Women, Clinch and Sexuality in Thailand – Perils of “Bplum” and the Eros of the Neck

To begin, these are my observations as a female fighter in Thailand who has pursued learning clinch for 3+ years. Other female fighters may have had other experiences, but...

To begin, these are my observations as a female fighter in Thailand who has pursued learning clinch for 3+ years. Other female fighters may have had other experiences, but difference of experience does not mean that the theme of what I write about here is not true or relevant.  It also does not mean that what other women experience, if different, is false – there is room in the world for a plurality of experiences. What I’m writing about here is not meant to scare anyone away from training in Thailand or pursuing clinch with the men in their gyms; the men I’m writing about are not villains.  Rather, my goal is to present information, both specific and general, which may help women be more aware and therefore better prepared to get what they want out of their training. With greater awareness comes greater possibility for making choices. I write about it here just to inform women of the potential difficulties involved when training clinch in Thailand. These are the difficulties I have personally faced and, upon expressing them, have found it is not singular to me but is in fact common to many western women training in a different culture.

The Two Bplums

The photo at the top is a screenshot of a typical rape scene in Thai soap opera, when the tensions of a potential (and often unequal) romance erupt into a man forcing himself on the appropriately-resistant woman; a force which is seen to preserve the virtue of the woman afterwards because she did not “want it.” This is bplum (ปล้ำ), or wrestling, the catch-all euphemism for non-dark-alley, non-stranger rape. One article on these kinds problematic scenes describes another of this same kind of scene this way:

The word “blum,” which translates roughly as “wrestling,” is how Thais describe non-consensual sex that a man initiates to make a woman fall in love with him. It is considered different from “khom-kheun”, the criminal act of rape.

“Blum” is what transpires in The Power of Shadows, says Arunosha Bhanupan, producer of the soap, which aired in 2012 and recorded the highest ratings in the history of its network.

“In theatrical terms, it was an act of love … because they were in love,” the producer said, referring to the scene where the lead actor grabs the heroine and rapes her after she slaps him and screams, “Let me go!”

You can see the full scene from the screenshot above, here below (the “bplum” starts at about minute 1:25). It ends the morning after with the woman crying:

These kinds of scenes have come under criticism in recent articles, a great deal of it surfacing after a 13-year-old girl on board an overnight train to Bangkok was raped and killed by a steward and then thrown from a window of the moving train. There was similar criticism of soap opera glorifying and convoluting rape after the violent sexual assault on a western woman in Krabi, which police responded to by declaring that it hadn’t been “rape” proper because the woman was an acquaintance with the man and had gone to a bar with him. (He was, in fact, her tour guide.)  This Bangkok Post article does a good job of outlining the concept of bplum:

In the West we have “consensual sex” and “rape”. You either agree to it or you don’t. If only things were so black and white in Thai culture. Because somewhere in the middle of those two is plum, pronounced like the fruit. I first heard this word 15 years ago as a work colleague explained the story of a soap opera to me […]  Just about every TV drama in Thailand has a plum scene, since it contains all the ingredients necessary to a soap shock, violence, screaming, glimpses of naked flesh and, of course, sex.

“The man wants to set up a business with the woman, so he plums her,” I was told. I had no idea what my work colleague was taking about. “Plum,” he reiterated, frowning a little. “It means, like, like he takes the girl and sleeps with her.” “It means having sex?” I asked. “Well yes and no. But plum … it’s more than that. He forces her to have sex with him.” “So it’s rape?” “‘Oh no, that’s khom kheun,” he replied with a smile. “But this is … well, plum and plum is, well …” “Stop repeating the word. You’re telling me he forces her to sleep with him, yet it’s not rape? Is he offering her money?” “Oh no, that’s prostitution,” he answered sternly. “Of course, and we can’t have that. And what happens after he plums her?” “Well, she’s tied to him, isn’t she?” “She is?” “Now that she has slept with him, she has to do business with him. She is bound to the guy.”

It took me a while to figure out that plum is forceful seduction. A woman makes it known she likes a guy, but social mores make it difficult for her to take it a step further. A romantic Thai man thus takes the only recourse possible, he forces himself on the woman. The deed having been done, they can get on with having a relationship. So is it consensual? Now that’s a hard question. The woman may not be consenting, but once it is over, she has a bond or relationship with that man which is something she may have wanted from the start. Thus we have the outrageous soap opera situation of a woman being forced to do business with the man who raped, plummed? , her for the sake of saving face. Oh, did you hear that just then? That was the echoing sound of the gaping chasm between Thai and Western culture creaking, as the two cliffs shift even further apart, and the chasm plunges deeper. To summarise: There are two separate verbs in the Thai language if you know the guy, then he will plum you. If he is a total stranger, then he will khom kheun you.

That second word has a dark, foreboding meaning as nasty as “rape” in English. It is an all-out assault on a helpless woman, often ending in murder in this country in order for the man to escape detection. There’s nothing cute about rape, and the act is rarely seen in Thai soapies. In the eyes of Thais, this is the deranged sex fiend jumping out from behind the bushes. This is why Chumpol Silpa-archa [the police chief commenting that the rape in Krabi wasn’t “rape”] and others can make comments like: “She went to dinner with him so it can’t be rape.”

But this, below, is also bplum (ปล้ำ), wrestling, or as we call it in America “clinch”:

Thai bplum - clinch - Thailand training

The starting point of this article is to make women aware that the euphemism for rape between two people that know each other in some way, even casually, and the common word for “clinching” are the same word. But it is not just that there is an odd coincidence of language here. The language illuminates a pathway between these two different kinds of events when a young man is trying to overpower a female counterpart, a path that makes clinch work in Thailand even more complicated than it is already.

While I certainly don’t think that there is any confusion of the meanings of the word in the minds of my trainer or training partners when I’m called into the ring for “bplum,” I am always careful in my own request for muay bplum. The practice of clinch may be generally desexualized or simply not sexualized, without any difficulty, certainly once you get passed the initial awkwardness of your first session and the longer you know the boys you’re working with – if you are working with boys. But there are moments when it can flip, when it can head in a direction that needs to be corrected. The proximity of bodies in correlation with continued efforts toward dominance make it a thin line between sexual and not-sexual, but it’s a line that once you become more aware is not too difficult to keep defined. It helps that at my size (48 kg – 106 lb) my present training partners for me have been mostly pre-sexual boys. As they age they will become too big for me to keep clinching with productively – and meanings of status change potentially become more involved.

…Because it’s not only a size issue. There are grown men near my size who would never clinch with me because I’m a woman. For instance, despite knowing the men at the gym for a year now, as men, which is a sexual status rather than an actual sexual attraction issue, they would not ever clinch with me or any woman. It would be considered inappropriate. Even when Pi Nu, the gym owner and head trainer, has his Thai pads on his forearms and he grabs me to clinch for a moment in padwork, he becomes uncomfortable and pushes off when his wife or mother casually strolls into the gym because the washing machine is in the corner. There is nothing sexual about this clinching, but between a man and a woman – the simple fact of that – is different than between two men or two women.

Brief detour into “inappropriate”: I was trying to think of a western similarity to express the nature of this inappropriateness and something came to mind from the gym maybe 8 months ago.  I was in the weight room warming up and there was this western guy, probably in his 20’s, also working out. Jozef’s little sister, who was about 4 at the time, was having difficulty unhooking her school skirt to change into shorts, so she came to the guy for help. She doesn’t speak English (she’s Slovakian) and she just kept yanking at her skirt and looking to him for help. She didn’t know him, he was just “an adult” to her. He became incredibly uncomfortable and kind of just walked away from her; I’m not sure that it would have been any different if I weren’t in the room, but he was certainly aware of me. Alissa didn’t care who he was, she just needed help with her skirt and she trusts everyone. She glared at him for not helping, then walked back to the bathroom where she’d been changing before hitting the impossibility of her skirt hook. I followed her and called her to me (first time I’d ever spoken to her, but certainly she’s familiar enough with me) and unhooked her skirt and then left her to finish changing into her shorts.  There was nothing inappropriate or sexual about this dude helping Alissa with her skirt, but it could be seen that way, enough that this guy was massively uncomfortable and walked away from the situation entirely. I, as a woman, am perhaps unfairly immune from being considered inappropriately aiding a little girl with her skirt – it’s assumed to be Kosher if it’s same-sex. There is, I believe, something of this quality of not-sexual but might-be-looked-at-as-sexual going on in most male and female clinching.

The Eroticization of the Neck

There is an additional complication to clinch for women, something few westerners may know – I certainly didn’t when I came here – and that is that the neck is a very erotic zone for Thais. We have a bit of this in the west, but nothing like the universality and power of it in Thailand. Also, inhaling through the nose is an act of intimacy. While kisses with the mouth in public are shunned in Thailand, the hom “sniff-kiss” is extremely common, often lovingly given by parents to children. It’s like smelling a flower, taking in someone’s scent in a sign of affection. The hidden nature of the hom sniff-kiss makes it more like a peck on the cheek to the west, versus the inappropriateness of a fully sexual tongue-kiss in public, as it can be surreptitiously done, but it can be very erotic in sexual situations. Look at the scene of soap opera rape above. The man on top of her immediately and powerfully buries his nose in his victim’s neck – it is highly charged. (An on-screen kiss with the mouth is still quite scandalous in Thailand; the actress kissing on screen would be considered very unfavorably, maybe like how the more conservative set views nude scenes by actresses in the west.) This basic erotic act of sniffing the neck seriously complicates situations of Thai and Western women clinch training in Thailand. As a woman you may be exposed to overt sexual sniffing, a male with his nose buried in your neck, and have absolutely no awareness of it’s meaning. Imagine how you might react if your neck was being licked? Women I have shared this fact with have told me afterward that they suddenly remember that a trainer was oddly inhaling around the neck. I experienced this one time with a clinch partner at my old gym, who I never clinched with again. It’s not cool, and it’s hard to know how your not understanding the context might come off as an invitation for escalation. And it isn’t only between you and him, other Thais in the gym can see this, they can read it happening like an “inside-joke”.

What makes it complicated is that placing the face or head into someone’s neck is a primary control position in clinch. It almost can’t be avoided. It isn’t just that forceable sex and clinch share a word, they also happen to share a body position.  In Jiu Jitsu there is the “mount,” which shares a word and a position with sex; this doesn’t mean it’s always sexualized by the persons practicing, but you can see how the line can easily be crossed. In conservative Thai culture, where generally men and women do not come in physical contact at all publicly – you do not even hold hands in public in Thailand – in a very Thai male space, these potential sexual meanings are far more amplified then they would be in the west.

Women and the Older Trainer – Intimacy Codes

Talking about the older trainer for a moment, especially in western friendly gyms, clinching may be a cheap and very easy way to “feel up” a female student or fighter, either by way of sniffing or just grabbing around. As mentioned, this kind of clinch sniffing or even out-right body feeling often happens in public – with the (mostly or exclusively male) gym looking on. As a woman you may be completely unaware of what is happening. Other westerners there won’t necessarily see it either. But if it feels uncomfortable, listen to that feeling. If it’s happening to you it is probably the case that your trainer is habitual in this, female student after female student. If so, the other trainers know about it as well. They know what is happening and have either a laugh or an eye-roll ready. I’ve watched versions of this happen, and I’ve watched the other men knowingly watch it happen as well. It is usually subtle, but communal. It is a sort of “innocent” sexual spectacle that comes out of male privilege in the gym. I put innocent in quotes because there are lots of gendered, sexual joke-like moments in Thai gyms, and most of them that involve you are repeated with other unsuspecting women before and after you. It is innocent in that at any one time it may mean nothing, it isn’t personal, but it isn’t really innocuous. It sexualizes you, it defines your place in the gym, and in fact it may change the place of other women in the gym as well. It’s very hard to avoid in the short term because you may not even be aware of it happening. Sometimes though it is so overt you can tell even on the first day: A friend of mine went down to a western style gym on Phuket, a gym well-known for training women, and said that when she took private clinch lessons with a trainer all he did the whole time was make sex sounds and coo her name. She was, obviously, very uncomfortable and changed gyms not long after.

Importantly though, if an unwarranted intimacy goes unchecked you may be inviting much more than you even think you are. Some women may even appreciate the sexual attention as flattering – that it’s “fun” or harmless flirting, or one sentiment I’ve heard is giddiness at the young men at the gym having six-packs and that being very enticing – but you are potentially moving down a road that can seriously divest you of power. It isn’t only that being a sexualized woman at the gym can diminish your position as a potential fighter or serious student. While I fully defend that women ought to be the captains and owners of their sexuality, we are not “equal.”  Just as the woman in Krabi was told she was not “raped” because she had met her attacker before and had voluntarily gone to drinks with him, you know your trainers and training partners; if you go out for beers with an entire group and in very normal progression find yourself alone later with someone you know from your gym, if there is a misunderstanding or an outright betrayal of your consent, there is a good chance that Thai law will not protect you against bplum, ie, acquaintance rape.

This is not to scare you into thinking you’re going to be raped by anyone and everyone at your gym or who you meet. Thailand is full of incredibly ethical, kind and respectful men. This is to make you aware that what are your rights as a human being and what are your rights as a woman in the social and legal world might not be the same.

Women and Thai Teen Clinch Partners – Sex, Gender and Refusal

This is all even more complicated by the fact that western women in Thailand, if they aren’t paired with a trainer they will often be paired with younger teens. The reason for this is partly because it is just by custom inappropriate for adult men to clinch with women (there is always a feeling that something isn’t right, that it can veer into sexuality, even when it is on the up and up – children, or young teens are seen as “sexless” in Thailand, men are seen as very sexual), and partly because older Thai teens do not want to clinch with women because it’s lowering. Younger teens simply don’t have the status to say ‘no’ to their superiors and aren’t yet men so it doesn’t matter as much. No fighter seriously wants to clinch with a woman but young teens have the lowest status in the gym. Paying customers (westerners) need to clinch. There is always gradation in this though. I remember that when I first came to Thailand we contacted Sasiprapa, a gym I ended up really liking, and asked them if they offered lots of clinch training. They said: “No problem, we have a 14 year old boy you can clinch with.” When I got there this kid absolutely did not want to clinch with me. In fact he would not actively clinch at all. Me, being a passive, no-waves person at that time, just ended up limiting clinch practice time – I didn’t want to clinch with someone who so obviously didn’t want to clinch with me. I got very little clinch practice at that gym, now 5 years ago. When I was at Lanna my last two years, again, none of the boys really wanted to clinch with me. Clinch practice is a very masculine event. It is very man-proving. They were older, maybe 16-18. The smallest one was more or less assigned to me, and because I realized how I seriously needed to learn clinch I pushed for more and more practice time, instead of just fading off. He hated doing it so much he semi-intentionally broke my nose on two occasions, once with a knee to the face.

So instead of older teens what you can end up with, if you are physically smaller, are young teen boys who are themselves about to or just entering into sexual focus. Be aware: these boys are being put into sexualize-able positions they would never find themselves in, publicly, in their everyday cultural experiences – remember, other boys and men are watching in a strongly coded male space – and they are in these positions with a fully sexual adult, often western woman in their 20’s or older). We can even leave beside the general reputation that western women are sexually loose, a stereotype that has even been described as that of a”free prostitute,” we can see how incredibly problematic this position is. Bplum, nose in the neck, wrestling for domination and control of a sexually mature western woman in a culture where public touching between the sexes is shunned. It’s no joke. Add to that a women being culturally or consciously unaware of these lines and so she’s seemingly accepting or inviting these transgressions and it can get even messier.

The Two Kinds of Miscommunication

The serious female fighter wants to learn clinch, and this takes hundreds of hours of practice; practice that men get quite easily in Thailand. For women though it’s a minefield. Women may very well completely de-sexualize the scenario, even instinctively, and have it not even occur to them that sexual contact is on the mind of her training partner. In cases when the partner is an older trainer there is a very real possibility of him having highly charged motives when he buries his face in your neck – note: is there sniffing? I’m not saying that this is always the case, or even most of the time, but there is a very real opportunity for what I would call one-way advances. If you want to be taken seriously – or even just be very much aware of and in control of the lines you’re walking – in a Thai gym it is pretty important that you move away from sexual contexts both immediately and regularly. There is no end to the line-drawing; the lines come out of nowhere, they shift, they change, and you have to cover the same parameters over and over again.  But if you don’t know if an advance is occurring this is very difficult to step back from. With an adult trainer you may not realize it, but you may be green-lighting behavior, and public behavior at that. Generally in Thai gyms, when you become seen as “sexually available” you are available (and accessible) to everyone. As pointed out above, this can even be dangerous in the sense that Thai law against rape may not protect you once you have established the impression of some sort of relationship. The difference between bplum and khom kheun is stark in law and social perception, but perhaps not so much in the reality of non-consensual sex.

The other kind of miscommunication is between an older woman and a teen, something I’ve never seen written about, but is serious in its own right. I have heard sincere stories about older western women who actually take advantage of this kind of dynamic, purposely, to stroke their own sexual ego, which may be fading in their western lives. It may not be all together different from the sex tourism of western men coming to reclaim (or reinvent) the sexual consumption of their youth. This is more or less terrible in my book and “equal opportunity” sexual predation among western men and women over the bodies of Thais isn’t something to celebrate. These are boys, young teens, and if you know anything about Thai boys in camps they are even less, sometimes much less, emotionally developed than their western counterparts of the same age. A 15-year-old Thai boy raised in a camp may have the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old kid from a a western upbringing, simply due to the sheltered nature of his life. But ninety-nine percent of the time there can be genuine misunderstanding between western and Thai cultural concepts of what’s taking place between two persons in training. Because western women can be blind to the cues and sexual mores of the culture they are in, because they do not realize just how transgressive this kind of physical contact is for a teen, because they don’t know about the neck and the sniff-kiss, all sorts of miscommunication can develop in the long haul. This is something that women need to actively look out for if they are going to responsibly train in the clinch (with male Thai partners) for any length of time. What you are doing with your clinch partner is in some real sense transgressive, even in an advanced, western-friendly gym where it might even happen frequently – just because it is frequent, doesn’t make it unmarked. It is necessary to clinch to learn, but it is transgressive, and even if other Thais tell you that it isn’t… “no problem,” they say, but trouble can come.

The Transgression of Clinch

It of course isn’t just transgressive in the case of Thai males and western women. Everything I’ve discussed here is a big reason why Thai female fighters generally are not proficient in the clinch. Some Thai female fighters excel in a defensive clinch, basically neutralizing an opponent, but very, very few have learned proper clinch. Those few that have, like Phetjee Jaa, have been taught by or with family members. (Jee Jaa grew up clinching with her older brother, Mawin, and the two learned together.) Thai female fighters are far behind their male counterparts when it comes to clinch technique, and the reason for this is that the practice itself is transgressive in most circumstances. It’s not appropriate.

If you are woman I’ve posted a topic thread in the Women Only Muay Thai Roundtable forum where you can discuss this post in a female conversation space. If you aren’t a member already, please do come and join us.

There are real cultural/sexual barriers that are present that we just don’t see as westerners, and as sexed women we can cross boundaries we are not aware of.  Equally, boundaries can be crossed upon us and we either don’t see it, or we accept things we wouldn’t in our own home countries because we assume these men are acting within the confines of their own culture, how they would with a Thai female. Often they are not; someone who doesn’t know the rules might be taken advantage of.

Here’s an example of the nature of the transgression: I remember asking Sakmongkol to teach me clinch several years ago, in America. I was staying in Colorado for a few days on my way to moving to Thailand and he was training westerners at Zingano’s gym in Broomfield, not far from where I grew up. This was a very western environment, it was in the west, and Sakmongkol had been training westerners in there for more than a year. I was aware that there is a whole dimension of sexuality in clinch that complicates things from from my first trip to Thailand so I expected him to be hesitant. (Even my first teacher Master K had made it clear that physical contact wasn’t appropriate; he refused to teach me clinch and on the few occasions he showed me some moves, which were at a safe distance and not properly clinch proximity, he still wore a full body pad and made me wear one also. It didn’t work for clinch.) Much to my surprise Sakmongkol wasn’t hesitant in the least. “Easy” he said, and gave me one of the best 1-hour clinch instruction lessons I’ve ever had, just diving right into it. Fast forward about 2 years. I tracked down Sakmongkol where he was training at WKO in Pattaya. This is an extremely western gym in the sense that he almost exclusively trains westerners, and many of the instructors are westerners, too. In other words, this was not a “traditional Thai camp” by any stretch of the imagination. This time though, we were in Thailand. It seemed that whatever liberty Sakmongkol had felt in the US had vanished when he returned to Thai culture. Even in an empty gym, I and my husband could feel a very real stress from him when he clinched with me – my husband had been present in Colorado too. He is an old-fashioned Thai in many ways, but in Colorado, “Easy!”, in Thailand in very similar circumstances, very uncomfortable.

I’m going to tell a story of which I only know a part, so I’m at risk of telling it and possibly getting it wrong. But it’s a story that I think a lot about as it has to do with situations much like my own. I’m a clinch fighter, and it has been from early on very important for me to log long hours in clinch – it in fact is why I ended up moving from Chiang Mai to Pattaya. Because of my size the best option is for me to clinch with young teens, 12-15 years old, generally. In this story I’m telling here, it’s doesn’t matter if it’s exactly as things happened or not – the details don’t matter; in the most general sense it is a moral tale and perhaps a warning to we women who train.

There was a western woman who was a clinch fighter who had the very good fortune in her gym to be paired with a young teen who was her size. He was more or less a perfect partner, and in fact they clinched very frequently (daily) for several years. Her clinch grew to a rather high level because she was learning the way boys learn: by doing for hours and hours the daily, rigorous clinching where both you and your partners grow together, each improving the other. This is basically male training, and she became maybe the best female clinch fighter in that part of Thailand. This situation was seemingly ideal. But unbeknownst to her, or maybe with a slight suspicion but the kind you can just brush off, her partner in his teen perspective had grown incredibly close to her and from it grew affection. The proximity had sewn them together for him, he loved her in an unrequited way, in a way without her awareness really; and if there was awareness, you do what you do with any “puppy love” and politely ignore it. This story is never spoken about at the gym because it ended in tragedy. And because it is unspoken, I cannot be sure of exactly what happened, or why. Perhaps he was a troubled youth with many problems, I don’t know, but it is understood that part of those troubles was unrequited love and for whatever collection of reasons this boy took his own life. It was a calamity.

I want to tell this story not because I “know” that the intimacy of clinching lead to his death. I can’t know that, and I want to pull back from that conclusion – it’s not necessary. I want to tell it because it never occurred to anyone else from the west in that gym that ANYTHING beyond clinching was happening in those sessions, as the boy grew older. Nobody knew that a young teen was becoming infatuated with his adult, female clinching partner, in part because of the transgressive process of training like this between a boy coming into puberty and a reasonable focus for his affection. A westerner who lived at the gym at the time and in fact knew Thai culture well, is fluent and married to a Thai, when it was years later pointed out that the boy had been a young teen coming into his sexuality and that clinch is potentially very sexually intimate for Thais, let his eyes eyes grow wide with realization. He was stunned. It had never occurred to him that something was happening there. “We were all just training together” he said, somewhat sadly.  Nobody did anything wrong here; it was a blind spot within the cultural gap.

The reason it didn’t occur to him, aside from the fact that western and Thai cultures do not map well onto each other, is that he is a western male. It was indeed all just training. It isn’t a sexualized space. But as a woman stepping into a Thai gym you learn immediately how gendered it is, and you can only do your best to keep it as far from sexual as possible. It is continual work, and work you can never be sure you have done enough of.

Things You Can Do To Prevent Miscommunication

I’m not saying that clinching is an invitation to rape, or even romantic feelings. Let’s be clear. But what I am saying is that for women there is likely a whole lot going on in clinching, both in the mind of your partner, but also in the minds of other Thai males in the gym, that you have no idea about.  As my clinch has become better and my strength allows me to hang with the best boys near my size at the gym, I’m still a spectacle. At my gym up North, I witnessed the trainers gathering ’round to watch another woman being half-trained, half-sexualized when clinching with an adult, male trainer – it was a scene, and it made her uncomfortable. At my current gym it’s still men gathering ’round to watch the side-show when I’m clinching and battling it out, but it’s not sexualized, although it’s still sexist and kinda shitty in that the point is to tease the boys for being dominated by a woman (me), when that happens. Even after 3 years here, and finding myself in much more favorable clinch training situations, I still have to think about what is happening when I lock up with a male fighter with men, or parents looking on. You have to take care. Both for yourself and for your brothers in the gym.

What You Can Do:

Okay, so I’ve presented a rat’s nest of problems, but what do you do? Here are some suggestions:

1) Listen to your intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Learning clinch can be very uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re being groped (physical) or exploited (emotional). Be aware of the sniff-kiss.

2) If you feel something is not right, literally take a step away. Make physical distance and ask to be shown how to counter whatever just happened, if it was a move or position – turn it back to instruction as often as you can. Clinch is practicing domination, so there are positions you’ll be put in which are very disempowering; some of these would be normal for boys to do to each other and in those contexts they are sexual, but it’s a joke – taking someone’s back is a good example. Doing this to women, however, is a different kind of joke and if you don’t like it, don’t accept it. For example, one of my trainers would get me against the ropes and jump on me while hugging me, essentially humping me into the ropes; he’d do this to a guy to show total dominance and when it was done to me I fucking hated it. It put the rage in me because I could feel how it was sexual dominance and a crude show. Sometimes you’ll have your head pushed down over and over again, to waist level; someone taking your back and holding you for too long. These are all “normal” to a degree, but they’re also can be a little not cool in some situations. By asking for instruction on what to do the dynamics change. Suddenly they have to be teacher again and most of the time this results in a distancing and de-sexualizing of the situation.

3) Have fun with clinch. It should be fun and there’s a lot of teasing involved when you’re playing. But don’t flirt or play into sexual humor while you’re training with boys. This might be very funny, it might be your personality, but it’s not the direction to head in if you want to have control over your place at the gym. I’m razor-tongued and very sexual in my joking but I steer way clear of this in training situations, and in fact that includes all situations with males I train with, in or out of the gym.

4) Thai culture is very non-confrontational. If you make a public display it is losing face for you or someone else; or both. You can decide for yourself whether publicly addressing transgressions is something you want to do, but just know that the outcome can be long-lasting. That might be positive and it might not be. I do believe that a firm expression of “not that,” whether verbally or physically, is a safe bet both publicly and privately.

One time I was getting an oil massage before a fight and one of the teen boys from my camp, who had never been sexual toward me ever before, rested his hand on my chest for balance while he rubbed one of my legs. I had a moment of deliberation in my mind about whether to address it or not. Should I simply ignore it? Move his hand but stay quiet? Yell at him? Ultimately I lifted my head to look at him, used my hand to slap his hand off of me and just made the sound, “oi!” The other boys laughed at him and he never did it again. I’m sure it was an inside joke among the boys, but I never had to deal with it after that and I felt justified in having addressed it instead of ignoring it. I give this solution a “B”.

5) When you first get to a gym, try as soon as possible to identify the “dog.” This is the sexually predatory trainer or even a western dude training there who is super willing to be your “sensei” and train you on the side.  Every gym has a “dog,” it seems and all the regulars will know who he is. Avoid training with him. He’ll probably try to train with you first. It doesn’t mean that everyone else will be cool, but getting away from him is a good first step. This can be a little difficult as sometimes a trainer is just informally assigned to you, and if you’re assigned the dog it may be worth it to just request to train with someone else. Of course this isn’t a golden rule, some gyms might have no dogs, some might be full of them. Just be on the look out.

6) I said this above but I’ll say it again: think of your training partners as your brothers. If you treat them this way and stick to that kind of relationship dynamic, they’ll generally follow suit.  That doesn’t mean you’re totally in the clear, but it’s a very good track to follow.  “Friend Zone” is a good thing in this case. You are responsible for them, they are responsible for you.


If you are woman I’ve posted a topic thread in the Women Only Muay Thai Roundtable forum where you can discuss this post. If you aren’t a member already, please do come and join us.

This post is in many ways an expansion on my observations about Thai gym culture and unintentional status in:

The Mitt and the Joke: Illusions and Pitfalls of Equality in a Muay Thai Gym

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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