Argus title :
As I walked through Brighton this week I noticed that publicity materials for the Ladyboys of Bangkok have appeared again – and that this year there are metal street signs directing traffic to the “Sabai Pavilion” in which they will perform.
Usually, these almost indestructible street signs are used for events such as the Lions Carnival or various trade and hobby fairs which, over generations, have taken place in Brighton and Hove. The fact that they have been issued for the Ladyboys suggests that the Council now views them as a Brighton “institution”, in effect, part of our culture.
I wonder if I am the only Brightonian to object. I do not want the city in which I live to be defined by events such as this. I can’t understand why a Council which has expressed increasing concern about the proliferating number of local lap-dancing clubs in the city, allows such a show to occupy one of its most prominent venues – one which is passed by virtually every bus route in the city.
It is true that the Ladyboys don’t strip in the ways that lap dancers do. However, like lap dancers and pole dancers their purpose is sexual titillation of men for money. However talented they may be as dancers or musicians, their appeal is based not upon their artistic ability, but upon the fact that they are young men performing, very convincingly, as if they are sexually provocative women.
The Ladyboys purport to live out a stereotype of femininity – obsessed by fashion, beauty, make up and sex – which may corresponds to the desires and fantasies of the Nuts and Zoo generation of males, but has little basis in the reality of women’s lives. Many women spend their lives resisting such stereotypes and are therefore deeply offended by male entertainers who appear to re-inforce the worst manifestations of them.
The fact that the Ladyboys are there year after year indicates that there are many people who are keen to watch them. However, the fact of their popularity does not in itself justify the use of Council-owned public space – or the fact that for weeks on end the general public is excluded from it. The fact that the Council has given permission for such long term annexation of public green space implies approval of this form of entertainment – and even that there is some public interest involved in promoting it. It is unclear why this should be.
The Ladyboys’ publicity machine is keen to present the troupe as part of “Thai culture” which they claim has a long tradition of accepting a so-called “third sex” – though interestingly there appears to be no “4th Sex” of Thai women dressed up and acting as men.
Apologists for and promoters of the show say “ladyboys” have been performing across Thailand for centuries. In 2003 an Argus reporter was informed that ladyboys “gained a new lease of life in the Seventies with the advent of disco.” The truth may be a little different. According to other observers, Thai ladyboys were revived, rebranded and remarketed to entertain well-heeled western tourists, who came to enjoy fine beaches and, in many cases, cheap sex with people too poor to refuse a good offer.
As is now well-known, inadequate protection for young children and adolescents coupled with extreme poverty, brought many Thai youngsters into the sex industry and ushered in sexual exploitation on a grand scale. Thailand became a haven for paedophiles and the Thai government is now struggling to bring this under control.
It is for this reason that any sex entertainment imported from Thailand – however apparently anodyne and innocent – should be carefully scrutinised. I for one would want to know that none of the young men involved was introduced to the profession when very young, particularly given that they freely acknowledge that many have received hormone or surgical treatment, such as breast implants.
Nothing like this would previously have been available to “traditional” Thai members of the “third sex” and so it has to be assumed that these medical interventions have been undertaken to increase the ladyboys’ appeal to the western market.
Many of these young men are so astonishingly like women that one has to question whether medical intervention in their cases may have taken place when they were in early adolescence or even when they were pre-pubescent.
Of recent years, in interviews, the Ladyboys have tended to make no reference to their early lives. However, back in 2003 they were less circumspect. An Argus article included an interview with a Ladyboy called Lee, then aged 28. The journalist wrote that he “first embraced the ladyboy lifestyle aged 13”. There is also a reference to another performer, called Maya. Then aged 43, Maya had been performing as a ladyboy for 30 years, again from the age of 13.
In this context it is disturbing that Farida, another Ladyboy, said she had known she wanted to be a ladyboy at the age of three, saying “I am happy with who I am. I like to make myself look beautiful. My parents always accepted me living my life like this, though it is expensive to have the treatment.”
In our ostentatiously “open-minded” city, we may believe that by tolerating the Ladyboys’ entertainment we signal an inclusive attitude to transgender people. It may be comforting to think so and to assume that the experiences of these individuals are similar to those of British transsexuals. However, Thai and British societies are very different – not least because in this country most male to female transsexuals don’t have to perform on stage for the delectation of heterosexual men.
The uncomfortable truth is that we don’t know whether these young boys had a genuine choice. It is uncertain what education they received and what options they had for other careers. In an economic situation in which families are terribly poor, struggle to eat and cannot pay medical bills, children must work – and those who are beautiful are at particular risk of exploitation. It may not have happened in respect of these entertainers, but we don’t know. What we do know is that in Britain those who become private dancers and sex workers are disproportionately likely to have been exploited or abused in childhood.
There is national concern in Britain about the sexualisation of childhood and the fact that pre-pubescent and adolescent girls are increasingly being driven to define themselves in terms of sexual attractiveness. In our own city, great concern has rightly been expressed about very young girls being involved in pole dancing classes. The Council recently stopped the classes taking place on council premises – a decision with which I completely agreed.
However, if we are concerned about our own adolescents, we need also to be vigilant as to the safety of children elsewhere. Thirteen is far too young to be embracing such a lifestyle.
Ladyboy entertainment is presented as if it were an amalgam of an exotic west end show, a drag act and a Carry-on movie. It may have elements of all of these things – it seeks after all to appeal to a western audience – but it springs from a society which is profoundly unequal and in which there is serious poverty and exploitation.
Many years ago we agreed as a city not to allow circuses involving animals. We thought ourselves too humane for that. Yet in these Ladyboy shows we permit the parading of human beings as curiosities, for the purposes of amusement, titillation and embarrassed or shocked excitement.
We may dress this up as entertainment, but arguably it is little more than a sophisticated and sanitised version of a 19th century freak show – and with less of a freak show’s honesty.