Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Imagining family-friendly ping pong shows in Bangkok

"Oh my god, you have to go! It's amazing!" Little do most backpackers realise, I have actually seen a ping pong show, on my first visit to Bangkok in 2003. It really wasn't my thing, and still isn't.

Sure, nobody put a gun to my head, and it was not the most awful 20mins of my life. But it's simply not something I either a) get a kick out of, or b) feel 100% comfortable with. Ping pong shows are part of the sex industry, which by definition crosses some kind of line.

Or are they? Let's back it up and consider some things:
  • Most backpackers and travellers do not go because they have a boner in their pocket. They talk about how "crazy" and "amazing" it is, women shooting ping pong balls and smoking out of their vaginas.
  • Girls want to go too. It was an Australian girl who dragged me into that club called "Super Pussy" in May 2003. (Not kicking and screaming, but after several hours of persuasion.) While guys may be doing a lot of wink-wink nudge-nudge with each other, young women - rather than being horrified - are often very interested in seeing ping pong shows, as part of the "crazy" experience of "exotic", holiday-destination Thailand.

So, it's a gimmick. That's what connects the above points. Remember that, I'll come back to it in a moment.

Consider this as well: these girls are not forced or sold into these shows.
Okay there's a lot of disclaimers and considerations here:
  • Yes, people trafficking and sex trafficking happens in Thailand (and throughout Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world). It's disgusting and criminal. In the case of girls sold by hill tribes and rural areas, because they're so goddamn dirt poor, it's heart-breakingly awful.
  • Yes, most of the girls in these shows would probably prefer to be doing something else for a job, and end up doing it longer than they would like.
  • Yes, you could say economic and gender factors "force" girls into these shows. Poor boys become monks; poor girls become strippers and prostitutes.
  • Yes, you could argue that stripping is demeaning simply by definition.

But read around, ask around, and you'll see a more complicated picture. For example:
  • Like strippers in Western countries, most of these girls are saving for an education, or to look after their family, or for medical treatment for a relative.
  • The money can be good, or even very very good. The sex industry in Thailand has realised foreigners can be willing to pay Western prices for shows and prostitutes here in Thailand. Some women come to Bangkok from rural Thailand (voluntarily) and manage to support their entire family.
  • The industry has become so large and mainstream, girls are now more picky about which bars they perform at. Bad bars who used to rely on the dependence of girls now struggle to retain them.
  • Like strippers in Western countries, some of these girls have fun doing it. Yes, they all put on an act for the job, and the hours are late and long, and the work can be tough. But to automatically see all of these girls in this large industry as demoralised, depressed slaves would say more about the observer than the actual situation.

So, what about this "gimmick"? And what do I mean by "family-friendly"?

One female traveller who went to a ping pong show told me this:
"I found it really interesting, I really enjoyed it. The only creepy thing was the seedy old white guys in the corners. If you got rid of them it would be a great night out."
Here's another traveller, a male this time:
"I was just amazed at the skill. Imagine being able to blow darts out of your vagina! That's an athletic ability right there." (Both quotes roughly word-for-word.)
Ping pong shows are part of the sex industry, yet it's quite obvious that for most young travellers, it's not about sex. Sure, it's part of the "exoticisation" of Thailand - the idea that it's a crazy holiday destination, rather than a normal boring country in its own right, and the deliberate choice to see it that way. But these shows are more "naughty titillation" than something disgusting and perverse.

The fact that women are going (presumably straight ones) is one step in the de-sexualisation of these shows.

Another is seeing the performances less as live sex-doll demonstrations and more as vaginal athletics - similar to pole-dancing in the West being taken up as a fitness hobby (although that is a whole other topic).

So here's my "imagine this" proposition:

What if we dropped taboos over our private parts, and taught kids that they are just another part of your body?

What if we said that being able to pop a ping pong ball out of your vagina is no less rude or dirty than swallowing a sword, rolling your tongue, or making silly noises with your armpits?

I have a feeling that nothing would clear out those "seedy old white guys" faster than having parents and mums taking their young children like it's a café or a crèche.

This is all hypothetical - I'm not really saying "hey let's do this now". It's not even something I'm sure I would want to see. Nor am I suggesting that foreign travellers' gimmicky tourism tastes justify the darker, disturbing and frankly criminal parts of the sex industry.

But I think it is interesting to look at the sex industry, both in "exotic" Thailand and back in the West, and look at where it is going, and what we might see in 50 years' time. The future is postmodern - anything is possible and crazy things are probable.

It should be noted that the ping pong shows and the girly bars / "short-term hotels" are not necessarily the same thing. These are different aspects of the well-established and big Bangkok sex industry.

Also, my "research" is hardly official - here's where the above comes from.
  • Discussions with my Thai friend, who has spent time with "pretties" (i.e. glamour models who often move on to the clubs and brothels) for an academic project.
  • Discussing with backpackers
  • My own experience in 2003 - I did a quick Google for "Super Pussy" and found this page, and his account is quite similar to what I saw. Obviously we were in there barely 20mins and didn't pay anything, but the sense of "hustling" was distinctly similar. I wonder if bars would make more custom and/or retain customers by having fixed, up front costs rather than constant hustling.
  • Reading posts by Stickman Bangkok. Stickman is a Westerner (Kiwi, by coincidence) who moved to Bangkok in the late 90s and has kept a blog and website on the city ever since. At some point his emphasis seems to have moved (sadly, in my view) from living and working in BKK, to focusing on the girly bars (who provide most of the advertising revenue for his site). However it is still very informative and honestly written.


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