Sex Work and Dignity in Cambodia – Not Everyone’s a Victim at That Girly Bar

Sex work is still stigmatized in Cambodia, a largely conservative nation, despite what Street 51s more than healthy hostess bar trade may lead you to believe. A group of sex workers has decided to create a union and ask for the right to work—and most interestingly, they want to let people know that they don’t consider themselves victims, and they are not asking for anybody’s sympathy.

Trafficking is indisputably a big problem, but many outside observers in Cambodia make the mistake of assuming every woman in the sex trade is a trafficked and helpless victim. Although the electroshocked zombiefied 14-year-olds of Kristofian writing are definitely out there, there are plenty of over-18 women who have decided the sex trade appeals to them considerably more than working for minimum wage at a garment factory.

This passage from the article linked above is of particular interest…

“In the sex workers’ union office in Phnom Penh, a banner pinned to the wall reads, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.”
 
Cambodia’s anti-human-trafficking law has given rise to police raids on brothels where sex workers are “rescued” and retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories. Workers get minimal instruction to operate sewing machines and usually receive no wages during the two- or three-month training period.”
I’ve also heard heresy of former prostitutes being “rescued,” locked in training centers, and escaping back into the streets….doubtless while their saviors scratch their heads in confusion. But is their reaction really so strange?

I am the same age as many of Phnom Penh’s bar girls, and I liked chatting with them at the foreigner-frequented girly bars I would occasionally find myself at. They were charming, spoke good English, and were usually happy to talk with a foreign woman their own age. Although I couldn’t exactly delve into their personal lives over a beer or two, they didn’t seem like they were being locked in a prison or forced into slavery or regularly beaten with chains.

Maybe  life at the bars was not their first life choice, but in their minds, it was probably an improvement over life in the rice paddy, or a job in a poorly insulated and potentially dangerous factory.

My impressions of these women seem to be backed up by a truly fantastic series on Cambodia’s hostess bars that ran in the Phnom Penh Post last month. The researcher found that a number of these women are looking for foreign boyfriends—and they are also looking for a good time and exposure to people from other countries.

These motivations would be considered pretty normal for an intelligent young woman, if these women didn’t just so happen to be impoverished Cambodians. Curiously enough, the idea that these women might enjoy drinking beer, having sex, and hanging around in bars more than menial labor is considered to be something close to blasphemy in some circles. Me? I’m 23, and I believe it. 

If we want to stamp out prostitution and the sex trade in Cambodia—and we never will entirely—we need to help women get decent and decent jobs, jobs considerably more appealing than minimum wage sewing work.

As it is, assuming that every single bar girl—prostitute or otherwise, and many are not—is both victimized and helpless is downright patronizing. Let’s give these women some credit for their intelligence and initiative in a desperate situation. Do you really think you’d choose much differently if you were in their shoes? I know I wouldn’t.