be genetic. A genetic cause would explain, in a way that no other hypothesis can, why both homosexuality and HSTS appear to be  prevalent in all human populations, at about the same rate, throughout history. However, twin studies have so far not conclusively proved this. Other theories suggest that birth order is significant.  This idea proposes that for some reason the mother’s delivery of hormones is disrupted in some way by previous pregnancies.

Other theories, such as a link to Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, remain to be thoroughly tested.

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Non-homosexuals: Autogynephiles

The other type of MtF, much more obvious in the West, is called ‘non-homosexual’, because they are not attracted to men, at least prior to transition. Unlike HSTS, this type is morphologically similar to the male averages in their populations, they are not feminine of manner or speech etc and they look masculine.

Dr Ray Blanchard

The explanation for why this occurred remained mysterious until the work of Dr Ray Blanchard identified them as ‘autogynephilic’. Autogynephilia or AGP is ‘a man’s propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman’, or we might express it as a heterosexual man’s obsessive, compulsive desire to become that which he is most sexually attracted to: a woman.

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These individuals are usually known as AGP and are obvious in the West. Bruce ‘Caitlyn’ Jenner is a famous example but there are many. In fact they dominate the narrative in the West, with few HSTS being visible, though there are some, for example Kim Petras. This is because, no matter where they are, HSTS do not seek to stand out, they rather seek to blend in. They rarely draw attention to their status and usually pass effortlessly as women. (This is outside sex work; there they may be less forward than AGPs but still promote themselves. It’s business.)

AGPs, however, are extreme narcissists who cannot resist advertising themselves. HSTS often avoid association with them because of the risk of being ‘outed’ by it.

kim petras
Kim Petras. Note how delicate, petite  (5’6″) and slender she is. Note especially the fineness of her neck and her hands and wrists. Kim conforms to the averages for women of her ethnicity. This is typical of HSTS.

In Thailand, as in the Philippines, most AGPs transition in adolescence and begin taking hormones early, sometimes by the age of 15 but more usually between 18 and 20. (For comparison, many HSTS begin before the age of 12.)This is long before they fully masculinise and  means that by the time they are in their  early twenties they can be very attractive transwomen. But despite their generally better looks, they conform to Blanchard’s model in most ways, other than their early onset.

crissy-kathoey
Crissy, from the Philippines. She is AGP and typical of the type found in SE Asia. Twenty-nine when this picture was taken, she had been taking HRT for ten years, and had undergone breast augmentation surgery. Although she is beautiful, she is six feet tall, not lightly built — and from an ethnicity where cis women are on average under five.

Just as in the West, both types are found in Thailand and a rough guesstimate  based on observation — because no proper statistical studies have been done — suggests that about one quarter to one half of kathoey are HSTS. However, this is  difficult call, because Thai HSTS routinely pass as women even amongst other Thais.

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Kathoey Karma

Kathoey are thought to have been adulterers in a previous life. Since reincarnation happens to everyone, and treating kathoey unfairly might impact on one’s own status in the next life, people are usually polite to them. No one wants to come back as a slug, after all. In a culture that believes in an infinite number of reincarnations, everyone has both once been, and will be, themselves kathoey. They are living reminders that karma can be tough.

  • NB Sex Non Conforming behaviours (SNC) are often erroneously referred to as ‘Gender Non Conforming’ or GNC. This is a serious mistake because it conflates sex and gender, which are two different things. HSTS’ behaviour is not in any way at odds with their gender, but it definitely is with social expectations for their sex. The term GNC is an erasure of HSTS legitimacy — probably its original purpose. Use SNC instead.

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This article was originally written in 2013, although first published later. I have had to amend it somewhat in the light of new knowledge.

 

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