If you mention that you recently travelled to Bangkok or Amsterdam, people tend to get a sneaky tug around their mouth. “Did you…” The questions always end up being the same. Did you attend a live sex show? Did you go to a ping-pong show? Cause when in Rome…(And everybody knows what went on at those Bacchanalian festivals.)
Except in Amsterdam, it isn’t the locals trawling through the streets looking for cheap thrills and legal drugs. It’s gap year teens, dodgy Russians and curious tourists like me. As a tourist, you tend to feel have a certain immunity towards the smut. As the word “tourist” implies, you’re only here to look, it’s not as if you’re going to sample the forbidden fruit. The expression “What happens in Vegas” seems to be a tourist’s mantra for any dodgy behaviour outside of their country’s borders. As soon as you get your passport chapped, you’re free to indulge in behaviour that would be frowned upon back home.
Most people I know who have visited Thailand have been to a ping-pong show. It seems like those “must see and do” experiences. Eat a green curry. Check. Have a Thai massage? Check. Watch a woman pop ping-pong balls out of her nether regions. Check. I’ve never attended a ping-pong show and judging by the comments and stories of my friends and family, it’s something I can happily go without seeing. I’ve been to Thailand three times, and I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything.
On the other side, I don’t even want to know what it’s going to do to my psyche watching a lady remove strange objects from her nether bits. The ‘term’ ping-pong is used quite loosely, several sources have told me the object being expelled can be anything from a goldfish to a drowsy looking canary. In Phuket’s Bangla Road and Bangkok’s Patpong district touts wave menus at you, promising anything from a razorblade show to an eel show.
The problem I have with ping and sex shows pong shows is the same problem I have with Europeans that used to gawk at Sara Baartman’s elongated labia and large buttocks. In 19th century England she was considered a freak, a circus sideshow. People could gape and point at her “exotic” bits, while being thrilled and aroused by this strange creature from Africa.
I don’t see how a ping pong show is any different from Baartman’s “circus freak show”. A fascination with her elongated labia has only being replaced by a fascination with a small “exotic” Thai woman and the strange objects she can cram into her vagina.
I’m also mildly amused how easily people can chat about their ping-pong show experiences. You wouldn’t tell me about how you and the wife stared into the gynaecological depths of Svetlana at the Belville Teasers. Why do you want to share your ping-pong experience?
I’ve listened to several recounts at dinner parties in almost pornographic technicolour. Every detail is salaciously recounted. However, it’s very important for a person’s dignity remain intact, so a little moral lesson is added in the end. Or a naughty wink, followed by a shrug to absolve ourselves. “You know, when in Rome.” “What happens in Vegas…”
The only difference between Baartman and a ping-pong show is that the men in white wigs and top hats are replaced by tourists in cheap Singha beer singlets.
In Amsterdam’s red light district, the “freak show” continues. Like the Thai ping-pong show it’s one of those must-do Dutch experiences. Drink a craft beer, smoke a joint and go look at women on display like mannequin dolls “We’re going to the red light district,” I messaged my husband back in South Africa. “Going to do a bit of window shopping,” a reference to the sex workers that display themselves from little windows.
I didn’t last 30 minutes. This time I was part of the audience. The “window shopping” remark was made in jest, but after seeing the women on display, I only got depressed. Their faces wore the same dull expressions as the paper pushers and clerks at Public Works, playing Solitaire on the computer when they should be working. Row on row they were illuminated by neon lights, white girls, black girls, Asian girls, all tinkering on their cell phones, waiting for a John to pitch.
One of my friends told me I was discriminating against their freedom of choice by feeling sorry for them. If you’re going to work in die sex industry, it seems like the Netherlands are the best place to carve out a career. Sex workers pay tax, but are protected by unions. “That woman that’s sitting in that window is exercising her free right to work as a sex worker. She could have been waitressing or working as a cashier. She’s probably making more money than you are,” I’m told.
I still find it hard to think that anybody would choose to pop ping-pong balls or have sex in front of a live audience as a career choice. My other friend accused me of imposing my privileged middle class thoughts on different cultures. “It’s different there. People aren’t so uptight about sex as back home.”
Woman have been using sex for ages as a weapon and a way to survive. If they can squeeze a few extra baht or Euro’s out of a hapless, curious tourist, why not?
Even the retired call girls take offence when you perceive them as victims. Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker now runs the prostitution information centre in Amsterdam’s red light district. She vehemently denies that Dutch sex workers are victims. “The visitors project all their negative thoughts onto us, in their eyes we are victims. They can’t really believe that we are working in the sex industry out of our free will.” She concedes that although the sex industry in the Netherlands is strictly regulated, some woman do slip through the cracks. “There are still women that’s being forced by their asshole boyfriends to work and there are woman that’s been trafficked.” No matter how open minded people are, it remains an industry where women are too easily exploited.
In the end, for me visiting a red light district on holiday remains a personal choice. I base my feelings on whether it excites me or make me feel uncomfortable. I’m not trying to impose a type of morality on sex workers.
It’s the so-called “audience”, the tourists and the Johns that leave me with a feeling of unease. In Phuket’s Bangla Road, it’s the old men, sitting lined up at go-go bars gaping at young Thai flesh that’s barely legal. It’s the excited tones of my male friends, as they recall a visit to a Kyabakura club in Japan. They way the hostesses at these clubs are absolutely subservient to their male clients are retold with almost a breathless envy.
It’s me “doing window shopping” in Amsterdam’s red light district, gaping at the phenomenon of woman on display in windows. I’m part of the gaze that’s objectifying these women. I’m part of the smut. It does not make me feel kinky or sexy or sexually adventurous. The truth be told, it just makes me a bit sad about mankind.
Words: Carla Lewis-Balden