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A brief tour of the Cambodian sex industry

Slate: 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.
A woman prostitute, drug addict and HIV
A woman prostitute, center, smokes a cigarette in a street of a shantytown in Phnom Penh on June 10, 2008. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP-Getty Images file
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"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."

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 , 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.

There's no hard sell on sex, and not all of the women are available, though drinks are pushed heavily, because the hostesses get a commission (usually $1) on each one sold. Salaries are usually $60 to $70 per month, and with commissions and tips hostesses can make three times that. Those who have sex with customers make quite a bit more. I was offered rates of $10 an hour and $40 for the night. Cambodian clients pay far less, as do long-time expats familiar with local market prices.

One night, I went to 104 with two Cambodian women friends who do advocacy work with sex workers and textile unions. On my behalf, they questioned several hostesses, who were dressed in tight jeans and red tank tops. One 25 year old took the job after her mother died. (Her father had long ago abandoned the family.) She complained about aspects of the work, especially customers who felt entitled to paw her, but she said she was proud that she wasn't unemployed. "These jobs are hard to get," she said. "I'm not beautiful, and I don't speak English well, but the owner liked me and took pity on me."

Freelancers work at low-end joints like Martini, which the Wikitravel guide to Phnom Penh describes as "a place for lonely men and loose ladies," and Walkabout, which is also a guesthouse where rooms are available by the hour. Somewhat more upscale are places like Sharky's, which has pool tables and live music and attracts a more mixed crowd that includes women and couples, along with the usual Disco Stu types.

I went to Sharky's around 9 o'clock on a quiet weekday evening and sat on a balcony overlooking the street with a 24-year-old woman who had streaked blond hair and wore blue jeans and a silk shirt printed with red and pink hearts. She spoke little English, and we didn't get far beyond "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?"

"How long have you lived in Phnom Penh?" and "Who do you live with?" elicited blank stares. (She replied "yes" to the latter.) But one question was instantly recognized: "How much?" The answer: For a massage and "boom boom," $5 for an hour and $20 for the night.

My two Cambodian friends also took me to a karaoke bar whose customers were mostly Chinese and other Asian tourists. More than 100 women, some in short skirts and some in prom dresses with flowers in their hair, sat on couches lined up on both sides of the entryway. We took a room in back and asked for four women to join us. They soon arrived with trays bearing bowls of nuts and snacks; plates of grapefruit, grapes, and mangos; and bottles of warm beer served in glasses with ice. They sang along to videos, mostly Chinese and Cambodian pop.

One of the women, a 19-year-old whose education stopped at the fourth grade, wore a pink prom dress and barrettes in her long hair. She was paid $60 a month and made about the same amount per week in tips. She didn't sleep with customers, but colleagues who did could make $100 a night or even more if the client was "rich." She had an older brother who made $45 per month as a security guard, and an older sister who worked at a textile plant. "My mother doesn't like me working here, so I might have to leave, but I wouldn't work with my sister," she said. "The chemicals smell, her boss is always yelling, and she doesn't make much money."

So how does pay for factory work compare with pay for sex work? Apparel jobs in Cambodia are not an escalator out of poverty, as Kristof would have it; they're a treadmill at best. Textile workers earn about 33 cents per hour, lower than anywhere except Bangladesh. Even with significant overtime, monthly pay rarely tops $80. They commute in, sometimes from villages hours away, or live four and five to a room in shanties outside the factory gates. A study by two International Labor Organization specialists said that apparel workers were rarely able to save any money, and few had "the opportunity to advance their career, either in the garment industry or outside."

Apparel workers are on their feet all day, other than for a short lunch break, and they work such long hours that they see little sunlight. The plants are hot and noisy, with the steady drone of the machines making conversation impossible. They are subject to strict workplace rules (i.e., asking permission to go to the bathroom), are pressured to meet high quotas, and, despite Cambodia's "sweatshop-free" reputation, growing numbers work on short-term contracts that deprive them of basic labor rights.

Hostesses also work long hours—typically late afternoon until 2 a.m.—but they usually eat at least one meal at work, hang out with friends, and watch television when business is slow. Some but by no means all of the hostesses whom I spoke with had sex with customers, and they were free to decline offers (though accepting clearly increases pay).

I'm not touting sex work as an attractive profession. HIV is an obvious risk, and prostitutes are subject to violence by customers, police, and at "rehabilitation centers." Most of the women I met ordered juice when they were with me, but some drink either at their own initiative or the insistence of customers. Sex work is just as much of a dead-end job as apparel work; when women get older, they either find something else to do or move from clubs and bars to the street. Still, 20 percent of Cambodian sex workers interviewed for the 2009 U.N. report said they took their jobs because of good working conditions or relatively high pay. (Fifty-five percent did so due to "difficult family circumstances." About 3.5 percent were lured, cheated, or sold into sex work.)

Are sex workers exploited? Absolutely. But so are textile workers. When I was in Cambodia in 2009 to report on the apparel industry, I obtained the "company profile" of a firm that produced T-shirts, trousers, and skirts for companies like Aeropostale and JCPenney. It said the plant's 1,000 workers produced 7.8 million pieces annually. Taking a rough estimate of $25 per piece retail, each employee generated approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she received about $750 in pay, factoring in typical overtime rates.

"A lot of women no longer want apparel jobs," Tola Moeun, a labor-rights activist with a group called the Community Legal Education Center, told me. "When prostitution offers a better life, our factory owners need to think about more than their profit margins."

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