In one of my previous entries I wrote a little on the value that is placed on a girl’s virginity in Cambodian society and how it plays such an integral part in the nature of sexual exploitation here. I wanted to write about this in a little more detail- partly because it influences the work here to such a large extent, and partly because it is an area that has gripped both my mind and my heart since arriving in Cambodia.
I mentioned in my last post that I had recently watched a documentary on the virginity trade and so a large amount of what I will be sharing will come from that. For further reference, the film is called Cambodia: The Virginity Trade and is created by Matthew Watson of Zealot Films.
Ingrained into the fabric of Cambodian society is Chbap Srey, a kind of code of behaviour, an unwritten law, for how women are to behave. The Khmer proverb, ‘Men are like gold, women are like white cloth’ takes root in this. In case you didn’t read my blog post on this a few months ago, this essentially means that in Cambodian society men are seen to be of great worth, just like gold. When gold gets dirty, it can be cleaned off and its original value remains; the same is said of men. On the other hand, women are seen as white cloth, which when dirty cannot be cleaned- it is tarnished forever. This concept translates into every-day life in a very real way. A man’s virginity at marriage is of little importance- it is accepted that he may seek multiple sexual partners both prior to and after marriage. For a woman however, her virginity determines much of her worth: if she loses it before marriage, she is of no value as a wife. Furthermore, it is of no importance how the girl loses her virginity- there is no distinction between voluntarily giving it up or being raped or abused.
One girl who entered the commercial sex industry after being sexually abused articulates the reality of Chbap Srey saying, ‘If I had not been raped, I would be married. I could find a better future.’
In a culture where marriages are predominantly determined by parents, the girl who has lost her virginity has even less hope of finding a husband. No parents could imagine the shame of their son marrying a girl who was not pure.
This is why the majority of women and girls working in the commercial sex industry have a history of sexual abuse. One 21-year-old girl interviewed in the documentary talks of how her boyfriend had pressured her to sleep with him, she was in love with him and did not think through the potential ramifications of Chbap Srey. ‘I lost my virginity to my boyfriend. After having sex with me, he abandoned me. Then I became a sex worker.’ It can be as simple as that.
Supply and Demand
‘My virginity was the only thing of value we had.’
The fact that virginity is of such value means that there is a high demand for it. Where there is a demand for it, there is a supply.
Cambodia is a country in which 1 in 3 people live on less than $0.50 a day. The virginity trade therefore exploits the most poor and vulnerable in society, who have no other means of supporting their families. When a girl’s virginity can be sold for somewhere in the region of $800-$1000, it is often viewed as the only way to get a family out of financial hardship. Many girls feel the pressure to provide for their parents and families (another responsibility that falls on girls, and not boys), and many parents sell their daughter’s virginity as a means to sustain the family’s livelihood. The precarious financial situation of so many families in Cambodia also means that they are vulnerable to being trafficked. Many families send their daughters to work with a trusted friend or family member, in desperate need of money, only to find later that she was not being sent to work as a waitress or garment worker as promised.
It is extremely difficult to even contemplate the notion of trafficking your own child- even in cases of extreme poverty. Afterall, there are many other countries that possess similar levels of poverty to Cambodia, but do not have the same problems of trafficking children.
This widespread availability, or supply, of virgins is encouraged by the high demand for them. Like other countries in South East Asia, Cambodia is known as being a prime destination for sex tourism- especially child sex tourism. Child sex tourists and pedophiles gravitate to Cambodia, knowing that they are able to exploit its lack of resources and will not be held accountable in the same way that they would in their home country. The fight against foreign pedophiles is a difficult one- and one that I have come face to face with in a very real way during my time here. Not only are these individuals able to exploit girls because of their desperation for money, they have been able to go unpunished due to a lack of understanding of the crimes that they commit. There is not even a word in Khmer for ‘pedophilia’- reflecting the fact that the very concept of pedophilia here is an alien one. I recently wrote a story on a case that we were part of involving a Western pedophile which I hope to share at some point. It is a very real problem here.
As heartbreaking as this problem here is, these Westerners only account for roughly 10% of men seeking underage girls. There is also a large demand for virgin girls from groups such as Asian businessmen travelling through Cambodia believing that sleeping with virgins will bring them luck in their business endeavours.
The greatest demand for virgins, however, comes from Cambodian nationals. Beliefs that sleeping with virgin girls will keep them looking young, make them more powerful, cure them of HIV and bring them luck produce a high demand amongst Khmer men.
One man who purchases sex with young girls claims, ‘I was told that if I had sex with a virgin girl it would enhance my powers. Enhance my beauty, that is, stay young forever’.
Another said, ‘Most people might see that I look young. Personally I believe it. I think I stay young because I have slept with young virgins.’
The demand for virgins is self-perpetuating. The value placed upon virginity means that men seek younger and younger girls in order to ensure that they are virgins. Of course, where so many of Cambodian sex workers are HIV+, the demand for a true virgin becomes even greater, as men want to protect themselves.
The concept of Chbap Srey justifies women being viewed as commodities. The men are often very aware of the impact upon these girls, but when a man does not see a girl as valuable, the ‘benefits’ they will get from sleeping with them are of greater importance than the problems the girls will face. One man describes how he bought the virginity of one 16-year-old for $800, taking her out to the province to sleep with him for a week. He says, ‘When we first had sex she seemed okay. But she complained about a pain in her sex organ.’
Another man who regularly sleeps with virgins says, ‘I know they will face a lot of problems after they sleep with me. They might become the karaoke girls. They might become the massage girls. And finally they must become sex workers.’
One of the dangers of viewing women as such commodities is the potential of extreme abuse. In recent years there has an increase in gang rape in Cambodia. It is believed that the influx of pornography has strongly contributed to this. Pornographic films are easily available in Cambodia- sometimes more so than in the West. Films are shown in entertainment establishments freely and watched by young and old alike. A group of young men who regularly buy sex were interviewed about their interactions with prostitutes in the film. They spoke openly about how they watch pornographic films in KTVs and want to re-enact what they see. One claimed, ‘If a girl who comes with us is not happy to provide sex for all of us, the rest of us will be disappointed. There are more waiting for their turn. If this is the case, we have to use violence.’ Men can get away with this kind of behaviour as rape and sexual exploitation go largely unreported here. Police are commonly both protect and frequent brothels and entertainment establishments themselves. If exploitation is reported, once again, the shame is seen to lie with the woman.
It is so hard for us in the western world to understand how human beings can be treated in such ways. Our problems of gender equality are so far removed from the inequality that is faced by women and girls in Cambodia. One of the saddest things about the virginity trade is the way that it more often than not determines the future of the girl who is being sold. Where a girl can be sold for $800-$1000 for her virginity, her worth soon diminishes; within one month she can be sold for as little as $1-$2. This is why a holistic approach to combating sexual exploitation in Cambodia is so necessary. Unless girls are seen as being of great value and worth, they will continue to be robbed of their dignity.