One of the things that Cambodia is best known for is s-x tourism. Some of it is your regular ‘money for s-x’ stuff (this page should give you the general idea) but one interesting aspect of it that I discovered when I was there was the concept of companions in bars. One night, myself and a few American guys were taken to a dark and noisy bar/disco one night by a Khmer friend of theirs (who I’ll call BG because he runs this place), and the second we sat down we were surrounded by a throng of Beer Girls with small torches and flip-charts of all the beers we could buy.
I think I had an Asahi (I’ve got a thing for drinking Asahi in every country I can – $1.80 a bottle in Beijing). Then BG asked us if we wanted a girl, nodding out to the women on the heaving dance floor. We were all taken aback for a moment, but BG explained that these girls weren’t prostitutes, just companions. If we paid a certain amount of money, $16 I think it was, then one of the girls would hang out with us while we were there, talking, dancing, drinking etc. A companion. According to BG, some of them would probably have sex with you, but only if they liked you, and that was a separate piece of negotiation. One of the Americans flirted with the idea for a few minutes, but I dismissed it out of hand when I found out that I would have had to pay for all of her drinks too, on top of the $16. I don’t need a dance partner that bad, I can close my eyes and think of Uma Thurman.
As a male foreigner, I was propositioned for s-x every day that I was in the heavily touristed Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Usually it was by the tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) drivers who offered me ‘ladies’ in the same breath as temples, marijuana and sometimes, in Phnom Penh, the opportunity to blow up a cow with a rocket launcher. The only place I avoided this propositioning was in Battambang, a smaller city with not a lot going for it tourist-wise (which made it an ideal location to visit). But it was also here that my moto-driver, Bart, told me a bit about the darker side of the sex tourism industry: child-s-x tourism.
Even though the Cambodian Government has made noises about cracking down on pedophilia, particularly by foreigners, and the police have also made some significant arrests, there is every indication that child-sex is still a large problem. Children as young as five are sold, stolen or ‘adopted’ and forced to work in brothels, and are often drugged to keep them compliant. Policing the issue is largely ineffective, which is understandable when you consider that the average wage for a police-officer in Cambodia is around US$35 per month, the pedophiles are comparatively wealthy white men. Cambodian police officers are not even reimbursed for their petrol consumption while on duty; when I was there, in June 2007, petrol was US$1 per litre.
You might think that $35 a month is pretty bad, and it is, but Bart introduced me to a family who he said made $5 a month making fish paste. He also told me that it was not uncommon for families to sell their daughter’s virginity, not to dirty old white men, but instead to Asian men, including fellow-Khmers. Bart told me he’d heard of one instance where one poor family received around US$20 from a Khmer for an hour with their virgin daughter. They used the money to buy a cow.
But why? I think you can understand the economics of the poverty involved here, what I’m asking is what’s so important about virgins? Well, some Asian (and African and I’m sure other knob-head) men believe that sex with a virgin has magical healing properties. In particular, the modern myth is that it is a cure for HIV/AIDS. You might remember some high profile cases in South Africa in 2001 where a number of babies under twelve months old were raped, in one case by six men and in another the seven-month-old was left for dead.
I started this post intending to devote only a short amount of space to s-x-tourism and s-x itself. I was going to make some observations about gender balance in Cambodia, but I think that can wait for another time, because the more research I did and the more I remembered my trip, the more I wanted to write about these things, and the more I came to feel that I shouldn’t balance them out with clinical or tongue-in-cheek musings.
Before I went to Cambodia, I was pretty naïve and ignorant about a lot of awful things that go on around the world. When I left I was likely only slightly less so and thus largely still am, as I’ve discovered over the past few hours. It’s pretty easy, especially for me – a white, educated, middle-class male with reasonable earning potential – to simply ignore not only the world’s problems but also my own, and most of the time I do. Maybe one of these days I’ll do something a bit more significant than writing about it.