Last Sunday, waiting for my buddy Josh to arrive from Berlin so that we could take the train from Würzburg to the thermal baths in Bad Kissingen, I happened upon an article in The New York Times on the inordinate number of tourists—nine since 2014—raped or murdered on the island of Koh Tao, off the east coast of Thailand. The British tabloid press has dubbed it “Death Island.”
“In a patriarchal society, where the #MeToo movement has not taken hold, some officials have suggested that women bring rape or sexual harassment on themselves by wearing provocative clothing,” the article noted. “Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chanocha, questioned the attire and behavior of foreign female tourists shortly after the killing of two British backpackers … on Koh Tao in 2014.”
At the thermal baths, resting in an armchair for a moment between sauna and cold pool cycles, watching the scores of naked or barely covered German men and women of all ages walk by, I glanced up as a woman in her late 30s approached the chair next to mine, removed her towel, and bent down to rummage through her toiletry bag. There’s no other way to say this: her substantial breasts swung within inches of my face before she found what she was looking for and continued on her way. Not only was she completely unself-conscious about her nudity, as was I, as was everyone else in that massive sauna park, she also—quite correctly—took for granted her physical security, as did the countless other women in the vicinity.
I thought of the article, and of the lengths so many societies the world over have gone to, from time immemorial, to forcibly conceal the female body from male predation. We tend to give short shrift to Western civilization, given its many flaws and lapses. But in at least a few Western societies, this propensity for people to feel comfortable (and safe) in their own bodies is nothing less than a staggering achievement.
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