The ethics of going to a ping pong show

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(Last updated on: 03/11/2020)

Have you ever considered going to a ping pong show? It might seem like a good idea after a few Changs, but trust me when I say that going to one of these shows may just scar you for life!

If you’ve ever been to Khao San Road, Bangkok in the evening you will probably be familiar with the ping pong touts, putting their fingers in the side of their mouths in attempt to replicate the sound of a ping pong and offering a free tuk tuk ride to the show. This might sound fun in the early hours of the morning after you’ve consumed a couple of buckets and half a bottle of Samson, but trust me- you will likely regret it.

But this article is not about you, the tourist. This article looks at what ping pong shows are, why they occur and whether or not they are ethical.

I Will never forget the look on the poor sex worker’s face when I regretfully went to one of these shows. I know most people would not have been looking at her face, but I was. And I saw so much sadness. It was her face that inspired me to write this article. Read on to learn more…

The ethics of going to a ping pong show

What is a ping pong show?

Popular in Amsterdam, Bangkok and other parts of Southeast Asia, a ping pong show is a stage show which can be found in strip clubs, for the most part.

A big part of sex tourism in this part of the world, ping pong shows are mostly performed by women. The women use their pelvic muscles to either hold, eject or blow objects from their vagina. The shows get their name because ping pong balls are the most common and iconic objects used in the shows – but other objects are used too. Shows are performed, mostly, for foreign tourists.

Most of the ping pong show is usually a solo performance. The woman generally performs while standing or lying on her back, and wearing only a bikini top or bra. Items are inserted into the vagina either as part of the performance, or before the performer comes on stage to start the show.

As mentioned earlier, ping pong balls are the most iconic objects used in these sex shows – but there are plenty of other items involved. Over the years, ping pong show performers have used the following items (and more!) in their shows:

  • Bananas
  • Ribbons and string
  • Pens and pencils
  • Eggs
  • Whistles and horns
  • Candles
  • Cigarettes
  • Spinning tops
  • Darts
  • Bottles
  • Chopsticks 
  • Razor blades
  • Firecrackers
  • Live animals such as goldfish and frogs 

Sometimes there is audience participation. This can involve the performer filling her vagina with beer then ‘pouring’ it into a glass for an audience member to drink, or asking someone to come on stage and hold a balloon for her to pop with a dart coming out of her vagina.

The ethics of going to a ping pong show
A ping pong show schedule courtesy of Roaming the World.

How long have Ping Pong shows been around?

Ping pong shows have been popular in Thailand since the mind 1970s (a ping pong show was featured in Emanuelle in Bangkok, a 1976 sexploitation film), but they do go back further. They make up an important part of the sex tourism industry in Thailand.

In Laos, for example, ping pong shows where happening in the 1960s too. They’re no longer legal in Laos and the shows have disappeared but as we know, they are still rife in Thailand.

Sex tourism has been growing in popularity since the 70s, and as such the shows don’t seem to be going anywhere. 

Ping Pong shows In Thailand, where they are most populous, are officially prohibited under the obscenity legislation of Thai law. However, demand from the tourists and corruption means that these shows still overtly happen.

There are different laws in different countries when it comes to sex work, sex performers and sex tourism. What is legal in one country is illegal in another – and some countries just don’t follow the laws too strictly.

Police corruption plays into this, of course, and demand from tourists often means that laws do go ignored for the sake of profit. For example, ping pong shows are prohibited in Thailand under obscenity legislation. Officials turn a blind eye, however, and allow the shows to continue very publicly.

The performers are often also prostitutes (and prostitution in Thailand isn’t actually illegal) but the ping pong show performers do not sell sex to customers.

A ping pong show gets people talking. Tourists visit a show, tell their friends or fellow backpackers, and then they go to see a show. It’s provocative, it’s a conversation starter, it’s something you rarely get to experience elsewhere. So it doesn’t matter if the show is particularly *good* because people will still want to come and feed their curiosity, especially if they are hearing about a ping pong show first hand from a friend or fellow tourist.

Most customers leave once the show is over. But by then, money has changed hands and it doesn’t matter – it’s on to the next show.

Is it ethical to attend a ping pong show?

Sex tourism

The ethics of attending a ping pong show are tied into the ethics of sex work and sex tourism as a whole. This is something that people have really varied opinions about, and everyone feels differently towards.

If you disagree with sex work in general and find sex tourism to be unethical and immoral, then chances are you will also find attending a ping pong show to be unethical. However, even some people who are on board with sex work – such as prostitution – find ping pong shows to be in bad taste. This is because it puts the performer on stage and there is no two-way street between the sex worker and the consumer. They are simply being put on display to perform for an audience.

One question when it comes to ping pong shows and other types of sex work, particularly in Asian countries such as Thailand, is whether or not the women involved are working there willingly. In many cases, they technically are choosing to work in this profession. Nobody is actually forcing them to do so, and they are making a somewhat decent wage from it.

However, things are rarely that simple. In Thailand especially, women are the ones who look after their ageing families. This pressure is clear from a young age; girls in Thailand know that it is their responsibility to grow up, get a job and send money to their parents.

Especially in rural areas of Thailand, girls will drop out of school before they hit 14 – bowing to the pressure of their precarious financial situation. This pushes them to move to places like Bangkok and Phuket and other places where the neon lights beckon and the promise of money draws them in.

Often, this leads to the girls working in prostitution. So while it’s *technically* true that these girls and women are working in the industry voluntarily, knowing that their parents rely on them making a living means that they often don’t have any other choice.

General ethics of sex tourism

There are various other forms of sex tourism, including prostitution and visiting sex museums.

Different levels of activity, obviously, present different questions when it comes to ethics. There is a million miles between visiting a sex museum in Amsterdam, to engaging in child sex tourism.

For most, it comes down to common sense and morality. And, of course, legality plays a huge part for many. But with a ping pong show, it can be difficult to know where you stand. It is something that is potentially less talked about when it comes to whether or not it is ethical.

Should YOU attend a ping pong show?

When it comes to choosing whether or not you want to attend a ping pong show in Thailand (or a similar sex show in Amsterdam or elsewhere) it is up to you to do your research. Read first-hand accounts of people who have attended ping pong shows previously, and see what they have to say.

Here are a few that I found online-

“We offered her a seat and a drink if not just to keep her from having to put on a show for anyone else or to offer some solace. Then for whatever reason, over lukewarm lagers, she unraveled before us through slightly damp eyes. She told her tale of working both in an office day job and in the ping pong show to make ends meet – she started her office job at 8 am and it was already two in the morning. She really didn’t want to work but the other performer was sick so she had no choice. 

[…]

Like a lemming, I did just that and I fully regret it. I had a vague idea about what a ping pong show was. Nonetheless, I chose not to educate myself more fully to make an informed decision. I was more influenced by the enthusiasm of my peers. I blew off my responsibility for the sake of having fun with new friends. My heart sinks whenever I think about the experience — I became part of a very obvious problem of human exploitation and maybe even sex trafficking. 

Through sharing a small snippet of my encounter on Patpong Road, I hope to encourage you, fellow travelers, to question your individual and collective impact on the world during your travels. Think about where you spend your money and energy. There is too much information online these days to be ignorant or lazy about a controversial tourist activity. We have to take responsibility for where we leave our footprints. It’s important that we research, question, and really think about if our choices align with our ethical and moral standards.”

This is part of a longer article by tourist Julie Szmyd, published on The Only Social. It examines her personal experience with attending a ping pong show, the juxtaposition between the night market and the nightlife zone, and the importance of questioning your decisions when it comes to travel.

It is OUR fault

So, it is ethical to go to a ping pong show? My opinion is no. Yes, I went to onemany years ago, but I wish I hadn’t. I will never forget that experience…

WE, the TOURISTS, are a big part of the problem here. In fact we are THE problem.

If we demand this service then it will be provided.

I appreciate that the women who work in this industry are just trying to support their families. It’s the same as the long neck tribe (a village where people wear rings around the necks to stretch their necks so much that they can no longer hold up their head). These women sacrifice themselves in the name of money. But, if there was no demand for their work then they would be forced to find alternative jobs, which in the longterm would be more sustainable.

In light of this, I recommend that you skip the ping pong show on your next visit to Thailand, or other countries offering such entertainment. It’s not funny, it’s not sexy and it’s just plain sad.

Further reading

I’ve written a few other articles that you might be interested in! Check out these posts to learn more:

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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