Everything You Think You Know About Cambodian Sex Workers Is Wrong

I'm always on the lookout for people who have interesting things to say about the strange things that happen in the exchange of sex for money. Heidi Hoefinger, author of the new book,, is one of those people.
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I'm always on the lookout for people who have interesting things to say about the strange things that happen in the exchange of sex for money. Heidi Hoefinger, author of the new book, Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia: Professional Girlfriends and Transactional Relationships, is one of those people. Here are some of the fascinating things she has some to say about Cambodian sex workers.

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David Henry Sterry: Why did you want to write a book about Cambodian bar girls?

Heidi Hoefinger: I went to Cambodia 10 years ago as a backpacker and I ended up meeting, and connecting with a few girls really quickly. We identified on lots of levels -- particularly around the way we dressed and danced, and the music we liked -- so we became 'fast friends.' Phnom Penh, the capital city, also had a lawless and edgy magnetism about it and I decided then and there that I wanted to come back to Cambodia and write a book about the women who were at the heart of it all.

DHS: What did you expect, and how are your expectations met or shattered?

HH: I'm a little embarrassed to admit that when I first went to Cambodia back in 2003, I was filled with all the naïve assumptions and western biases that many people have when they first get there: all the girls are 'trapped' in the bars; they have little decision-making power; they are controlled by bosses and managers; they are all sex workers who are commercially available and negotiable for sex upon any request; and every inter-ethnic couple (Cambodian woman/western man) were commercially-based. Well, I had to confront all those assumptions pretty quickly, because when I got there in 2005 to start formal academic research, I learned right away that something quite different was going on. Most of the girls were working in the bars out of their own free will (to the extent that anyone does in Cambodia or beyond); their sexual decisions weren't controlled by bosses or managers and the women could decide themselves whether or not they wanted to 'go with customers'; and the majority did not actually identify as sex workers, or view their quest for foreign boyfriends as 'work.' They viewed themselves as 'bartenders,' 'bar girls,' or 'bar maids,' and viewed most of the sexual partners that they meet in the bars as 'real' boyfriends.

DHS: Did you spend much time in the bars, and what happens on a typical night?

HH: During several visits over several years, I spent every night out in the bars with the women. But in addition to that, I spent days with them in their homes, helping look after their kids; or we hung out at the markets buying clothes, or at internet cafes translating emails from western boyfriends, or even out in the countryside meeting their families in their villages. But indeed, the majority of our time was spent going out at night. A typical night out usually begins at the salon, where we would get our hair and nails done. The girls who work in the hostess bars that I was researching -- these are bars where Cambodian women sit and chat with mainly western customers, but also increasing numbers of East and Southeast Asian men -- are able to afford this daily activity due to the increased spending capacity they have which results from the material benefits they gain from foreign boyfriends. After we got dressed, many of them would go to their respective bars and work their shifts from 7pm-2am. After that, we would go to the dance clubs -- with or without their male suitors -- and when those closed, we would end up at the 24-hour bars to play pool. Finally, we'd end the night by having a bowl of soup on the street to catch up on the night's gossip before going home to sleep as the sun came up.

DHS: Did you get to know any of these women, and if so, what would she like in terms of background, education, aspirations, dreams, goals?

HH: Over a decade, I got to know many of the women as close friends. And though we came from different ethnic, economic, class and educational backgrounds, we shared similar aspirations: to be happy and live in comfortable environments with our material, physical and emotional needs met. Most of the women were born in the Cambodian countryside, and a combination of familial obligation, financial need, and personal aspirations for adventure, freedom or romance drove them to migrate to the cities. Many but not all have elementary educations -- but that's it, so when they get to the city, their options are limited. They can either do domestic work like cleaning, or street trading of fruits or other goods, or garment factory work, or entertainment or sex work. Many tried their hand at everything and ended up preferring to work in the bars because they were the most lucrative, there was more flexibility of movement, they got to meet people from outside of Cambodia, and learn and improve their English skills, and the bars were just generally more 'fun' than the other jobs. Most women are very resourceful and entrepreneurial, and the ultimate goal of many of them was to open their own businesses -- like a clothing store, bar, restaurant or salon, so they could support themselves and their families. Of course meeting a nice person along the way, who treats them and their families with love and respect, was also one of the life goals for many.

DHS: Do the bar girls see themselves as sex workers?

HH: Actually, the majority of women I spoke to in the hostess bars over the years do not, in fact, identify as sex workers, or their search for foreign boyfriends as work. Yes, they want and even expect, in some cases, to materially benefit from relationships with foreigners, who by default have more economic power over the women by nature of their western positionality, but the women normally don't view these things (like clothes, jewelry, phones, tuition, rent or cash) as payment for sexual services from clients, but rather as gifts or support from boyfriends. Within Cambodian culture, there exists a thing called 'bridewealth' -- which is when the potential groom's family pays the potential bride's family back the money they spent on milk while raising their daughter up -- known colloquially as paying back the 'milk money.' So there is a deeply-rooted cultural expectation of economic benefits attached to marriage. In other words, it's assumed that a man will financially support his female partner and her family -- or at least provide a substantial gift. This is not as rigid as it used to be, and more and more women are equally contributing economically within their relationships, but the point is that just because they get stuff like cash and gifts from their western sexual partners that they meet in the bar does not mean they all identify as sex workers. There are plenty of women, men and transgender people in Cambodia who do identify as sex workers, and there is a growing sex worker rights movement in Cambodia led by a sex worker union consisting of over 6,000 members. But one of the main points of the book is that no matter how someone identifies -- as a sex worker, prostitute, girlfriend, whatever -- they should be treated with respect for the decisions they make. The book is really trying to destigmatize all the actors involved -- the women and their male partners -- whether they are involved in commercial relationships or not.

DHS: How are sex workers viewed in Cambodia?

HH: Typically sex workers, or entertainment workers in general -- whether they identify as sex workers or not -- are viewed with either contempt by general society, or even as subhuman by others. Otherwise, they are viewed as pitiable victims that need saving (and there are lots of local and international NGOs who make it their business to do so). There are written social and moral codes for women that dictate how they should live (originally known as the Chbap Srei, or Women's Code): quietly, without drawing attention to themselves; obediently and submissively towards their husbands, while not venturing far from home; modestly, in the way they dress, etc. So the women in the bars go against these social codes 100 percent -- they are the epitome of 'bad women' or 'broken women' (srei kouc, in Khmer). But, they can also materially 'make-up' for their tarnished images by providing their families with new houses, cars, and tuition for their siblings. So they experience extreme stigma and praise at the same time. It's a difficult gendered social world for them to negotiate.

DHS: Do these bar girls in Cambodia see themselves as victims? Do they long to be saved?

HH: Most of the women did not view themselves as victims, and expressed a strong desire to instead by respected for the decisions they make under some really tough circumstances. They often referred to themselves in English as 'strong girls.' That's not to say they didn't know how to capitalize on empathy. That was definitely a strategy that some of the women used to tap into the 'hero syndrome' that many western men experience -- which I define as an overwhelming desire by the men to use their status, resources, and knowledge to 'save' the women and their families from destitution. The problem with 'hero syndrome' is that once men offer their 'help,' they also expect a certain degree of power in decision-making about how those resources are spent. So really, those with this 'hero' mentality to 'help' aren't really helping in the long run if they are just trying to control the families and their finances.

DHS: What is the best way for a well-intentioned white Westerner to help then?

HH: Cambodia has quite a bit of 'help' already. The country has been heavily funded by international aid agencies since the 1990s and is still a place where SUVs slapped with NGO logos take up far too much space. It's also currently flooded with masses of well-intentioned but highly uninformed 'voluntourists' who actually pay money to volunteer their time at the plethora of dodgy orphanages or schools that line the cities. The country certainly doesn't need more 'help' of this sort. If Westerners have a burning desire to spend their money philanthropically in Cambodia, I would suggest they donate to projects like the Women's Network for Unity (WNU), which is the sex worker union I mentioned above, or to other community-run projects that are led by the women or workers themselves, so that the community members actually have a say in what their needs are and where the resources should be spent. I would not suggest throwing money at the hundreds of anti-trafficking groups that have wasted millions (probably billions) of donor dollars in unrealistically trying to 'abolish slavery' by forcefully 'rescuing' women from the bars, detaining them against their will in 'shelters,' and shoving sewing machines in their hands because that is supposedly a more 'dignified' form of work. Instead, people should 'help' by listening to the women themselves, and to what their needs and desires are, and to respect them for the decisions they make, rather then treating them like infants, victims, or criminals that need rehabilitation or rescue by those who think they know best -- who most often have never even met or spoken to a Cambodian bar worker.

DHS: What was your most surprising take away after all was said and done?

HH: I guess the most surprising take away from the research is this controversial idea that not all women who work in bars identify as sex workers; that their relationships aren't all commercial and often filled with love and emotion; and that the women aren't all victims who want to be rescued by do-gooder westerners! Instead they are resourceful and using whatever tools are available to them -- in this case sex and intimacy -- to improve their lives and find happiness amidst tons of stereotypes, sexual violence, corruption, and domestic abuse. I also learned that all relationships around the globe mingle economics, intimacy, emotion and pragmatic materiality on some level, and so the relationships that transpire in Cambodian bars are really not so different from more 'conventional' relationships that develop anywhere. Of course there are certain power differentials that are present within these relationships based on economics, nationality and class in many cases, but I guess I'm trying to encourage readers of the book to stop stigmatizing sex and relationships between Cambodian bar workers and western men as something fundamentally different from 'their' sex and relationships, and to recognize the transactionality and materiality of their own relationships. And I think the most important thing I learned is that no matter how women identify, and no matter what circumstances they happen to be in, they are capable of -- and should be valued for -- the decisions they make and that includes their decisions to sell sex, trade sex, and have sex with the people of their choosing. It's my hope that public understanding of the issues outlined in the book might ultimately help to reduce the stigma that most bar workers experience there, which is really at the root cause of all the discrimination and violence they experience.

BIO: Heidi is a postdoctoral fellow in drug research at the National Development and Research Institutes in New York, and an adjunct lecturer at Berkeley College in NY, and the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, Chiang Mai University, Thailand. She is actively involved in the global sex workers rights movement, and a member of Sex Worker Open University and X:Talk in London, Sex Worker Outreach Project in New York, and on the program advisory committee for the Red Umbrella Fund, which is an international granting body for sex worker projects around the world.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 15 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, and activist. His new book, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The follow-up, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks, just came out. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Penthouse, Michael Caine, the London Times, Playboy and Zippy the Chimp. His new illustrated novel is Mort Morte. He is also co-founder of The Book Doctors, who have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers develop a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. www.davidhenrysterry

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