Why Cambodia's sex workers don't need to be saved

GlobalPost
Cambodian sex workers wait for customers at a public park in Phnom Penh on July 20, 2010.

Cambodian sex workers wait for customers at a public park in Phnom Penh on July 20, 2010.

Chor Sokunthea/Reuters

Eyes gouged out for insolence, moms selling daughters to pimps, girls showered with maggots — if it happened in a Cambodian brothel, the story is never too shocking for Westerners to believe.

These tales, all propagated by fundraising charities in Cambodia, depict the nation’s sex trade as an otherworldly hellscape.

In the last decade, these groups have relied on such anecdotes to raise millions toward “saving” Cambodian women from prostitution. And in promoting this crusade, they’ve painted a picture of pitiful girls swallowed by an underground industry that is downright demonic.

Well, it turns out most of these women aren’t so clueless and weak, says a professor named Heidi Hoefinger.

Hoefinger is an anthropologist and Berkeley College professor who’s spent more than a decade befriending, interviewing and, at times, living with women who work in Cambodia’s hostess bars. These are street-side joints, drenched in neon, where 50 cents buys a mug of beer and $20 buys an evening of female company.

Her research has produced a counter-narrative that is strikingly different from the “trauma porn” — as she calls it — that is churned out by fundraisers.

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The top purveyor of horrific brothel tales is Somaly Mam, a charismatic former sex worker from rural Cambodia. She went from the dusty capital of Phnom Penh to Tyra Banks’ couch by retelling unimaginably cruel stories of women mutilated and enslaved by pimps.

Propelled by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and backed by Hollywood stars such as Susan Sarandon, Somaly Mam was ultimately disgraced in 2014 for fabricating stories to raise cash.

But her flamboyant advocacy has left a lasting impression. Much of the Western world continues to view Cambodia as a place where the overwhelming majority of sex workers are victims forced into the trade.

“The media created about these women’s lives is filled with this theme of the most horrific exploitation you can image. Children tied to beds, locked in rooms, things like that,” Hoefinger says. “Trauma porn really titillates Americans.”

Somaly Mam of Cambodia receives the Human Rights Award at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2009.

Accurate data on sex trafficking in any country is notoriously hard to gather. In a dysfunctional state such as Cambodia, solid figures are even more slippery.

But one of the more authoritative studies, published in 2011 by the United Nations’ top human trafficking agency, estimated only 1,058 sex trafficking cases in Cambodia; 127 were underage. (An estimate from Somaly Mam’s foundation? A whopping 40,000 Cambodian “sex slaves.”)

Though lacking hard figures, charities focused on “rescuing” victims in Cambodia nonetheless insist the underage sex trade is “thriving,” if operating with greater secrecy.

Horrific acts do take place within the sex trade, Hoefingers says, “but the reality for most is not like that.”

Most sex workers in Cambodia, Hoefinger says, are not trapped by brothel overlords. They’re instead trapped in a shattered economy where alternative options include back-breaking toil in the field or stitching jeans for export to America.

Here, the author of “Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia” speaks about the danger of exaggerating sex workers’ plight, their aspirations, and how romance and sex work can become intertwined. Her comments have been edited for clarity and length.

On the motivations for entering sex work:

Most women are not held at gunpoint or beaten into submission to do this work. In some cases, they are. I don’t want to sound naive. But this is much more about forces of capitalism and a lack of options.

If you’re a woman coming from the countryside, and you haven’t had a lot of education, your options are limited. You can stay in the countryside and work the rice fields. Or end up working in the garment factories, which have terrible working conditions.

Or you do domestic work, street trading — and most women I’ve spoken to have tried all those things already. They’ve ended up in the bars because it’s simply more lucrative.

Sick family members are also a very big motivating factor. That speaks to larger structural issues such as the need for better, universal health care. There are also personal aspirations: experiencing a world outside Cambodia, learning English, finding romance.

But overall it comes down to a need for money.