After years of conversations with Cambodian bar workers, I have learned that many women do find earning an income to support themselves and their families to be empowering—even when it’s through bar, sex or entertainment work. What’s important is that the women earn a good, livable wage, that they feel a sense of control over their work and that they have safe working conditions free from violence and coercion. Many of them have, in fact, been able to find that at local bar establishments.
In The Cambodia Daily article “Risqué Business” (July 9-10), the manager of Hooters in Phnom Penh is trying to differentiate and create a false hierarchy between Hooters and other local establishments, which ultimately benefits him and not the workers themselves. From the women’s perspectives, they’ll be doing the same type of work, which involves chatting and flirting with customers while wearing revealing clothing in an attempt to sell food and drink. Indeed, not all “girlie bars” or hostess bars require women to have sex with clients; most times, the women make that decision themselves. The fact that the Hooters manager says he will terminate women if they work at other establishments reveals a strict, controlling working environment that will simply tie the women to Hooters even if the working conditions are poor and prevent them from exercising freedom of choice over other places of work.
For the article, I was asked whether I thought that Hooters—where female staff are “objectified by being dressed in revealing clothing that emphasizes breasts”—benefits the local bar culture. My response: I don’t think it’s useful to think about this type of work within the framework of “objectification” because women in Cambodia are objectified on a daily basis with or without their clothes on. It’s objectifying to be poor, beg for money, work on the street to sell fruit for a few cents, labor endlessly in garment factories, or just exist in a culture where one’s female gender places one lower on the social ladder. When women of any class can find strength and power in the ability to support themselves through whatever means works best for them amid a sea of gender and social constraints, that can, indeed, be very empowering.
The biggest problem I foresee with Hooters coming to Phnom Penh in terms of culture and economy, however, is the globalization and corporatization of the hostess bar scene. Large multinational corporations are known to exploit workers in favor of profit. I imagine that their menu will contain Western-equivalent prices for mediocre chicken wings, but the workers will not be earning Western-equivalent salaries—all this in an effort to gain ridiculous profits at any cost. Hooters will likely strive to monopolize the bar industry wherever it pops up in Phnom Penh and put other local establishments out of business, which only benefits them and not the local economy.
In the end, I agree with the Cambodian women that Hooters will likely be another glorified, overpriced “girlie bar” with international branding that imagines itself to be something it is not. That does not mean, however, that women shouldn’t make the most of the situation and take employment there if, after they’ve weighed their options, it seems like a good option for them at this point in their lives.
Heidi Hoefinger is the author of “Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia.” She is a professor of science at Berkeley College, NYC, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, and an adjunct lecturer on gender and sexuality at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Thailand.