At a drink stand across the street from a row of Phnom Penh brothels, a man wearing the olive drab T-shirt of a soldier falls into a chair and orders a fruit shake. His cheeks are flush. He’s been drinking. Behind him a strip of brothels glows with pink and white lights.
He’s a soldier from Kandal province visiting relatives and is about to cross the street for some “fun,” he says. He knows exactly where his $50 a month salary goes: the brothels.
“I spend all my money on girls,” he says.
He and nearly all of his companions go to the brothels at least three times a week, he says, sometimes five.
The Kandal soldier is not alone. Soldiers, police and students are the three groups that visit prostitutes the most. But moto taxi drivers, high-ranking officials, expatriates, and sex tourists use them as well.
Prostitution is everywhere in Cambodia. But why?
The Kandal soldier says he doesn’t know.
“When we drink together,” he says, “we become drunk, then we forget about our wives, then we go to the brothels.”
Every man who sleeps with a prostitute has his own reason, but the outcome is clear: sex has become a well-established entertainment industry here.
“This is a plague that is on our society since the Khmer Rouge,” says Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. “It’s an ongoing tragedy.
“Who gets affected the most? Always the poor,” she says. Women “are the poorest of the poor.”
As for the women themselves—the wives whose husbands go to the brothels—some say they prefer their husbands use prostitutes rather than keep a mistress.
If a man has a mistress, or long-term relationship, they are more likely to run off, taking their money with them, says Yeng, a 51-year-old mother of six who has been married since she was 19.
“There is a common slogan: ‘Ten rivers is not equal to one sea,’” she says. “It’s the character of the man to have many, many girls.”
The Kandal soldier has never slept with the same woman more than twice. The brothel he goes to changes prostitutes often, which is the way he likes it, he says.
That attitude, one shared by many men, is “not acceptable,” says Mu Sochua Minister of Women’s Affairs. “The society has crumbled. What we are seeing are very bare, minimal sets of values.”
In general, the problem stems from “the place of women in society,” she says. “If still kept uneducated, kept behind the scene without full voice, then they’re not seen as full human beings.”
Mu Sochua has been trying to curb prostitution, and lessen the devastation of AIDS that accompanies it. The disease has killed 15,000 people nationwide, according to the National AIDS Authority, and there were 169,000 new HIV infections in 2000 alone.
But, so far, the brothels have stayed open, and the karaoke clubs continue to operate as prostitution houses. Mu Sochua faces a battle in Phnom Penh, where trucks with government and aid agency plates are constantly parked outside karaoke parlors, where brothel districts are booming, and trafficking goes nearly unpunished.
“The men are children, actually,” she said. “And they can misbehave until the day they die….It is just not acceptable for an official to be seen—and to be proud to be seen—in the karaoke.”
As for the prostitutes themselves, the answer is simple: men enjoy coming to them. “The brothel workers have ways to seduce the husbands better than their wives,” said Bun Sok Ting, an 18-year-old sex worker from Prey Veng.
When men say they “don’t like soup everyday,” she said, the meaning is clear: they like variety.
(Additional reporting by Ana Nov and Phann Ana)