07/11/2013 06:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Red Light District


Illustration by Leah Rubin-Cadrain (@leahaviva)

When I went to Thailand to visit my best friend Leah, it was very important to me that we stop in Bangkok to see the Red Light District. Like many naïve young women, I found the sex industry wildly compelling. At 22 sex was rewarding and certain, while the rest of my life felt absurd. Knowing that people also got paid for it made me question the pursuit of "honest" work.

It turned out that Leah had already done the Bangkok thing months earlier, and although she was living well on her Chiang Mai salary, she had about enough for two cans of soda.

So I traveled alone to Bangkok's Red Light District, without Leah, who was actually speaking Thai by this point and would have been an invaluable travel companion.

Bangkok was impossible to navigate. I asked directions of every competent-looking person I encountered, each of whom would confidently point me in the opposite direction of the last person I had asked.

(Later Leah explained that Thai people would generally rather be wrong than impolite.)

Well, everyone was wrong, and so it was that I found myself terribly lost on the way to Bangkok's Red Light District. All I wanted was to see women shoot ping-pongs out of their vaginas and maybe open beer cans with their vaginas or smoke a cigarette out of one, a modest request from a young tourist seeking novelty.

My Thai phone had no Internet connection, and at this hour Leah would be fast asleep. In Connecticut, however, it was only 2 p.m., and my mom M would be sitting in her cubicle, facing a computer. I saw what I must do. I dialed my mother.

"Hi!" she said. "It's 2 a.m. there! Are you OK?"

"Yes, hi." I replied. "Hi. Listen. I'm trying to get to the Red Light District."


"I just really want to see it, and I'm lost. Can you look online and tell me where to go? I want to see the girls who shoot ping-pongs out of their vaginas. I can't leave without seeing it, 'cause it's, like, the thing you do in Thailand. I know it's dumb; just help me get there so I can say I did it."

"How lost are you? Are you safe?"

Finally I got some concrete directions from M, who was accustomed to these calls, having helped me navigate Greenwich Village from her Connecticut cubicle many times before.

When I finally got there, it was hard to see how I'd missed it. A man came out of a neon-covered building and asked me, "Pussy?"

"Um... yes," I replied, to my horror. But then, to be sure, I added, "Ping-pong?" He nodded.

Slim, beautiful, miserable-looking, young Thai women undulated topless around some poles. I was struck immediately by our similarity. These women were my peers, except for the fact that they were possibly enslaved. I sensed, using the dimmest of my naïve intuition, that these women weren't, like, having a blast.

And I was a patron. I'd utterly failed to realize that this dynamic would be part of my "quintessential Thai experience."

Then the madam came over.

No sooner had I seated myself alongside two old white men in cowboy hats in an otherwise empty club than she, an older Thai woman, planted herself quite deliberately next to me and insisted that the Coke I wanted would be triple the listed price. Soon an avalanche of tiny women in bikinis descended upon me. The insistence of everyone that I either leave or stay was incredibly disorienting. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when the queen insists that she play croquet with a live animal as a bat and then keeps changing the rules.

The girls all made vague offerings at me... for sex, I guess? The madam stood guard by me so closely that one of the old men said, "Aw, leave her alone." I couldn't tell if I was being serviced or harassed. The madam shooed the bikinied girls away but stayed at my side, twice my size and overflowing with a street cred so ominous that I've probably never even seen a movie about it.

The pricing of the soda was the only tangible injustice I could quickly point to, so I fought her on it.

"Why is this Coke so expensive? Do you charge everyone this much?"

Days later, as I pieced together my surreal night in the underworld, I realized that the soda I'd been haggling over had been inflated in the amount of 25 cents. I was arguing over 25 cents in an establishment where women had probably been sold by their mothers.

The girls were freaking me out, and with the soda debacle behind us, like Odysseus on the most epic, dumbest quest ever, I whispered to the madam, "Um... ping-pong?" Within moments the sexy display of girls undulating to the general public became a display of one woman very pointedly shooting lubricated ping-pong balls at my face. And they wouldn't stop. And I had paid for it -- literally. As they came fast and slippery at my eyeballs, I shielded myself and mutely protested, "No, I meant for, like, everybody? Not just for me."

The other customers, white-haired old dudes who probably lived next door on their pension, drank their beer and waited for that dumb American girl to leave so that they could fuck these Thai women who were hoping to move to America.

I paid and left and got lost on the way home and had to call my mom M.

"It's 3:30 a.m. there!" she said. "Where are you now? I just called R" -- my other mom -- "and she is really scared. She's already talking about booking Leah a flight to Bangkok to come save you. Are you OK? I've gotten no work done."

"I'm... I guess I'm a few blocks from... Pussy Pussy 3."

"That's the--"

"--name of the club, yeah."

Read more about growing up and being a grownup with two moms at