- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Over the weekend, Thai police on the resort island of Phuket detained the owner of the sex show bar Rihanna has suddenly made famous. The arrest came after the pop star shared with her 32 million Twitter followers some of the more graphic details of a recent show she attended. "Either I was phuck wasted lastnight, or I saw a Thai woman pull a live bird,2 turtles,razors,shoot darts and ping pong, all out of her pu$$y," she wrote last month. The bar owner now faces charges of obscenity and operating an entertainment venue without a permit.
While Phuket police have used the episode to showcase their commitment to cracking down on the less savory aspects of the island’s tourism industry, Thailand’s "ping pong shows" have long been implicitly condoned by Thai officials. Local police reportedly permit the shows in exchange for cuts of the bars’ profits.
Weerawit Kurasombat, president of the area’s Patong Entertainment Business Association, acknowledged that corruption buttresses Phuket’s sex entertainment industry. "It is possible for these ping-pong bar shows to continue because police are paid under the table to allow it to happen," Weerawit told the Phuket Gazette in September. "Officers refuse to take action against them because of the money they are paid."
Ping-pong shows are a staple attraction of Thailand’s notorious sex entertainment industry. As part of the show, women and girls use their pelvic muscles to shoot a range of projectiles (not just ping-pong balls, as Rihanna can attest) from their vaginal cavity. These women are often trafficked or implicitly forced into sex entertainment due to economic circumstance, and the Pulitizer Center has documented the harsh working conditions within the industry. "The show where Tiew performs costs 200-300 Thai Baht (USD $6-9) per guest," the organization noted in 2009. "Tiew arrives at work at 6 P.M. and leaves at daybreak. She stamps a time card when she arrives and is penalized 5 Thai Baht (USD $0.14) for every minute she is late. Each month, Tiew receives two nights of vacation and, if she doesn’t miss any additional nights, she earns 6000 Thai Baht (USD $181). The salary is more than Tiew has ever made in her life and, given her illiteracy, is probably more she can make anywhere else."
Despite official bans on these sex shows, the practice is largely permitted — not only due to corruption but because, let’s face it, there are lots of American (and German! and Australian!) tourists willing to pay to see it. And Thailand’s graft problem isn’t specific to the sex industry. On Sunday, for instance, Surin Pitsuwan, a former ASEAN secretary-general and Thai foreign minister, warned of the billions the country has lost in foreign investment as a result of corruption. Thailand ranked 88th out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International‘s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
But while Thai authorities may not be phased by the concerns of the nation’s business elite, the crushing exposure of viral social media is another story. "[T]his time it’s bigger," Phuket district police chief Weera Kerdsirimongkon told the Associated Press, "because a celebrity like Rihanna posted the picture, and there were more than 200,000 ‘likes’ from around the world." Weera was actually referring to a separate incident last month in which two touts in Phuket were arrested after Rihanna Instagrammed a selfie with an endangered primate. But it could equally apply to her astonished reaction to Thailand’s sex shows (her initial post on what she witnessed was retweeted nearly 19,000 times).
The lesson, among others: Don’t hang out with Rihanna.