'No Thanks, I'm Not a Sex Tourist'

And yet, how I ended up doing a bit of business with a Cambodian prostitute.

By Luke T. Johnson 9 Oct 2009 |

Luke Johnson is a former Vancouverite now reporting from Asia.

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A sex worker in Phnom Penh. Credit: UNAIDS/S. Noorani

It was not my intention to pay for the services of a prostitute in Cambodia. But it was the least I could do.

My dalliance with that young woman at dawn was spontaneous, infinitely relieving and wholly chaste. It capped, for me, a vicarious romp through the Southeast Asian nation's booming sex industry, a first-hand look at the desperation born out of decades of corruption and suffering.

Hardship and human trafficking

Cambodia can be a very grim place. It was carpet bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War, followed by genocide led by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. The latter atrocity killed nearly 2 million Cambodians -- nearly a quarter of the population. Today about half of the population of 14 million is under 20 years old.

The last three decades have seen Cambodia claw its way back to some sort of normalcy. Transparency International still ranks it as one of the world's most corrupt nations, but that hasn't kept the tourists out. With the magnificent Angkor Wat complex of temples in the north and miles of pristine beaches in the south, Cambodia has seen an increasing number of visitors in the past 10 years as tourism has become a pillar of the country's meager economy.

But economic development and the growth in tourism have brought along with them a marked increase in human trafficking. The UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) cites the rise in tourism and an imbalance in urban-rural development in the past decade as contributing factors to human trafficking. With few jobs in the countryside and a young population earning barely US$1.50 a day, desperate families may sell their children to traffickers, who promise employment opportunities in well-travelled urban areas such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. 

Many of those trafficked are women and children who end up selling sex in brothels, beer gardens and karaoke bars in these cities. But just because someone is a prostitute does not mean she is a victim of trafficking. The exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but a U.N. official told me that of the 20,000-30,000 prostitutes working in Cambodia, probably about 10 per cent consider themselves trafficked. That number likely does not include women who were tricked or fell into prostitution through other circumstances, however. 

Sex tourist magnet

Nevertheless, the industry thrives. Patrick Stayton, the Cambodia field office director of International Justice Mission (IJM), a faith-based human-rights agency, says the quick-cash nature of prostitution has made it a generally accepted part of the culture in Cambodia. As a result, the country has become an attractive destination for so-called "sex tourists" -- those who travel abroad to fulfill their carnal needs. 

And with such low overhead to start selling sex, Stayton says, supply can easily keep up with demand: "For a brothel, you just need someplace with a roof over it and a ratty old mattress. I mean, the guys that come in to support this kind of thing, they're not looking for five-star hotels. They'll do it basically anywhere."

Though it's the Caucasian sex tourists who stand out, the majority of johns in Cambodia are Asian. Unlike Westerners, who usually travel alone and find what they're looking for on the streets, beaches and in expat bars, Stayton says, tourists from China, Japan or Korea tend to travel in groups, visiting entertainment establishments like karaoke bars and massage parlors on pre-arranged tours, "because that's more their style."

'Boom-boom' for sale

The southwestern city of Sihanoukville -- with large chunks of land and even several islands owned by foreigners -- is a top destination for tourists of all kinds, but especially sex tourists. I was unaware of its notoriety when I boarded the bus in Phnom Penh with a friend to spend a few days there.

Sihanoukville, a sister city to Seattle, is home to Cambodia's lone international port and sits on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Thailand. In 2005, the New York Times called it the "next Phuket".  

We had been in town less than ten minutes before an enterprising young man driving us to our hotel in his tuk-tuk (a motorised rickshaw) asked if we were interested in some "boom-boom," the not-so-secret code word for paid-for sex. It would be the first of countless offers we would decline.

Lawless law enforcement

Prostitution is technically illegal in Cambodia. It was criminalised last year with the passage of the Law on the Suppression of Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, a move widely seen as an attempt by the Cambodian government to win favour with the U.S. State Department, which duly removed Cambodia from its annual human-trafficking watch list shortly after the law's passage.

The law itself is ambiguous at best and may even do more harm than good. The prostitutes and victims of trafficking -- those whom the law is supposedly intended to help -- reportedly are, in practice, the targets of widespread and often violent crackdowns, as police have no means or real motivation to distinguish between trafficked and non-trafficked sex workers. A recent article in The Economist cited reports of women and children who were beaten and raped while in detention following a crackdown, and suggested the crackdowns were negatively impacting progress made in fighting HIV/AIDS in Cambodia. 

The State Department's 2009 report, which placed Cambodia back onto the trafficking watch-list, says that despite numerous raids on brothels, police failed "to arrest, investigate or charge any large number of persons for human-trafficking offenses." 

The report continues: "Corruption is pervasive in Cambodia and it is widely believed that many individuals, including police and judicial officials, are both directly and indirectly involved in trafficking. Some local police and government officials are known to extort money or accept bribes from brothel owners, sometimes on a daily basis, in order to allow the brothels to continue operating." 

Exploited children

The price of boom-boom for a Caucasian in Sihanoukville starts at about US$5, but $25 can usually get you a partner for an entire night. Oral sex, or "yum-yum," costs between $3 and $5. Generous customers might give tips of 100 to 200 per cent.

It's not hard to spot the sex tourists in Sihanoukville. Often sitting at tables surrounded by scantily clad ladies, they'll try to make awkward conversation until their solicitor's vocabulary has been exhausted and then surreptitiously saunter off, either to a room in the back or somewhere otherwise unseen. Or you'll see them walking down the street usually towering over the petite woman or women at their side, maybe holding hands to give themselves the impression that this relationship is more pure than it actually is. 

These are the johns that few of the NGOs or human-rights groups are concerned about. Though maybe a little sad, these sex tourists are merely taking advantage of a quasi-legitimate service being offered, and no one really complains about the money they bring in. 

What groups like IJM and Action Pour Les Enfants are really concerned about is child-sex tourism. The poverty and lawlessness of Cambodia has created an environment relatively friendly to pedophiles, who can find victims as young as 6 if they look in the right places. Sihanoukville indeed has some of those places, though indications are that they are not as prevalent as they once were.  

It's impossible to know exactly how many child prostitutes -- defined as under 15 by the 2008 Sexual Exploitation Law -- are currently working in Cambodia. And opinions differ as to how much the situation has improved. IJM's Stayton says "pedophiles have to be more careful these days, because they know they can’t walk around as freely as they have in the past," though he says opportunities for pedophiles have not necessarily decreased.

Education campaigns have helped. The Childsafe program of Friends International, a child-advocacy NGO, trains and certifies Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers to be more aware of the dangers children face. Other countries, including Canada, have laws banning their citizens from travelling abroad to have sex with minors. Canada has caught two such offenders since the law was strengthened in 2002 -- Vancouver man Donald Bakker, who pleaded guilty in 2005, and Kenneth Robert Klassen, who is facing 35 sex-tourism-related charges. Canada, however, has also been criticised for not enforcing its law strongly enough.

Taking the tour

My time in Sihanoukville did not bring me into contact with any pedophiles, as far as I know. But my friend and I were given a tour of the town by a couple of local expatriates who are well familiar with some of the seedy hot spots.

The port, the point of entry for horny sailors, is Sihanoukville's cheapest and dirtiest red-light district and is located a few kilometres outside downtown. It's a dirt strip about 200 metres long, lined with shacks and huts with fluorescent red and blue lights dangling from the eaves and rows of catcalling women. 

We rode our rented motorbikes from one end to the other, and the second we stopped to turn around we were swarmed by ladies desperate for work. One jumped on the back of my bike and said, "Let's go!" It was the beginning of the rainy season and most of the clientele had dried up, so two white guys in the middle of the night looked like hot commodities. They surely felt more than disappointment when we sped away.

Back in town, at a brothel in the Blue Mountain area, we sipped cans of Anchor Beer ("An-chore", not to be confused with Angkor, Sihanoukville's local brew) as a pleasant young lady kept us company, all but begging us to take her into one of the rooms in back, as cockroaches the size of my thumb scuttled across the dirt floor underfoot. She said she was Vietnamese, as were most of the girls at this place. Cambodia scores an unholy human-trafficking trifecta as a country of transit, origin and destination for victims. As many as 80 percent of the prostitutes trafficked to Cambodia are from Vietnam. 

We gave our hostess a couple dollars for her time. She smiled, gave us each a hug and waved as we rode away. 

Help in an emergency

On my last night in town we went down to Serendipity Beach (Ochheuteal Beach) to watch the sun rise. The beach is known for its ladyboys, but was mostly empty by the time we got there. I had a bus to catch at 7:45 AM and it was getting to be time to go. We gathered our things and mounted our motorbikes, but I was missing something... my keys! How they fell out of my pocket, I have no idea, but a full-scale search ensued, retracing steps and sifting through sand.

I was growing more and more anxious; the bike rental place had our passports, and without the keys I had no way to return the bike. A couple of prostitutes and some unseemly men had appeared. My friend said, "You know, if you leave the bike here, it'll be gone in 10 minutes." I knew.

Sensing the emergency, the prostitutes kindly joined our search. Just as hopelessness was setting in and I prepared to give up, one of the girls exclaimed and held up a sandy set of keys... my keys! Sweet relief. I took the keys and pulled a crisp $5 bill out of my wallet and handed it to my savior. She blushed and declined at first, asking if I wouldn't rather go over there so she could earn it. She promptly changed her mind and took the money, and I was off.

And that's how I came to pay a prostitute -- money well spent. For the price of a blowjob, I was able to leave Sihanoukville and Cambodia with my passport, some knowledge, and my dignity.  [Tyee]

Read more: Travel, Rights + Justice

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