Updated: Mar 8, 2021
I’m spinning in circles at the end of Thong Lor 6 when the owner of a local bar asks what I’m searching for. I’m looking for The Hidden Closet, I tell him, and he points to an Art Deco-inspired building with the direction, “Upstairs.” To answer his question more accurately, I’m looking for a little self-love for my own personal hidden closet - on a quest to discover how to buy sex toys in Bangkok when they're technically illegal in Thailand.
Climbing three flights of stairs, my first impression is of hot pink light pulsing from neon signs. Inside, the boutique is a delicious feast for senses of sight and touch… and anticipation of touch. The stroke of a feather, slick leather straps, gliding silk. Chains, whips, gags, cuffs and ropes adorn mannequins - and then there are the arrowhead spinning tops of butt plugs.
This is a playground of pleasure, but as I soon discover, there’s more to this discreet slice of sexual paradise than vibrators and BDSM gear.
“The Hidden Closet is not a sex shop, it’s an erotic boutique,” Owner Oranan Tangpanitanon describes in her own words. “It’s a journey. We don’t just focus on dildos. We actually focus on making people feel more comfortable and happy with themselves.”
The first iteration of The Hidden Closet opened in 2011, run by Oranan and her three friends, which she describes as part-inspired by “Sex and the City.” The original store was forced to close during the political unrest of the Red Shirt movement, then a few years later Oranan decided to open the sequel.
The second installment is an Aladdin’s Cave of high-quality imported lingerie, costumes, party items, accessories, sexual wellness products and what I was here to peruse; items Thai law might describe as “obscene objects.”
It was the thrill of this classification and prohibition that led me down a rabbit hole (pun intended) to better understand sex toys, legalities, masturbation and female pleasure in Thailand.
Why are Sex Toys Illegal in Thailand?
Thailand’s Criminal Code Section 287 prohibits the trade, distribution, production, or possession of “any document, drawing, print, painting, printed matter, picture, poster, symbol, photograph, cinematograph film, noise tape, picture tape or any other thing which is obscene.”
Punishment includes imprisonment of up to three years and/or a fine of THB6,000. Readers may recognise this as the same law enforced in the recent blocking of popular pornography websites, including PornHub.
To fully understand where these laws come from and why, we spoke to activist Nisarat Jongwisan, who campaigns to repeal and amend laws surrounding sex toys.
In 2018, she appeared on Thai PBS’s “Policies by the People,” where Thais can pitch a law or a change to one. Although her pitch was unsuccessful, Nisarat’s appearance started conversations about sexual wellness and female pleasure, leading to these topics trending on social media. To date, her online petition has collected 60,000 signatures.
“This law came from the same law that is enacted in response to controlling indecent subjects in the media (such as posters showing nipples, genitals, etc.).” Nisarat explains. “It started with the intention of having a law to control things like porn when that started to come in, that and child pornography, etc. So it’s used to regulate things that are considered indecent.”
Paradoxically, phallic symbols are everywhere in Thailand; at shrines, temples, and sold on the street as keyrings or knick-knacks - a sight jarring and amusing for foreigners.
“[The phallic effigies] symbolize fertility and birth, as they show the penis going into the vagina,” Nisarat states. “But it does reinforce the sacredness of the male genitalia and is reflective of the patriarchal idea that those with vaginas serve the pleasure of those with penises. This is shown in the way Thailand treats sex and gender today - how with boys if they were to masturbate and dirty their underwear, no one in the household talks about it, it is accepted and normalized, and the mother would wash his underwear. But no one ever teaches women about their own sexual pleasure.”
Oranan concurs that a big obstacle in the acceptance of sex toys in Thailand is that heterosexual sex often focuses on male pleasure and the attitude that female pleasure should come from men. However, she sees these views changing.
“Especially with Thai couples, sometimes men believe women using toys is a kind of disrespect. That can be the attitude in Thai culture. Men should dominate women and they only want women to enjoy sex with them. It can be the case that Thai men don’t allow women to use toys, together or alone. However, I think men now are a lot more open and some of my male customers choose toys designed to please women, so the couple can enjoy toys together. I mean, also it can help men to… not work so hard, physically!”
Masturbation & Female Pleasure
In the West, female sexual pleasure is having a moment. For example, there’s the rise of wildly popular platform OMGYes, which offers subscribers access to shared knowledge and science-backed research on female sexual pleasure.
What's more, female-fronted sex podcasts such as Sex with Emily, Come Curious and Call Her Daddy (to name but just a few) are well-established and have become mainstream. Taking conversations about sex to a more academic level, sex podcaster Emily Morse of Sex with Emily is a qualified doctor of human sexuality and recently launched a collaboration with MasterClass on sex and communication.
In current affairs, a recent issue where YouTuber Zoella was dropped from the UK’s GCSE syllabus for talking about sex toys and masturbation (she didn’t even know she was featured on the curriculum) raised questions about sex education and the message it sends to teen girls to hush up talk of their sexual experiences and what makes them feel good.
Then there’s Covid-19. The pandemic has provided space and time for women to prioritise their pleasure, both alone and with a partner. Online retailers have reported spikes in sex toy sales during lockdowns, while sex education and exploration apps such as womxn-focused Emjoy have seen a 160% increase in downloads.
Beyond the education provided and knowledge shared, the seismic societal shift is in the fact that women’s pleasure is in the spotlight. The orgasm gap is being acknowledged and challenged. Female masturbation is being normalized. Dialogue is happening. Women’s pleasure is no longer viewed as a bonus in heteronormative sex.
So, where does that leave Thailand?
“I view sex as not just about sex or the physical, but about confidence coming from inside." - Oranan Tangpanitanon
Searching for statistics on masturbation in Thailand brings up nothing enlightening (though a whole load of unenlightening content is available. Thanks, Google.)
How about discussion of masturbation and sexual pleasure in sex education? A 2016 UNICEF review of Thailand’s comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) found the curriculum’s implementation unsatisfactory on several grounds, including the discussion of pleasure:
“...some were concerned that teaching about positive aspects of sexuality would encourage the students to have sex and thought that warning about the various dangers of sex was more important than covering both positive and negative aspects. Both vocational and general secondary teachers stated they would emphasize the dangers of sex and not mention any positive aspects, thinking that sexual pleasure would not be appropriate for the students’ age*.”
[*Side Note: Um… so at what age is the discussion of sexual pleasure appropriate? According to the Bureau of Reproductive Health, an average of 169 babies are born to girls aged 15 to 19 years old every day in Thailand, plus six per day are born to girls younger than 15 years old.]
Another concern is that the UNICEF study found some students (and teachers!) hold “beliefs about harmful effects of masturbation.”
Nisarat agrees that Thailand’s relationship with sex is flawed from the ground up: “Thailand lacks a positive outlook on sex education. It is still seen as something shameful and dirty, and this trickles down to how the laws and the police treat things regarding sex. The problem is structural.”
Looking at the implemented pornography ban, Nisarat’s unsuccessful 2018 campaign to change Thailand’s “obscene” laws, as well as flaws in the sex education system (and even outrage over Netflix show “Sex Education”), it may appear from the outside that Thailand as a nation is becoming more and more conservative.
Yet, on the inside, Thai attitudes towards sex are changing.
After influencer Chitlada “Kui” Promlumpu hosted a hugely popular sex toy review video via the platform Echo (yes, even though sex toys in Thailand are illegal), she launched her own podcast, Sexducation, covering a diverse array of topics, including female masturbation.
Opened in 2020, Maison Rouge is a female-focused event space spearheaded by Madame Rouge, leader of a burlesque troupe of the same name. [To learn more about burlesque, read our article on Burlesque, Belly Dance & Pole Dance in Bangkok: 3 Sensual Ways to Love Your Body]
Many of Maison Rouge’s events are centered around women’s empowerment and pleasure, with past examples including burlesque dance classes, women-only speed dating and pelvic floor workshops.
There are also more online resources available, especially for young people. The Bureau of Reproductive Health has launched a Line-based sex education resource @teenclub and there are a number of informative community pages available on Facebook, such as Thai Consent.
Are the tides turning on female pleasure and masturbation in Thailand?
The orgasm gap is being acknowledged and challenged. Female masturbation is being normalized. Dialogue is happening. Women’s pleasure is no longer viewed as a bonus in heteronormative sex.
“Coming out to talk about sex toys that serve women’s personal pleasure can come to seem strange as it conflicts with the values that have been normalized and taught,” Nisarat observes. “Masturbation is about personal power and it is not anyone else’s. It is my choice to do anything to my own body. Masturbation is empowerment.”
Oranan further expands to press the point that solo sex offers something different to partnered sex:
“When you’re in a relationship, sometimes you have sex with your partner, sometimes you just want to have sex on your own. It’s a different experience. You don’t have to do it together all the time. You can try your own thing also.”
This brings us back to The Hidden Closet.
The Hidden Closet Community
A decade has passed since the first installment of The Hidden Closet spread its legs wide open and invited customers inside, yet the store is still unique in Bangkok, and in Thailand. Asking Oranan why she thinks that is, expecting a comment on Thai law or culture, her answer comes as a surprise.
“The Hidden Closet is not just one standalone shop: we’re all connected. We have so many return customers. They often come to hang out and talk to the staff members. We become friends. It’s more like a community now. Everyone who works for me has to be creative, want to educate people and give customers the best experience they can. It’s not just about selling. It’s about listening, understanding. It’s almost like therapy.”
This idea of sex education and community has been further explored during the pandemic, as Oranan adapted to the dearth of foreigners (her usual customers) in the capital by shifting her marketing from English to Thai, with great results.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have many Thai customers at all, but now it’s around 50/50, or perhaps even 70% Thai at the moment, due to the pandemic. Things have changed. It’s becoming normal now. When customers come, they’re open and they know what they want. Now, we’re getting younger customers. We’ve even had families that come together - parents coming with their teenage kids (over-18s) and using the experience to educate their teenagers. I think it’s great that people think of The Hidden Closet as a safe space for that.”
Six months ago, The Hidden Closet also started hosting Thai-language Instagram Live shows with staff members Maiity and DiDi, who not only use the channel to sell products but also instruct and inform their audience on what the products do.
“It has made Thai customers understand us more,” Oranan nods. “Who we are, what we’re trying to do - and our staff actually have fans!”
Thai Law vs Society vs Reality
As with many issues concerning obscenity (prostitution, sex tourism, sex shows, nudity…), what Thai law states and what exists openly in Thai society are two very different things. Readers may be wondering what all the fuss is about when sex toys are readily available for purchase and sold on the streets of Nana and Silom.
However, these products carry their own risks. The legal prohibition of sex toys means that black market trade is unregulated, so there are no rules for materials used, storage, labelling ingredients, or source. For users, this can mean potential allergic reactions or exposure to bacteria and toxic chemicals in the most intimate of places.
“These aren’t safe, as we do not know the production source,” Nisarat agrees. “We don’t know where it was made, what material it is made of. It’s hard to guarantee safety. It is better to buy from countries where sex toys are legal.”
Yet, this last point raises its own risks as well. Ordering sex toys online or even bringing a sex toy into Thailand in luggage risks confiscation and prosecution.
“If sex toys become legal in Thailand, underground merchants would be able to sell openly and be subjected to health standards,” Nisarat explains. “For the consumers, it will also become much safer if it is more open. In terms of the societal impact - this will help improve things regarding sex education as it will be a way of affirming the sexual pleasure of more than just cis men. The openness of legal sex shops means affirming the pleasure of other gender identities other than cis males. It normalizes masturbation and from there the atmosphere could change to accepting the fact that sexual desires exist.”
“Masturbation is about personal power and it is not anyone else’s. It is my choice to do anything to my own body. Masturbation is empowerment.” - Nisarat Jongwisan
Oranan isn't fussed by the street competition and emphasises that the luxury imported products sold at The Hidden Closet are not just safer, but far superior in a number of ways.
“Those stalls sell mostly battery-operated products - they’re not up-to-date. Our products are USB rechargeable, magnetic rechargeable, wireless, Bluetooth… we choose the best quality of products. For example, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” product line from England. We import from Hong Kong, Japan, China - but only top quality products. We don’t just sell stuff because we want to sell stuff. We choose what’s good for our customers.”
“Of course, we also have a nice private space. I wanted the space to be sensual. I want people to feel welcome and like they can be themselves – not intimidated. Here, they can be free.”
Sexual Wellness for Women
To understand the significance of buying sex toys in Bangkok, one has to appreciate the whole picture.
What started as a quest for a little physical self-love led this writer to a treasure trove of erotica in a secret corner of Thong Lor, a deep dive into Thailand’s Criminal Code, a UNICEF report on sex education, Instagram Live sex product demonstrations, the street stalls of Nana, then finally back around again to where the adventure started: The Hidden Closet, which may be the only place in the country selling high-quality sex toys, but in truth, provides so much more when it comes to sexual wellness and education.
“Sometimes people think because I own this shop I must like really crazy stuff (which of course I do!), but actually I’m focused on wellness,” Oranan tells me as we sit at a table in her new plant-based restaurant, Golden State Vegan Cafe. “You have to exercise, you have to eat well and you have to have good sex, right? That’s all one package. I’ve recently opened this vegan restaurant and in the future, I want to have a photo studio, I want to host more events, I want to open a super-sensual massage and beauty space for women, I want to work on offering more LGBTQ+-inclusive products into The Hidden Closet...”
“I view sex as not just about sex or the physical, but about confidence coming from inside. If you feel good, that’s all that matters.”
By Amy Poulton
Amy identifies as a bookish backpacker and British bookpacker. Hailing from Birmingham, her granddad has suggested that the family is related to the Peaky Blinders. Amy has written for Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Lifestyle Asia, Coconuts Media, Bangkok 101, as well as other leading travel and lifestyle media. She has counted Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico and now Thailand as home. Read more of Amy's work on her portfolio site, Page Traveller book and travel blog, Facebook and Instagram at @amy_pagetraveller.