I arrived in Phnom Penh late last Saturday. This is the second time I’ve come to Cambodia and the country, more specifically its capital city, is just as seedy as I recall from last time I was here in 2008.
There is no delicate way of tip toeing around the issue of sex workers and prostitution so let’s be clear: it is a reality everywhere in the world, but especially the Third World, and it is not going away. The best one can hope for is that it is regulated as best it can be in such a way that reduces instances of sex slavery and promotes proper sexual health.
Phnom Penh is notorious for its hostess bars which proliferate along Street 136 in the downtown Riverside area of the city. If you are not familiar with the term hostess bar, it is essentially a place where patrons can go and procure the services of the workers in the bar for the evening. Basically, you walk in and buy a drink. Once this transaction takes place, approximately 25 women make their way to where you are sitting. The patron selects one or more women with which he desires to spend time with for the evening. After buying her or them drinks, the patron has the option to pay a bar fine (usually $10) which releases the woman or women from the duties and responsibilities to the bar for the night. The patron is then free to negotiate a price for services outside the bar for the evening.
You may, however, just choose to utilize the bar for its more innocent purpose of inducing inebriation for the night. Indeed, I personally choose not to pay for sex, but that did not stop me from entering a hostess bar this past week in an attempt to bring my readers a true on-the-ground experience.
A common misconception is that these women (they are not girls) are forced into this lifestyle. False. These women have freely chosen to do what they do. It is the preferable choice to working the rice patties until they’re old and crippled. Some of the women were even attending classes at universities in the daytime. Another misnomer is that these women can never leave their jobs at the bar. False. Each woman I spoke to and who agreed to talk about the subject with me indicated that they could leave whenever they want. Most had no idea who even owned the bar. One might also have been led to believe that if they are chosen by a patron to leave with them that they cannot refuse. False. None of the women are forced to do anything with anyone. Safe sex is also highly prioritized which is reflected in Cambodia’s relatively low rate of HIV/AIDS when compared to other Global South countries.
Despite its reputation, Cambodia is not exactly the modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sex workers do have some protection, if not rights. Does sex slavery and human trafficking still persist in parts of the country? Of course it does, and I do not mean to suggest that it does not or is not a problem. The topic of sex workers is always going to be a rough issue to digest for most people with a heart, but at least the increasing regulation represents a fairly progressive turn in Cambodia’s sex industry which neighboring states can hope to emulate.