Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 19 2011 7:34 AM

A Brief Tour of the Cambodian Sex Industry

Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?

A brothel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Click image to expand.
A brothel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

"Is this a good job?"

That had to rank as one of dumbest questions in the history of modern journalism. I'd put it to a young woman who'd just served me a drink at Zanzibar, a hostess bar in Phnom Penh whose "staff of beautiful ladies … are always on hand to serve and satisfy your every desire." Hostesses are paid to be flirty and solicitous, but I had clearly tried this one's patience.

"You know that this is not a good job," she said, with a smirk that revealed her irritation.

But in Cambodia, where the regime of former Communist Hun Sen oversees a particularly vicious form of crony capitalism, economic options are severely limited and 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. For young women, work in the sex industry—which includes hostess bars, karaoke bars, massage parlors, and freelance prostitution—is one of the few alternatives to work in the apparel industry, which produces 90 percent of the country's export earnings. Many women find it a preferable, if distasteful, alternative.

The sex and apparel sectors draw from the same labor pool: young, poorly educated women from the impoverished countryside who send part of their earnings home to support their families. Almost all of the country's 350,000 apparel workers are women. Estimates of sex-industry workers range from about 20,000 to 100,000; the lower number is probably far closer to the truth as the latter comes from the hyperbolic, fundraising-driven claims of anti-trafficking organizations, which seem to assume that almost every sex worker is a "slave." A more likely estimate of the percentage of trafficked prostitutes is 10 percent.

There's a steady flow of workers between the two sectors: A 2009 U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking report found that in the aftermath of the steep global economic downturn, up to 20 percent of laid-off apparel workers found work in the "entertainment sector."

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Apparel factories began sprouting up in Phnom Penh in the mid-1990s after Cambodia signed a bilateral trade deal with the United States that gave it privileged access to American markets if local factories upheld enhanced labor standards. Walmart, Nike, Target, and other major retailers soon began sourcing from Cambodia, and the country gained a reputation, in the words of USA Today, as "the sweatshop-free producer in a fiercely competitive global clothing market."

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof buffed this image, writing in a 2008 piece from Phnom Penh that, "a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty." Earlier, Kristof bought the "freedom" of two prostitutes/"slaves" and sent them home to their villages. One soon returned to her old line of work. In a 2009 column, Kristof called on the Cambodian government to "organize sting operations" against brothels, though in practice such raids have resulted in women being beaten or raped by police and sent to "rehabilitation centers" that Human Rights Watch describes as "squalid jails," including Koh Kor, a former Khmer Rouge detention facility.

The Western-oriented sex industry arrived in Cambodia in the early 1990s, in lockstep with the U.N. peacekeeping mission that oversaw elections after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and decades of civil war. (When asked in 1998 what the U.N. mission's legacy would be, Hun Sen replied, "AIDS.") It further flourished with the flood of Western NGO workers, expats, and tourists that poured in after that. In his 1998 book Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, Amit Gilboa described Cambodia as "an anarchic festival of cheap prostitutes" where "you are never more than a few minutes away from a place to purchase sex."

Prostitution isn't quite as flagrant these days, but the temporal distance from paid sex is roughly the same. Streetwalkers can be found day and night along the perimeter of Wat Phnom, the Buddhist temple that is one of Phnom Penh's top tourist sites. There are numerous karaoke bars and massage parlors, and freelance prostitutes abound at bars and nightclubs catering to Westerners.

One night, I asked a tuk-tuk driver who spoke little English to leave me at the corner of 104 Street and Sisowath Quay, which runs along the Tonle Sap River. Instead, he dropped me in front of 104, a well-known hostess bar where he assumed I was headed.

Another night, I went to a nightclub on the Quay that was packed with a Cambodian crowd dancing to a band playing Asian pop. As soon as I ordered a beer, the manager, a woman, came over and began shouting to me over the music. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but a moment later, a young woman of about 20, dressed in a short black skirt, took the seat beside me. Now what the manager had been yelling became clear: "Do you want a girl?"

The young woman was quite beautiful, but she offered me a hand so limp and devoid of enthusiasm that it dampened any longing I could possibly have felt. One night, I paid the bar fine so a hostess I'd been talking to could go home early, and I gave her a large tip that she interpreted as a payment for sex. "Do you want to come with me?" she asked halfheartedly. She was clearly relieved when I declined.

Hostess bars, which are heavily clustered just off the riverfront and in a few other spots around the city, are the most visible component of the sex industry. Neon lights flash from the windows, and young women sit at tables out front waving at men walking by, urging them to come in. The soundtrack trends heavily toward 1960s and '70s rock; songs like "Brown Sugar" and "Whiskey Bar" ("Show me the way to the next little girl") are standards. Middle-aged Western men sit at tables talking to each other as hostesses drape themselves over their shoulders or in their laps or massage their shoulders.

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