Educational campaigns are increasingly successful in convincing Cambodians that unprotected sex with prostitutes is dangerous. But a lower perception of risk is attached to noncommercial, indirect sex workers in restaurants and massage parlors, leading many young Cambodians to experiment with unprotected sex, a report has stated.
Since leaving his provincial home, motorcycle taxi driver Sum Vet, 39, has become a regular at local brothels, where he uses condoms only if his partner absolutely demands it.
“I have sex to meet the physical feeling, because I am from the province and am far away from my wife,” Sum Vet said. “I have sex all the time without a condom. I’m not afraid because I figure all my partners are clean and safe.”
Educational campaigns directed by the government and Population Services International effectively have targeted sex workers and their clients, leading to the sale of 16 million Number One condoms throughout the country in 2001, according to a report published in December and previewed at a conference in September.
But the fear of AIDS resulting from this “social marketing” campaign also has inspired many Cambodians to engage in “sweetheart” relationships to satisfy their physical needs, the report said.
These relationships are considered by PSI as noncommercial, nonmarital sexual relationships with an element of trust and a certain degree of affection. Because partners tend to share a greater intimacy than that found in brothels, they are more likely to forgo the use of condoms.
Srey Seth, a 21-year-old sex worker in Kien Svay district, Kandal province, said she keeps a clientele of upscale businessmen and civil servants, many of whom aren’t easily persuaded to wear a condom.
“I have to talk about their family and my possible pregnancy to persuade them to agree” to use protection, she said. Srey Seth is luckier than many of the report’s subjects, who said that it is difficult to introduce condoms into a relationship where they have never been used.
PSI’s report found that more men than women acknowledge sex as a natural act. Motorcycle taxi driver Puth Tann, 26, said men consider sexual intercourse normal.
“Sex is a normal activity that everybody needs to perform,” he said.
Like many of the report’s male subjects who enter relationships primarily for sex, Puth Tann uses protection for all massage parlor visits. He said educational posters not only taught him about the dangers of unprotected sex, but how to use a condom as well. In addition to safety, Puth Tann said wearing a condom is more economical than not wearing one.
“The sex workers always charge more for unprotected sex,” he said.
PSI aims not only to use future educational campaigns to encourage condom use but also to remove the stigma attached to sexual relations, the report said.
Minister of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs Mu Sochua said she supports this, since Cambodian society is inherently reserved when it comes to discussing sex.
“For Cambodian culture, it is normal to keep things about sex quiet,” she said, adding that the ministry is working to break the silence by encouraging people to discuss their sexual relations.
(Additional reporting by Kate Woodsome)