Cambodians have a fairly relaxed attitude about sex. Brothels and sex workers are common sights. Many young people appear to have active sex lives and begin having sex at a relatively young age. Some men visit prostitutes before returning home to their wives.. Condoms are called "Number One" after the best-selling brand.

A survey by sex educators found that about 50 percent of high school boys had had sex with girlfriends, often in love hotels that charge $1 an hour.

In the early 2000s, authorities warned teenagers not to embrace or have sex in public. Those who were caught had to endure morality education and swear to never do it again. A local official said: “It is an immoral act, especially embracing each other and having sex in public. We only round them up to educate them not to conduct immoral activities.” The night after the warning was issued 37 teenage boys and 48 sex workers were rounded up from public parks at night.

Having sex with a virgin is greatly prized in Cambodia. Many Cambodian men believe that deflowering a virging will bring good luck, prolong life and eliminate any chance of getting AIDS. Young women are expected to be virgins when the marry. One university student told the Independent, “A virgin is very stimulating. But after a girl loses her virginity, she’s finished, no one will love her. A boy on the other hand is always 100 percent golden.

Under the Khmer Rouge. illicit sex was a crime punishable by death.

Homosexuals in Cambodia

Gay rights is not a major issue in Cambodia. Same-sex civil unions are not legally recognized, but many marriages in Cambodia are common law rather than officially registered. Cambodian society, as in neighboring Thailand, is generally tolerant of homosexuality.

Former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October 2012, caused a stir in 2004 when he wrote on his website that he supported the right of gay couples to marry.Sihanouk said he was inspired to state his views after watching news reports about gay marriage in San Francisco. The late king said that as a "liberal democracy," Cambodia should allow "marriage between man and man ... or between woman and woman." "It's not their fault if God makes them born like that. ... Gays and lesbians would not exist if God did not create them," wrote Sihanouk, who abdicated in favor of his son later that year.

Khav Sokha, a former motor-taxi driver turned medicine woman, married her female lover in Phnom Penh. Sokha dresses and speaks like a man and wants her partner to be called her "my husband."

Hun Sen Severs Ties to Gay Daughter But Later Slams Gay Bias

In October 2007, Associated Press reported” Hun Sen “said he was severing ties with his adopted daughter, who is a lesbian, but appealed to people not to discriminate against gays. ''My adopted daughter now has a wife. I'm quite disappointed,'' Hun Sen said. He made the rare revelation about his closely guarded family life during a public speech at a student graduation ceremony. Hun Sen said he plans to file a civil court case to disown his adopted daughter so that she cannot claim any inheritance from his family. ''We are concerned that she might one day cause us trouble...and try to stake her claim for a share of our assets,'' he said. However, he appealed to society to show respect for gay people, saying "Most of them are good people and are not doing alcohol, drugs or racing vehicles."[Source: Associated Press, October 31 2007]

In December 2009, Associated Press reported: Hun Sen urged the Cambodia’s not to discriminate against their gay countrymen. He said he had heard requests from gay Cambodians that they be able to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as others. "There are gays and lesbians in every country, so there should be no discrimination against them just because of their destiny," he said.[Source: Associated Press, December 11, 2009]

Gay rights is not a major issue in Cambodia, and Hun Sen seemed to have been inspired by discussions of the subject on International Human Rights Day on Monday, including on local television. Cambodian society, as in neighboring Thailand, is generally tolerant of homosexuality.

Prostitution in Cambodia

There were an estimated 55,000 prostitutes in Cambodia, with 10,000 to 15,000 in Phnom Penh in the early 2000s. Prostitutes can be found all over: on the streets, in bars, brothels, cafes, restaurants, hotels, karaokes, pool halls and even barber shops and beauty salons. Some prostitutes are brought in from Vietnam or Laos but most are Cambodians. Although there are lot of foreign men running around. Most of the customers are Cambodians. Cambodian women also work as prostitutes in other countries, namely Thailand and Vietnam.

Prostitutes working out of wooden shacks in Phnom Penh in the early 2000s served three or four clients a day and earned about $2 per trick. The women said that men didn't like to use condoms and paid "big money" ($15 paid in dollars) for unprotected sex. For $200 you could get a Cambodia girl for an entire week.

Reporting from Phnom Penh in 2005, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “Sex trafficking at its worst is the slavery of the 21st century, yet it has become one of the world's growth industries. To understand how brazen it is, step up to the second floor of the Chai Hour II Hotel here in the Cambodian capital. It's like an aquarium: beyond a glass wall are dozens of teenage girls in skimpy white outfits, each with a number. The customer orders a girl by number, and the manager delivers her a moment later to a private room.[Source: N icholas D. Kristof, New York Times, January 15, 2005 =]

A Cambodian police report in my hands describes the Chai Hour II as a case "of confinement of human beings for commercial sex" and adds that it is also "a place for trafficking/sale of virgin girls." All told, the report says, 250 girls and women work in the six-floor labyrinth of cubicles. I dropped by the Chai Hour II, explained that I was an American reporter and asked to interview the owner. He was "out." Teenage girls, looking about 15 and older, floated about, but the alarmed managers blocked me from interviewing them. A security goon made it clear that photos were out of the question - but a pimp did politely serve me a cup of tea.” =

In the early 2000s there was a rise in the number of assaults on bar hostesses. They were often mugged on their way home from work to get their tips which amount to $20 or $30 a night.


Prostitution and Human Trafficking in Cambodia

In Cambodia, girls as young as five years old are sold into prostitution every day. Mariane Pearl wrote in Glamour: “Girls are regularly abducted, sometimes right off the streets. Such brutality is fallout from decades of war, totalitarianism and genocide. Still deeply bruised from the dictatorship of Pol Pot in the seventies, Cambodia today ranks as one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, where a human life isn’t worth much. Children here are bought and sold into sexual slavery, sometimes by their own parents, for tiny sums of money. [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006 ~~]

“As a result, Cambodia has earned a reputation as one of the worst places in the world for human trafficking. The problem is so severe that Cambodia’s government established a special office, the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, devoted to the issue. Sereywath Ek, Cambodian ambassador to the United States, says, “We’ve made advances,” but still the sex trade thrives, fueled by both local men and foreign sex tourists. ~~

Sex Tourism in Cambodia

Sex tourism is a major industry in Cambodia. By one estimate a quarter of all the foreign visitors to Cambodia in the early 2000s were sex tourists. One child rights activist told the Independent, “More and more foreigners are coming for this reason; Cute temples, cute children.”

Describing typical sex tourists a child rights activist with a group called ECPAT told the Independent, “They’re been to Thailand, they’ve been to the Philippines and they’re looking for new frontiers. To them, they’re fresh meat.’

Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “We've had narco-trafficking states; Cambodia may be becoming the first sex-slavery state.” Sex tours have been driven underground. The Internet is used as a networking service by foreign men to gain access.

Sex Trade in Phnom Penh

Mariane Pearl wrote in Glamour: “We drive to one of the city’s sex spots known as the “White Building” because it is dominated by a squalid white apartment house where prostitutes gather. When we arrive, we see girls who can’t be older than 14 seated out front on colorful plastic chairs, waiting for clients. The street is lively in unexpected ways. There are stalls selling mangos and kebabs, and naked infants are playing. Yet the atmosphere feels dangerous. Men on motorcycles circle the street—it’s unclear if they are pimps or prospective clients, but either way they’re a discomforting presence. Adding to the bizarre tableau, a skinny man approaches a girl in a pleated skirt, and a mysterious exchange occurs: He slaps her, and she gives him a single bill. [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006 ~]

“It’s noon and the sun is glinting off the tin roofs...I am standing outside a barrack built of sticks that seems on the verge of collapse, when a door opens to reveal an unlikely young woman. Haggard from a drunken sleep, she is still wearing bright-red lipstick from the night before and carries an odor of sweat, sperm and filth. Her expression is beyond hatred or submission. I peer into her room, a windowless chamber barely big enough to fit a mattress. The dirt floor is covered with cigarette butts, used condoms and Freedent gum wrappers. There is no furniture aside from her bed—not even a little box where a girl might hide her treasures. Thus my encounter with the haggard young woman—I learn that her name is Apov and that she’s 22—and her sad little room. ~

“As I step outside the brothel, I see a girl with a bandage on her head, stained with iodine. A social worker, Chantha Chhim, asks what happened. The girl points to a metal stool and answers in Khmer, the national language. “A man hit me for talking badly to him,” Chantha translates. The girl also has rows of parallel scars on the inside of her arm. “Amphetamine,” says Chantha. When girls get high, she explains, they sometimes engage in self-mutilation. ~

“A female pimp reclines nearby in a purple hammock, watching us nonchalantly. As we leave, the girls give us faint, almost apologetic smiles. They service about 15 clients a night, mostly migrant laborers. Men pay the equivalent of a dollar for sex, but most of that money goes into the pimp’s pocket. The girls themselves get a salary of about $15 a month, which amounts to mere pennies for each sex act.” ~

How a Good Cambodian Daughter Ended Up in a Brothel

Describing how a Cambodian woman became a prostitute for noble reasons, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “Yan Kosal is a 26-year-old woman here in northwestern Cambodia who was devoted to her aging parents and desperately concerned with providing for them. Her mother is blind, her father is frail, and they depend on her — the only surviving child — for food. Kosal earned only $30 a month as a peddler, barely enough to scrape by. So when a woman acquaintance told her that she could earn $90 a month selling snacks in Thailand, Kosal leapt at the opportunity. [Source: Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, December 16, 2006]

“I thought I should do this to feed my parents,” Kosal said, particularly because her acquaintance offered to escort her to Bangkok. Kosal borrowed $15 to pay her travel expenses, and they set out in September. But once they were in Thailand, where Kosal couldn’t speak the language, the trafficker sold her to a brothel. “First, I cried,” Kosal said. But the brothel manager beat Kosal until she capitulated. “If the men wanted to go to the room,” Kosal said numbly, “the girl had to go.” The women were paid nothing, except for tips — but the sad ones who wept and were uncooperative didn’t get tips.

It’s difficult to gauge how common such forced prostitution is. But it appears that in much of Asia, the entry into prostitution is overwhelmingly unwilling (and in any case, the girls are typically too young to give consent). Then, once they have been stigmatized and have lost hope of returning to their families and villages — and in some cases become addicted to drugs — they often accept their lot and continue without coercion.

As for Kosal, she did manage to escape. Last month she and another young woman fled their brothel in the middle of the night and set off to walk back to Cambodia. Kosal had begun suffering from abdominal pains while at the brothel, and by the time she returned to Cambodia she was severely ill. Kosal was too mortified to tell me the ailment, but her cousin said that it was a gynecological problem arising from sexual abuse.

With Kosal hovering near death, an aunt mortgaged her house for $250 to pay for medical treatment. That bought medicine that has kept her alive so far, but doctors advised that she needed surgery — which she can’t afford. The aunt, Khlat Dam, says: “There just isn’t any more money to pay for an operation.”

Cracking Down on Prostitution in Cambodia

After years if trying to eradicate prostitution, the Cambodian government decided to set up a regulated red light district so that prostitution could be taxed. Policemen walk up to the brothels and openly collect envelopes, presumably with cash in them, from primps and brothel owners. Much of the sex trade is believed to be controlled by politicians and high-ranking military officers.

Reporting from Phnom Penh in 2005,Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “In December 2004, Cambodia's top-ranking female police officer ordered a raid on the Chai Hour II brothel and rescued 83 girls. They were taken to a shelter run by AFESIP, an aid group mainly financed by Spain. But the next day, the trafficking tycoons turned the tables and raided the shelter. About 30 raiders, some wearing military clothing and at least one driving a car with military license plates, broke down the shelter gate, beat up one woman on the staff and took all the girls back to the brothel. To top it off, Cambodia's top police official reprimanded the female officer who had ordered the raid on the Chai Hour II and even briefly suspended her from her post.” [Source: N icholas D. Kristof, New York Times, January 15, 2005 =]

“Aarti Kapoor, a legal adviser to AFESIP, acknowledges that dozens of the girls genuinely wanted to return to the brothel; shame, drug addiction and a desperate need for money keep many in the sex trade. But dozens of others, she says, wanted to stay in the shelter but were forced back anyway. =

“The Chai Hour is so bold that it drove some of the girls to the U.S. Embassy for a protest against Western interference. A lawsuit, nominally by the girls themselves (who say they're masseuses and entertainers rather than prostitutes), seeks $1.7 million from AFESIP, in an apparent effort to drive it out of the country, and AFESIP's staff has received many death threats. "This is very dangerous, and I'm very scared about my security," said Pierre Legros, a founder of AFESIP, who has hired eight bodyguards to protect his children. His wife, a Cambodian who also works for AFESIP, has twice had guns held to her head.” =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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