I want to preface what’s coming by saying that this story is not something I’m proud of. I was horribly, horribly naive about the realities of prostitution in Thailand, and am only sharing my experience in the hopes that what I learned from it will help educate others on the subject and keep them from making the same mistake that I did when I was in Bangkok. I’m not trying to speak for the entire industry, but can only attest to what I saw, learned and experienced firsthand.
My first night in Thailand, I watched a woman shoot a ping pong ball out of her vagina.
Thanks to The Hangover, it’s no secret that sex tourism is very much alive and well in Thailand (damn you, Bradley Cooper). There are certain streets in particular in Bangkok where every shop front is either a sex show, a”blow job bars” or a ladyboy Cabaret. Most of the employees at these fine establishments are women (or, in some cases, men) in prostitution, and as you walk up and down the street it’s not uncommon to see them standing outside in bikinis winking and gesturing at everyone who passes to try and get them to come inside. Basically, it’s Bangkok’s version of The Red Light District, only instead of red the lights are glaringly, and obnoxiously, neon.
So that first night, after an amazing introductory dinner of Pad Thai and green vegetable curry, my friends and I headed over to Soi Cowboy, one of these such streets. We knew exactly what we were getting into, but wanted to see it for ourselves because, “When in Bangkok,” right?
We parked ourselves at a table outside of one of the famed bikini bars, and casually drank beers (or, in my case, a vodka Redbull because I hadn’t slept in three months) while watching what was going on around us. There were old white men walking down the street with young Asian women on their arms, women throwing themselves at tourists as they walked by, and bar patrons coupled up with prostitutes at every table down the block. None of the women seemed to look older than 21.
It was horrifying, but still we all just sat there, drank our cocktails, and watched.
“It’s part of the culture here,” and “this is sadly one of the highest paying jobs women here can get” were some of the assurances we traded back and forth, trying to make ourselves feel better about what we were witnessing. Plus, we were just sitting there drinking and watching — we weren’t nearly as bad as the other Westerners on the street, right?
As the night went on and we’d all had a few too many drinks, someone suggested that we check out a ping pong show.
Ping Pong shows are famous in Thailand, and are considered a form of “entertainment” that essentially involve women doing tricks with their vaginas, like shooting out darts and ping pong balls or blowing out candles. I don’t want to get into the details of what I saw in the particular show that I attended, because the whole experience was voyeuristic enough as it is (and, truthfully, I don’t want to relive it any more than I have to), but I will tell you that the women were all trying to get me and my friends to pay to take them home.
I left the show early, feeling sick to my stomach about what I had just witnessed. I had read enough about prostitution in Thailand to understand that these women weren’t technically being held against there will (there’s no “pimp culture” the way there is in the US), and knew that it was a lucrative industry throughout the country, but still, something about it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I told myself I would never, ever go to Soi Cowboy or any of the other “bikini bar” streets again, but still didn’t feel like I’d necessarily done anything that bad.
A few weeks later, a woman from an anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution organization called Night Light International came to talk to our group about the actual realities of prostitution in Thailand. Within the first five minutes, I felt like I was going to be sick because of what I’d participated in.
Like I said, the night of the Ping Pong show we reassured ourselves that what we were doing wasn’t that bad, because the women were willingly doing the job, and making a decent living. While that’s still technically true, it’s not exactly that simple. In Thailand, women are tasked with caring for their families as they age, which is a bit different than other Asian cultures where elder care the man’s job. So basically, it becomes a woman’s primary job to grow up and send money to their parents, and this indebtedness is the number one factor pushing young girls into prostitution.
Girls in rural Thailand drop out of school between the ages of 11 and 14 due to financial pressures, and move to Bangkok to get a job that will allow them to send enough money back home to make their parents proud. More often than not, they end up working in prostitution. Since Thai culture is a “save face” and honor based one, as long as a daughter is sending cash she is making her family proud. There are rarely any questions about where, exactly, this money is coming from. In one instance that was shared with us, a rural village threw a party for a 13-year-old girl who sold her virginity for $2,000.
So, yes, these women (or really, girls) are technically in the industry voluntarily, but in most cases, it’s because they don’t have any other choice. Their families begin to rely on them, often blowing through the money faster than their daughter can make it, and it becomes nearly impossible to find a way out.
Writing this, I feel sick to my stomach all over again about paying to watch these women “entertain” my friends and I. And while I know this reality may not be the case for all of the prostitutes in Thailand (of course, some of them are likely in the situation voluntarily), it’s true for enough of them to make it a deeply problematic situation to participate in, and I personally won’t ever do it again. Going to that ping pong show was a mistake, but I hope that what I learned from the experience can help educate more Westerners about the ugly, and not at all fun/funny/entertaining truth. I just really, really wish I’d known better.