Some find selling their bodies to men or women is one way to escape grinding poverty (or experiment with gay sex)
A male prostitute at work in Phnom Penh’s Wat Phnom area on Tuesday evening.
THEY are most easily found in nightclubs
that cater to foreigners. After hours, they loiter in the shadows of
Wat Botom and Wat Phnom, or idle away the evening in clusters along the
river waiting for clients.
Young men like Soun, 24, (not his real name) are entering Cambodia's
sex trade in growing numbers and for a variety of reasons. Some seek a
better life for their families in the only way they know how. Others
use the trade to explore alternative sexual lifestyles.
Whatever the reason, business is brisk.
"I always go to the clubs where foreigners hang out," said Soun, who has been a male prostitute since the age of 17.
"When the clubs close, I move to the front of Wat Botom," he said,
adding that a typical night's work runs from 8pm to around midnight.
Many of his clients find him through a network of sex brokers who comb
the city looking for men or women seeking or selling companionship.
Others find him at the wats or along the riverside, where many of the
city's prostitutes congregate each night.
"I am available for both men and women, depending on who approaches me.
Sometimes the women I sleep with are much older than me, anywhere from
30 to 50 years of age," Soun said. "Most of them are Cambodian widows,
but some of my customers are young Khmer guys and a few older Khmer
Soun's face flushes crimson when the conversation turns toward prices.
"If I sleep with a woman, I charge US$15 to $20. The whole night costs
$40-$50," he said. "Foreigners pay $40 per encounter or as much as $70
for the night."
Stating your preference is simply a matter of learning the code.
Women who want to purchase a male sex partner say, tov si karem key, or "Let's go eat ice cream in a glass", Soun said.
Men can use one of two phrases. Tov si karem charn means "Let's go eat
ice cream in a bowl", and tov leng pteah ta sak bram means "Let's go
visit Sak Pram's house". Sak Pram translates to "five fingers", Soun
Soun said that when he asks his male clients why they want to have sex
with him, most of them say they want to try something different. Others
say they are tired of women.
While Soun has some clients in the capital, most of his business is
transacted in the provinces. "My regular clients are mostly living in
Siem Reap and Sihanoukville," he said. "They sometimes book me for a
week, so they have to pay for my accommodation and food as well as my
A friend told me to go sit by the riverside and people
could come ask me for sex. i was 17 then. I've worked in the business
Soun keeps a calendar for long-term clients, but others can simply
ring him on the day. "In Phnom Penh, girls who want to have sex just
call my mobile phone and tell me where to meet. Sometimes, they hire a
taxi driver to come pick me up."
A life filled with danger
Many male prostitutes in Phnom Penh say they went into the trade due to poverty.
But Soun warned against thinking his life is one of ease and happiness.
He said prostitution can be a dangerous business, particularly with
his Cambodian male clients. They often hire him for sex with one
person, but he shows up to find a group of four or five waiting for
him. He can't refuse because he is outnumbered.
And then, there is the ever-present risk of sexual diseases. "To
protect ourselves from HIV, we always talk to our clients about using
condoms. I have problems with teenage boys because they want oral sex,"
Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian rights group Licadho, said she has
seen an increase in male sex workers in a market traditionally
dominated by women.
According to Kek Galabru, many of the capital's male prostitutes
turned to sex work because, lacking education or skills, they can find
no other way to support their families. Others do so because they
prefer sex with men, she said.
Nuon Sidara, executive director of Action for Sexual Health, said exact
numbers of male prostitutes in Cambodia are difficult to determine
because many work in secret.
The risk of disease is much higher among male sex workers who largely sleep with male clients, Nuon Sidera said.
Studies done on men engaging in gay sex have shown that 8.7 percent in
Phnom Penh were HIV-positive, a rate that is almost nine times that of
the general population.
"My organisation tries to teach them how to protect themselves from
disease and provides condoms free of charge," Nuon Sidera said.
Soun gets thoughtful when he considers the life he has chosen.
"My family is very poor, so I needed to find a job that could support
us all. I never thought I would become a prostitute," he said.
"A friend told me to go sit by the riverside and people would come ask
me for sex. I was 17 then. I've worked in the business ever since."