Inflated tallies of Cambodia’s sex workers have annoyed Tom Steinfatt since 2000. That was when he began seeing figures circulated that he said were too high: 80,000 to 100,000 prostitutes nationwide; 17,000 in Phnom Penh.
So he counted for himself and came up with considerably lower estimates: 18,256 nationwide, 5,250 in Phnom Penh.
Steinfatt, professor of communication studies at the University of Miami in the US state of Florida, said in August that the higher numbers struck him as inaccurate because he could find no explanation for them, only assurances of a “rigorous methodology.”
Steinfatt said he traced citations and found a sloppy string of organizations’ reports that had lifted numbers, sometimes inaccurately, one from another, dating back to the mid-1990s.
Earlier this year, while teaching at the Royal University of Phnom Penh on a fellowship, Steinfatt read a Cambodia Daily story in which a person was quoted citing the US’ estimate of 700,000 for women and children trafficked worldwide.
Last week, Steinfatt recalled in an e-mail what bothered him about that passage:
“The US will not release the way the figures were compiled or any intermediate numbers, such as those for Cambodia…. One would need a worldwide study to show [that figure] was incorrect. If the intermediate numbers were given, those that were added to get the 700,000, then the basis for the 700,000 would be transparent and either believable or attackable,” he wrote.
So Steinfatt visited the offices of The Cambodia Daily and suggested that some of the trafficking figures might warrant investigation, which is what he was doing—traveling throughout the country with motorbike taxi drivers, counting prostitutes and trying to determine whether they had been trafficked.
His findings were released Oct 6 in a 30-page report.
Steinfatt, author of “Working at the Bar: Sex Work and Health Communication in Thailand,” had planned to fund the research himself, he told a reporter in August, while driving to a row of Meanchey district brothels in Phnom Penh.
But an inquiry at the US Embassy earlier this year led to a grant from the US Agency for International Development. So Steinfatt set out with his taxi-driver-turned-assistant, hitting all but one of the country’s provinces and municipalities, and asking men to take them to the sex workers.
“We hire them and say, ‘Show us the sex-work places,’” Steinfatt said in August.
Arriving at the Meanchey district brothels, Steinfatt strolled up and down both sides of the streets, sticking his head into each dingy shack and inquiring about prostitutes: How many girls? Are there any more? Do you have small ladies?
Small ladies are underage, sometimes child, sex workers, Steinfatt explained.
Asked if he had seen many children being sold for sex, Steinfatt said, “Honestly, I don’t really like to talk about it, but you don’t see undeveloped girls in many places.”
However, he said he did see them in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Koh Kong town.
“You would expect to see it in other border towns, but I didn’t,” he said.
The study did not report on street children not connected to brothels, who seem to keep Cambodia popular among foreign pedophiles.
Steinfatt encountered numerous forms of prostitution: Housewives working desolate crossroads during the day, 24-hour brothels where the women appeared to be held against their will, Khmer joints, Vietnamese joints and glass rooms.
The glass rooms are showcases for the women working massage parlors. They sit behind the glass, and a customer can choose them by pointing or asking for their designated number.
One such operation in Kompong Cham town, where “the ladies seemed to have really long faces,” stuck out in Steinfatt’s memory. He recalled about 22 Khmer women in a glass room being “ordered around.”
“That surprised me because I hadn’t seen something that big that was Khmer,” he said.
Steinfatt and his assistants observed 5,317 of their 18,256 estimate. The second number was arrived at using other trusted censuses, geographical measurements, proportionality assumptions and statistical methods, the report said.
Of the 5,317 women and girls observed, 1,074 were judged to be trafficked—198 by their age and 876 by their admitted indentured status.
Just more than 80 percent of the trafficked prostitutes were Vietnamese, about 60 percent of whom had been “sold” to help settle family debts, thereby maintaining their family’s honor.
Steinfatt’s report recommended that the issues of family debt and honor be considered by well-meaning groups before the women are removed from brothels against their will.