The Ping Pong Magician’s Assistant by Vix Gutierrez

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, October 31st, 2017

"These women make a stark parody of the exploitation of female sex..."

photography by Emel Karakozak

Nonfiction by Vix Gutierrez.

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You, the tourist, have barely paid your entrance fee and walked inside the dim, red-velvet strip club before a naked lady catches you on the arm with the loose end of a string. Your eyes follow the string to discover that the other side is attached to the inside of her clam.

“Do it,” your friend beside you says, as the nude, middle-aged woman on stage mimes a pulling motion, hand pinching over hand. Your hesitation is really holding up the act, so you oblige, pulling fast to get it over with, before you realize that the string you are yanking out of the stripper’s vaginal cavity is decorated with a series of evenly-spaced razor blades, like ribbons on the tail of a kite. The string is sticky. In that slowed-down, viscid state that usually accompanies life altering moments and dreams, you feel certain that it is an illusion, that there is a fake pussy pouch like a magician’s rubber thumb holding all that danger string. That some prop assistant has rubbed Vaseline on it for effect.

When, on your second day in Bangkok, your friend—the mother of a toddler—first told you and your boyfriend about the Ping Pong show, you both agreed it was the last thing you wanted to see. A Ping Pong show, she explained, involves washed-up prostitutes, who are no longer physically attractive enough to turn traditional tricks, performing stunts with their vaginas. She said that the main act involves, as the name suggests, popping a series of ping pong balls out of the vagine, something like a human-powered batting cage. But there are other tricks too. The main problem, your friend said, is the scam factor. If there was a Yelp review for Ping Pong shows, you would find common complaints like, “They charged me five times the beer price and then tried to strong-arm me into paying.”

Nothing about the scenario sounds like anything you would ever wish to participate in. But your friend who has lived in Thailand for years chuckles, shrugging. She insists this show is something you really must see. And whereas you and your man are both firm in declining at the beginning of the trip, after a month of experiencing Thailand and its live-and-let-live attitude, you begin to wonder if maybe you’re being ethnocentric, a prude, maybe you do need to check out this strange and wondrous freak show when your return trip leads you back through the capital.

The performers love your boyfriend. He is a gentleman and even though he initially declines when they demand money after every act, he quickly gives in. You think it’s kind of cute how uncomfortable he is and you can veritably see his mind churning it over: well, anyone who can perform on that level deserves a tip. You have already established yourself as the non-tipper, having decided that you will wait until the end to avoid getting rushed after every act, and the ladies don’t try you for long before establishing your man as the mark. You feel a little sorry for him, red faced and squirming in the direct line of pussy projectile fire. But the benevolent male is not a stereotype you care to challenge now, as you watch him, getting tackled every few seconds by a horde of jiggling naked ladies with their hands straight out like the needles on mosquitoes following the scent of blood.

The performers are vicious. No sooner do they complete one trick than they swarm around, grabbing, grinding, and demanding money. It is an upside-down world where you are the one that has to lay down the golden rule: “You can look, but you can’t touch.” In response, one of the ladies clasps your hand by the wrist and, cackling, uses it like a limp washcloth all over her bare breasts.

After the show, you stay out drinking SangSom Thai rum with your old friend and by the time you realize it’s four a.m. you have just enough time to body-shower, but not to wash your hair before you rush off to the airport for your return flight to the United States. You spend the next forty hours going through a Dante’s Inferno of customs, airport lounges, baggage checks and pat-downs with hair still sticky from “the soda.” The one that spurted over the audience when one of the nude performers laid on her back and popped the jagged lid off a glass soda bottle using her pelvic muscles as a bottle opener. And just like with jet lag, your mind never does quite catch up to categorizing the things you just exposed it to.

Maybe it’s because the show was your send off, the last thing you did abroad, maybe because your mind is still trying to wrap itself around the experience, but somehow, the story of the Ping Pong show comes out in the same breath as, “It’s good to be back.” You think some people will appreciate the tale. These are friends who are on the front lines of the fight for sex positivity, described by the Women and Gender Advocacy center as, “the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing.” These are friends who enthusiastically attend Hump, the independent porn film festival in Portland, the city which also has the highest numbers of strip clubs per capita, where you can watch amateur sex artists engaging in intercourse with, say, frozen Poopsicles. Somehow you expected your friends to be a little less, well… shocked. Still, you talk about it. You even have the ill-sense to tell the story of the Ping Pong Show to the strangers beside you at the bar. And immediately feel weird about it when they smile nervously and then get up to leave.

And people judge. You catch a glimmer of horror in their eyes when you tell the story, you can see their minds churning it over, whether maybe you’re kind of a shitty person. The mood goes sour. You quickly change the story to the full day you spent hanging out with pachyderms in an elephant sanctuary, feeding and bathing them instead of riding, which is harmful. It is blatantly apparent to you and everyone else that talking about the ethically-housed elephants now is both ironic and an act of desperation, a last-ditch effort to portray yourself in a better light. You know as they nod, not meeting your gaze, that their mind is not on the rescued elephants, it is still chewing on the gristle of the Ping Pong Show.

So what is it exactly that turns open-minded people off about foreign women in another continent using their lady parts to smoke a cigarette, carve out a paper snowflake or to clench a sharpie to write the words “I love you” in big, childlike lettering? A close friend of yours sums it up, “It’s sex work.” But so is performing sex on camera for entertainment.

Could it be that the crude, in-your-face acts are the opposite of what this home audience considers sexy?

Or is there an underlying, patronizing assumption that women in less-wealthy countries are less likely to be in control of their choices? No matter what the reason, you can’t deny that the experience oxidizes differently somehow in the United States.

You don’t even like strip clubs. You are amazed by the dexterity, the athletic prowess of the dancers, but the whole meat-market aspect makes you feel uncomfortable. You do love to dance though, sometimes you even consider what it would be like to get paid for making love to the music onstage. A god of the weather, the movements of your body causing the thunder of applause, making it rain. But the Ping Pong Show sends you scrambling through your moral codes. You’re not quite sure how to write this thing into your personal movie script.

There’s something almost heroic about it. This performance in a seedy Bangkok club steps far outside the box of the traditional hetero paradigm that expects women to be seductive, coy. These women make a stark parody of the exploitation of female sex, they display their genitals in the same way a man will pull out his dick: unapologetically, a confrontation. They laugh brazenly while their Hoo-Ha’s spit balls in your face and it is you, the audience member, who must dodge them.

On the previous oversees trip you and your boyfriend took together, you opted to stay in the plaza in Madrid, reading and drinking wine while he went to a bullfight on his own. Part of you was curious about this long-traditioned sport, this epic, mythological reenactment of archetypal battles of man versus beast, your own cultural heritage. But you abstained, remembering how your Spanish Abuelo used to watch the sport on television. You remembered what a long, heart-wrenching process it is, how the bull is manipulated and stabbed repeatedly by a series of men, round after round, until finally, hours later, the once-vibrant animal is staggering and depleted, its life force running red/black from so many brightly decorated spears in its side. And when the relatively fresh matador thrusts the final, dramatic blow, the once-proud beast is already beat down, exhausted, buckling to the dust in the ring. You knew. So you sat it out.

Now, back in your familiar, puritanical culture, the one that thrives on labels and assignation of right and wrong, under the judgment of your peers, your mind works overtime to assign some ethical understanding of the Ping Pong Show experience and your place in it.

Because like it or not, by watching, you gave yourself an active role.

Were you, by patronizing the show, just another colorful javelin sticking out of a woman’s side? Or can you see a little bit of yourself in the magician, apologetically cackling as you make your vagina the least ladylike thing about you?

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Header image courtesy of Emel Karakozak. To view her Photography Feature, go here.

Vix Gutierrez, writerVix Gutierrez grew up doing humanitarian aid in more than twenty-four countries. After graduating from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism, she continues to travel—be it abroad, or throughout the taverns of Portland, Oregon where she resides. Never having been blessed with a gift for languages, she focuses on the three most important words in every tongue: “It wasn’t me.”





Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.