Let’s Talk about Sex (in Cambodia)
I once asked my former workmate how he managed to have sex with his wife when they only had one bed which his young son also slept on.
“When my son falls asleep at night, I carefully push him to the end of the bed, then I have sex with my wife,” he answered, making me wish I had never asked the question.
I also asked this friend if he slept with prostitutes. He darted his eyes from side to side, bowed his head, and answered yes. I asked him why. He told me it was out of respect for his wife; he didn’t want to ask her for sex very often, so he visited prostitutes with his friends. It cost $5USD per visit. I asked him if his wife knew about his visit to the brothels. He said yes, as he couldn’t bear lying to her. I asked him how that made her feel. He bowed his head again. He said it made her feel sad.
In a study titled ‘A Thorn in the Heart: Cambodian Men Who Buy Sex’, researchers interviewed 133 Cambodian men who visited brothels on a regular basis. It was revealed that 83% of sex buyers currently had a wife or girlfriend. More than half (56%) of the men had 26 or more sexual partners during their lifetimes. Yet, if a woman has more than one sexual partner, she is considered impure and a ‘bad girl’. Do you see what I am getting at here? Cambodia is full of hypocrisies, none more than how women are treated.
Karaoke bars are a hotbed for paid sexual activity. Although I mainly visited small, seemingly legitimate karaoke bars during my time in Cambodia, I once visited a three-story karaoke parlour that had an array of women waiting to be ‘picked’ by those visiting. These women dress in what Cambodians classify as revealing clothing and sit on a row of seats. During the evening, they are called into different karaoke rooms, where they play companion to the intoxicated men inside. What goes on after that, I will leave to your imagination.
When I visited this karaoke parlour, I felt downcast about the situation the ‘karaoke women’ were in. They were put on show like puppies in a pet store, waiting for the cutest one to be chosen. I had no idea if they were ever put in dangerous situations, though men tend to dehumanise prostitutes (or karaoke women) and use that detachment to act out their fantasies. According to the previously mentioned survey, 89% of buyers viewed prostitutes as fundamentally different from other women. 98% of buyers made harsh, negative judgments about women in prostitution. What became apparent in the survey was that the men demand these behaviours from prostituted women and simultaneously denigrate them for it.
When I mentioned my concerns about the wellbeing of the karaoke women to my friend, she explained to me that she had previously interviewed women at this parlour. She told me that the women she interviewed were all in unhappy marriages and that this work was an escape for them. Their husbands didn’t care that they were doing the work, they were just interested in receiving the money that came from it. I just hope that these women are empowered and safe in their jobs, as every human being deserves to be.