After a total of sixteen months in Bangkok, and at the request of an American girlfriend who was visiting, I agreed to go to a “ping-pong” show.

We had no idea which one to go to, so we were forced to depend on the kindness of a stranger — a man wearing a wig that looked like a turtle shell posing as hair who approached us as we were about to cross Surawong Road into red-light central. If the place he guided us to was the top of the line among ping-pong shows, things must have been pretty grim at the bottom. As soon as I took one glimpse at the drab decor, I wished we’d stayed at Hot Male, where several cute showboys had been making eyes at me. But you only live once.

And I really couldn’t say I’d lived until I’d had the pleasure of paying 400 baht (about $13) to sit in a dark, nearly empty bar while an amazingly well preserved 53-year-old woman (the proprietor — or madam — whose grown son was pouring drinks behind the bar) hit on me (didn’t the words “I’m gay” mean anything anymore?) and a procession of bored-looking women disrobed onstage.

The one with the most, um, skills, the apparent veteran of the bunch, looked like she should have been reading bedtime stories to her grandchildren somewhere. She did a stunt where she pulled a string with razor blades attached to it from her vagina, using one razor blade to engage in an arts and crafts project that she then presented to my friend and me, hoping for a drink in return.

Another attached a Coke bottle filled with water and then one filled with Coke to her vagina, occasionally positioning her body so that the liquid trickled inside of her. I was terrified that she was going to pour the remaining contents of those bottles onto us.

The least enthusiastic showgirl spent her entire time onstage just swaying to the beat like she didn’t have a care or a spectator in the world, apparently too shy to remove the bikini top and bottom she was wearing. Did Maroon 5 know what these women were doing to its hit song? “One More Night” sounded a lot better with Adam Levine’s abs providing visual accompaniment.

“What the hell is this?” I asked my friend as we watched the badly choreographed proceedings. In a city where hot females outnumbered hot males by a significant margin (not because there aren’t plenty of attractive men, but because Thai women, in general, are so ridiculously genetically blessed), I couldn’t believe that the owners of this particular ping-pong joint couldn’t find one woman who could hold a candle (which, thankfully, wasn’t one of the props) to any of the guys we’d seen earlier at Hot Male.

It had been my second Hot Male experience, and I still hadn’t gotten used to a show that involved several groups of two having nonsimulated sex onstage. This time a few of them even took the act into the crowd for a little bit of audience participation. God must not have been listening to my prayer, because one twosome stopped right in front of us so that the “bottom” could rest his head on my lap while the “top” stroked my chest. “How do they keep it in when they’re walking around like that?” my friend asked as they returned to the stage. I didn’t have a clue, and as much as I wanted to be a Bangkok host with all the answers, finding out that one wasn’t on my to-do list.

Not only were those women treating their private parts like toys, but they were using them as torture chambers, especially during the bit with the razor blades.

I was equally at a loss to explain the vagina Olympics, too. Just as my friend and I declared that we’d had enough and were preparing to exit, the moment we didn’t realize we’d been waiting for arrived. One of the women started to emit ping-pong serves from her vagina, while a customer seated in a chair in front of the stage tried to hit the balls with a ping-pong paddle. Ping-pong. Ping-pong. Ping-pong.

Once we were back outside, I wondered why I’d had such a strong negative reaction to the female revue. It wasn’t as if Hot Male was a bastion of respectability, but although I didn’t necessarily approve of what they were doing onstage there, I can’t say I didn’t kind of enjoy watching them do it. Was I reacting out of a sexual distaste for female nudity — or women in general? Maybe I was holding women to a different standard of conduct than men. Or perhaps it was that shows featuring female private parts simply weren’t created for gay men.

In Bangkok’s red-light district, nudity wasn’t sexy, and neither was sex. Hot Male and the ping-pong show were representative of one of my biggest problems with the Thai sex trade, an unfortunate dynamic that flowed over into the general population. When the emphasis was always on sex, especially in such a brutally forthright way, it began to lose its appeal to me. A surplus of sex created a deficit of desire.

A colleague once told me a story about how a country superstar she once interviewed told her he quit smoking by spending an entire weekend sucking on one cancer stick after the other. By Sunday evening, he never wanted to puff another one again. I guess the experiment could have gone one of two ways: the way it went, or it could have intensified his addiction. It might have been the same way with sex in Bangkok. The more some people got, the more they wanted, but because it was so often being shoved in front of my face, my sex drive had never been lower.

Perhaps it was also the influence of growing up in the relatively prudish US. Even in my wildest moments, I’d always been a closet Goody Two-shoes, and living in a city where I could walk down a crowded street in broad daylight and have spa workers proposition me and guys try to sell me gay and straight porn, where I could go into a spa for what I assumed would be an innocent hour-long massage and end up being molested by a middle-aged woman, brought out my inner angel.

If she and I had been on a date, that would have been one thing. I wasn’t above using a massage to get my way with someone. But there wouldn’t have been any money exchange, no undercurrent of violence and pain, all key components of the entertainment at Hot Male and ping-pong shows, as well as the professional Thai massage. For me, the latter, already such a rough experience, was much less rejuvenating with the threat — yes, threat — of sex hanging over it.

I once went out with someone who’d spent a year and a half living in Bangkok, and he was celibate the entire time. “How is that even possible?” I asked him. By the time I left Bangkok, I got it completely.

I can’t say the same thing about the ping-pong show. As extreme as the onstage action in Hot Male might have been, I understood its entertainment value. It was a joyous celebration of sex and sexuality that, in a sense, made fun of them both. Meanwhile, the ping-pong show was a bizarre onanistic display that no one — neither the performers nor the audience — seemed to enjoy. Not only were those women treating their private parts like toys, but they were using them as torture chambers, especially during the bit with the razor blades. It bordered on sadomasochism, which might have been one of my least favorite things to watch.

And on a purely aesthetic level, the ping-pong show was just such an eyesore. It was dark, drab, and joyless, like a windowless one-star hotel room. The women weren’t smiling, and neither were any of the six customers (including us).

Naked women and their vaginas deserved so much better.