Cambodian Sex Industry Moving Out of Brothels

The sex industry in Cambodia is evolving away from brothels, with more and more sex workers moving toward other entertainment establishments, such as karaoke parlors, beer gardens and massage parlors, officials said.

Mean Chhi Vun, director of the Health Ministry’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STIs, said in an interview Monday that most sex workers have already made the move away from brothels.

“The situation is changing from brothel-based sex workers to non-brothel-based sex workers,” he said.

In 2000, there were about 7,000 to 8,000 direct sex workers, or those that work in brothels, while indirect sex workers—or those working outside brothels, in other entertainment establishments—numbered about 3,000, he said.

“But if you look at the year 2006, we found the situation had chang­ed,” he said.

In 2006, the number of brothel-based sex workers had plummeted to between 2,500 and 3,000, and more than 7,000 sex workers were believed to work outside brothels.

Mean Chhi Vun said he could not speculate as to why the evolution has taken place, and denied that it was because of any government effort intended to change the face of Cambodia’s sex industry.

“We do not know the reason, because we haven’t done any study,” he said, noting that a similar evolution took place in Thailand.

That the sex industry is evolving in Cambodia is clear to public health workers, who say that socioeconomic development brings with it a desire among the clients of sex workers to seek out more sophisticated entertainment establishments.

“It’s a natural evolution. As society becomes wealthier, people go less to brothels,” said Chris Jones, country representative for Popu­lation Services International, an NGO that has worked in the public health sector in Cambodia since 1993.

Jones said health workers are already adapting their tactics to fit the new landscape of the sex industry—an effort he said includes an emphasis on targeting clients rather than harder-to-reach sex workers.

But whether or not the recent surge in brothel closings is part of that natural evolution is the subject of some debate.

“This is a trend that takes place over years, but it’s important to differentiate between a natural trend and the actual closings of brothels, which is a policy…. Brothel closings move women into a more vulnerable state, which makes it difficult to address,” Jones said.

According to PSI, authorities in the past five or six months have closed 381 brothels nationwide.

Chou Bun Eng, director-general of social development at the Min­istry of Women’s Affairs, said Tues­day by telephone that the evolution of the sex work industry has been somewhat chaotic, and it has been difficult to track down all the sex workers.

“When this change is happening, it affects the education programs because we have a harder time finding them,” she said, adding that health workers are already working on new strategies and she doesn’t think it will take long for them to locate and reach out to the workers on the move.

“It is harder for us to find them when they are gone from the brothels, but it will only be for a while because we have our network,” she said.

Mean Chhi Vun said that consistent condom use among sex workers is still high outside brothels—between 88 and 94 percent—and not notably lower than the 94 to 99 percent window within brothels.

“There’s not a big difference,” he said, adding that the important thing was focusing on how to reach out to all sex workers no matter where they are.

“If HIV is increasing, we should discuss, but we don’t see any issues related to HIV increase,” he said, adding that the HIV/AIDS rate, which has been on a steady decline since 1998, is at an all-time low among adults between the ages of 15 and 49, reaching of 0.9 percent.

“You should also look at the progress…. If we are sitting here quiet, that is a big problem, but we are not,” Mean Chhi Vun said, adding that peer education and outreach networks in place already work well outside brothels.

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