When teaching English in Cambodia, a country with a pervasive, exploitative sex industry, Laura Carr was shocked to discover that almost all her western male friends were happy to participate.
In an attempt to shrug off years of feeling that thin, smiling and pretty was the way a girl should be, I spent my late teens turning my back on girly magazines that offer hypocritical lip service to feminism (page 17: why men love the your curves… page 54: how to lose 7 lbs in three weeks – and eat all the chocolate you want!!!). I surrounded myself with friends who didn’t conform to standardised notions of gender and sought out female role models who went out of their way to condemn a patriarchal definition of femininity.
Despite the bombardment of media messages explaining skinny is good, make-up is needed (come spend your hard-earned money – it will help you get that promotion you think you’ve always wanted), and men like us to be sexy, sexual, demure, undemanding, affectionate, cute, caring, attentive, easy, ice-queenish etc etc etc etc etc, I finally realised that most men actually are interested in more than what women look like and how we can be of benefit to them. So I packed away my insecurities and finally enjoyed a world in which sexual inequality and a media hierarchy of beauty was but superimposed on a reality that told me otherwise. Shortly after finishing university, I went with my boyfriend to teach English in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The following ten months seriously damaged my hard worked for confidence in the opposite sex and left me questioning my optimism for our highly flawed but relatively respectful culture.
Cambodia is a desperately poor country renowned, not only for it’s recent violent history under the Khmer Rouge, but also for its sex industry. Before I left, I had a vague idea that the sex industry existed only for a few sad, beer-bellied, middle-aged western men that I could easily label and condemn. In my anglo-centric mind, it just hadn’t occurred to me that the sex industry would cater predominantly for the local population. But I soon learnt that the virgin/whore dichotomy is quite literal in Cambodia, with girls staying ‘pure’ until they are married and boys paying for sex from a relatively young age (16 is a rough guess). The fact that men pay for sex is totally accepted and, surprise surprise, it’s not the men who suffer for their actions but the prostitutes, or taxi girls, as they are known. As one friend put it, “sex is like going to the toilet, it’s not pleasant but it’s necessary”: The taxi girls (who come from very poor families and whose pay often contributes to the communal family income) have the unenviable status of a social toilet. While I considered the gender relationships to be grossly unequal, I fought back the temptation to become a self-proclaimed freedom fighter and wander around wearing a “find the feminist within” T-shirt. Instead, I accepted that I was in a foreign culture, and I must, if not respect that culture, at least live respectfully within it.
So in my ignorance of what a sex industry actually is, I was prepared before I left to see the typical image of a western sex tourist around, and of this splendid stereotype, there was a multitude, and I quickly realised I had to accept the local gender relations. However, I was completely and utterly unprepared for the total normality by which single young western men became part of, and helped to maintain the sex industry. It dawned on me ridiculously slowly that almost every single young man I became acquainted with, took taxi girls home.
I remember the first time I realised that someone I was friendly with participated in this exploitative trade. I’d been in Cambodia for a few weeks and was in an infamous nightclub with a group of newly made friends. The bar was lined with single western men, typical sex tourists by all accounts. As quite a few of the group had only just arrived, we’d all commented on what a grim sight it was. The dance floor was filled with young Cambodian taxi girls, and a plethora of drunken English teachers. Somewhere between dancing like a maniac to Madonna ‘Like a Prayer’ in a girl-bonding session and taking a breather to, in a very mature fashion, knock back another vodka and orange, I realised that most of the men at the bar were now accompanied by a taxi girl. I sought out my boyfriend to make a few derogatory comments. He was standing awkwardly, trying hard to look fascinated in a large Buddha statue which stood at odds with it’s surroundings, by the door. Next to him was “Andrew”, one of the lads we had gone out with, who was leaning uncomfortably against the wall with a taxi girl grinding up against him, trying to assess if he was interested in taking her home. “Andrew”, sensing our surprise, awkwardly explained that he was friends with a few of the taxi girls, and the only time he’d paid one of them to come home with him, he hadn’t had sex with her, cos you know, he doesn’t need to pay for sex. Obviously.
Initially, I put Andrew down to a dark horse, a one-off, and carried on assuming that the sex industry existed for the locals and those walking western stereotypes. But in reality, almost all of my male work colleagues were part of ‘the scene’. These men could have been any one of my male friends from England: they were young, intelligent, and, how can I say it? Well, normal. Many had not initially come to Cambodia to teach English, but had been passing through while travelling and had ended up staying. I doubt any of them had come to Cambodia because of the sex trade; they had fallen into it.
The most common explanation given for why so many young men became involved in the taxi girl scene was that, after a couple months of not having sex, the inevitable biological urges kicked in and they just became desperate. They couldn’t resist the beauty of the taxi girls who came up to them in the bars and wouldn’t leave them alone – flirting, touching, massaging. Despite their best efforts, they finally caved in. It really seemed as though the girls liked them and it didn’t feel like they were prostitutes at all. Are men really that stupid? Are they really that weak? Well, I don’t think so.
Firstly, I bet they’ve had droughts longer than a couple of months before and managed quite sufficiently with drawn curtains and roll of toilet paper. Secondly, if they really were so keen for a bit of action, there were plenty of single female expats and tons of backpackers passing through that they could have tried their (possibly limited) charms on. Thirdly, they could have said no to the taxi girls at the beginning of the night: Those men who didn’t pay the girls for sex didn’t spend the entire night being hassled – all they had to do was say a firm no (maybe a couple of times) and then they were left alone. Fourthly, you don’t just conveniently forget that the girl edging her hand up your thigh is a prostitute. The very fact that she is doing that defines her as a prostitute in a country where ‘decent’ girls just simply don’t go to bars, let alone make bold moves on men.
Unfortunately, the reason so many men paid for sex was because they could: the girls were freely available to them and the social restraints didn’t exist; questioning their behaviour was not the done thing. Everyone’s doing it… you can’t question what we’re doing, we’re in Cambodia and it’s normal here… don’t be such a spoilsport (you stuck up bitch)… you’re only jealous ‘cos you’re not as beautiful or skinny as they are and we don’t want you… you haven’t been here long enough – this is just how things work… We ARE paying them and it’s better to be paid by a foreigner than a local, cos we pay more money. And anyway, now she’s my girlfriend ($200 a month, all inclusive), and I help her family and I’m in love with her. Language barrier? I’m sending her to English classes, you know, getting her an education, it’s good for her. But we don’t need words anyway, she’s so pretty and she does everything I want her to, and if she starts to get difficult, I’ll just get another one.
So there you have it, it’s a hard truth to digest, but so many men (from what I could fathom, the majority of men), even socialized in a western culture, are so willing and eager to become part of a culture that exploits women and sex as a commodity. They quickly come to value beauty, subservience and effectively ownership over equal companionship, or equal one-night stands.
In an effort not to be entirely pessimistic on the nature of our fellow humans (that would be the males), I am going to end on a positive note. It’s been seven months now since I left Cambodia, and I have rediscovered some of my former faith in men. In the UK, and throughout many countries in the world, we have created a culture in which women are striving towards equality in every sense of the word. It’s true that much of the media seems intent on squeezing us into invisible corsets and inducing us to diet to ridiculous extremes, often in the sugar-coated name of taking control of our own bodies and enjoying our sexual liberation. But, ultimately, we don’t have to listen to the media and there are more authentic and alternative voices out there.
It’s also true that sex is a commodity in the west and attitudes towards sexual behaviour are gender based: a woman who sleeps around is still a labelled a slut, while the man is a stud (slightly outdated terminology, I know). However, we have the means by which to control our sexuality – we can buy condoms and go on the pill without reprimand, we can say no and roll over when we’re not in the mood, we can opt for celibacy, we can opt for casual relationships, we can have relationships with other women, we don’t have to get married and we can get divorced. All of the gains we have made (or our forebearers have made for us), have become ingrained in our culture, accepted as a norm by men and women alike. While I have learnt that many western men DO participate in gross exploitation and commodification of women if they are placed into a culture in which it is normalized, that serves to prove the strength of culture on our behaviour. It is this strength of culture that offers me hope that women’s situations can continue to improve both here in the UK and around the world.