Thailand: The World's Sex Tourism Capital

Deena Guzder, for the Pulitzer Center

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BANGKOK, Thailand --Imagine standing naked under flashing lava-red disco lights and gyrating to blaring techno music before dropping to the ground, splaying your legs like a starfish, and using your pelvic muscles to pop a dozen ping-pong balls out of your vagina for the amusement of giddy, affluent, and intoxicated foreigners. Now imagine shoving live turtles into your vagina and dancing around a pole before ejecting the turtles into an aquarium ("Wow, the turtles can still swim!") Imagine repeating the same act with, say, a large frog or bagful of goldfish. Welcome to Bangkok, Thailand's Red Light District.

Unlike brothels or strip clubs, "Ping Pong Shows" do not lure clients through promises of sexual arousal, but promises of sexual perversion — if not sexual torture. They offer freak shows where women's bodies are reduced to grotesque objects exploited for tourists' entertainment.

Thai women who have lost their jobs in villages during the economic downturn often travel to cities such as Bangkok for work and are hired not as sex entertainers, but circus animals.These shows are inherently misogynistic; after all, there is no equivalent of a "ping pong show" for men, in which they use their anal muscles to pop out frogs and pull out razors.

One older woman with a scar across her belly from a c-section confides after her performance at a Ping Pong Show, "I don't like being here, I feel dirty." She adds, "I left my village when my factory closed." Nobody knows when, exactly, Ping Pong Shows began, but they're increasingly raunchy and dangerous as tourists' threshold for shock increases. One Bangkok organization, EMPOWER, even instructed women in bar prostitution how to insert and pull out razor blades from their vaginas, according to Melissa Farley, Executive Director of Prostitution Research & Education. "This is understood to be a job requirement in the bar-show setting where tricks are sexually excited by the possibility of the genital mutilation of Thai women," notes Farley.

The vast economic disparities between Thai locals and Thailand's tourists have long enabled affluent foreigners to request massages with "happy ending specials" or "rent a girlfriend/boyfriend" for a holiday. Now, the global economic crisis has spawned new, dangerous ways of objectifying, commoditizing, and demeaning women. Thailand's sex tourism industry is more risqué, less regulated, and more dangerous than ever before.

Thailand's tagline is "Land of
Smiles," a beach paradise full of lithe coconut trees lazily swaying under a lapis lazuli sky. But, who's smiling and who's wincing in pain? This is a story of destitute Asian women subjecting themselves to extreme degradation for the guffaws of affluent Western benefactors. This is a story where the messy intersection of class, race and sexuality are taken to their disturbing logical extremes. Behind the brothels posing as massage parlors and strip clubs is a painful story involving women trafficked from Burma, minors exploited by pimps, and global economic disparities that force women to sell their bodies.

While many variations of Ping Pong Shows exist around the world, the prevalence of such shows across Thailand — a tourism hotspot for Westerners — makes this story especially worthy of exposure. North Americans comprise 25% of sex tourists in the world and are directly complicit in economically supporting this industry — an industry that often involves prepubescent girls — so this story is largely about our own responsibility.

Thailand is often called "Disneyland for pedophiles" and has up to 600,000 AIDS cases. The huge sex-for-sale industry is driven not only by Australian, European, and American tourists but also a large number of East Asian tourists from Thailand's richer neighbors, especially Japan. The number of prostitutes in Thailand ranges from 800,000 to 2 million, 20% of whom are 18 or younger. U.S. citizens traveling abroad to exploit minors can be held responsible under U.S. laws; however, neither U.S. laws nor international human rights declarations address the culpability of tourists engaging in sexual voyeurism and exploitation of women in the so-called Land of Smiles.

Special thanks to my Thai-English translator Faai (Kanokkwan) Thamavit.