Knowledge, sex, and marriage in modern Bangkok: Cultural negotiations in the time of AIDS
This research is an anthropological investigation of the meanings and practices of contemporary Thai marriage as they relate to sexual networks of risk and the potential for HIV/AIDS education among the urban middle classes of Bangkok. It explores the social constructions of gender, sexuality, and knowledge among married, or "heterosexually attached" women and men in order to map how dominant cultural ideologies relate to lived experiences in individuals' day-to-day married lives. HIV/AIDS has spread widely among the general Thai population. Analysts note women's vulnerability to infection from their primary partners and encourage greater sexual communication within marriage. This research sought insights to tailor HIV/AIDS prevention programs to meet the needs of married Thais in the under-researched middle classes. Socio-cultural data on marital dynamics, men's extramarital sex practices and women's responses to their partners' extramarital sex also advance theories of Thai marriage and sexuality. Findings show that women face a heavier burden than men in performing the cultural "work" of marriage. In order to maintain smooth relations, many women practice strategies of silence and knowledge management that serve some of their interests as wives, but also perpetuate the possibilities for men to pursue multiple sexual relationships. Women's strategies both accommodate and resist dominant ideologies, resulting in a variety of cultural tensions characterizing married women's lives in a complex and fast-changing urban environment. AIDS education programs in Thailand have instilled widespread knowledge about HIV transmission and spurred increased condom use in commercial sex contexts. However, Thai men and women do not want to use condoms, nor talk about sexual risk with their primary partners. Also, there is widespread belief that one can identify an HIV-infected person by illness symptoms and social status; the primary safe sex strategy is to "look" and "choose" carefully. These data on marriage dynamics and HIV/AIDS knowledge suggest that AIDS programs should teach about latency and the fact that even "nice" people can be infected, and promote culturally appropriate ways for partners to communicate so that sexual health can become consistent with marriage maintenance among middle class Thais.