An American academic has spent seven years researching the local hostess bar scene, and come up with some surprising findings. This is the first in a three-part series.
This is a story about sex, love and money.
It begins in a bar and involves young Cambodian women and foreign men.
Another tale of prostitution and exploitation you might think. Another portrait of a sad bar girl in need of rescue from pervy, middle-aged sexpats, and a system that traps her in a life she would obviously never choose.
We’ve all heard it before. But this tale has a twist.
What if, for a moment, we suspend our judgments and scratch just a little beneath the surface?
What we’ll find instead is the complicated story of curious young women in search of opportunity, excitement and romance; male backpackers, on their gap years in a quest for friends and tour guides with benefits; and long termer expats longing for comfort.
We’ll also find people, curious to work in live in new places, and exchange cultures and sex, with new global partners. Couples, from two different worlds, making sense of feelings, finances and future hopes for happiness in a world full of stereotypes and stigma.
It’s here, in this murky space where sex, love and money collide, that we’ll find the story of Cambodian “professional girlfriends” and their “western” boyfriends.
It was in 2003, while sharing a drink in her bar on St 51 when Lyli, 23, frowned and asked: “Why does everyone think I’m a taxi girl because I work in a bar and have boyfriends for love and for presents?”
Bound up with my own middle-class western assumptions, her confusion confused me: “Well you go with customers right?” Irritated, she replied: “No … I go with boyfriends!”
Thus began my journey to find out what really goes on in this complicated world of sex, gifts and misunderstanding.
Seven years of immersion in and out of the hostess bar scene, and conversations with nearly 300 men and women revealed that the “sex-for-cash” prostitution framework did not always apply.
Nor did the “indirect” or “freelance” sex worker label that is so often used in NGO reports that attempt to describe this stereotyped group.
My PhD research did reveal patterns, though.
Many young Cambodian women move to the cities to look for bar work and nice foreign boyfriends. They hope these boyfriends will support them and their families and buy them nice gifts like clothes, gold and motos. They exchange sex, affection and love for “stuff”, and at first, their motivations are materially-based.
This is referred to as “transactional sex” (sex-for-gifts) which is different from “commercial sex” (sex-for-cash).
And in these relationships, the term love itself has many meanings. “Do you love him?” I’d asked Lyli of her boyfriend “number one”. “Yeah, I love him,” she replied. “He doesn’t drink too much, doesn’t box me, and he’s been sending $300 a month for a year now.”
Professional girlfriends usually have more than one boyfriend at a time, doing this in order to protect against losses in a city filled with constant goodbyes.
Highlighting these patterns is not to play into the stereotypes of Cambodian women as greedy and calculating. Instead, it’s to highlight the creative ways they make the best of situations that are structurally unequal.
They know the foreign men they meet earn up to 100 times more than them per month. They know they have easier access to passports and the ability to travel. The women have had a taste of consumerism and a snippet of the outside world, and they want more.
They want comfort and happiness like everyone else.
As Veata, 25, explains: “I just wanna have a happy life. I don’t care so much about money. I just want a good man who treats me good and have a nice house for my family. I want my daughters to go to a good school. I work in the bar now so I hope I can meet a sweet barang man to help take care.”
In this case, the bar is viewed as a place of networking and opportunity. At the time of this interview with Veata, she was lamenting about how a boyfriend she really loved had just gone back to England.
He was 23 and had to finish university. He had no money to send her from abroad, but promised he would Skype her regularly. She explained she’s used to these farewells, but that they don’t get any easier.
Fortunately, she had another older boyfriend, 49, in the US who had been sending her family rent money for two years, and a Frenchman in Sihanoukville who gives her physical and emotional comfort.
But Veata clings to the hope that one day in the bar, she will meet “the one” for whom she would cut all ties to other men, and settle down into a monogamous love marriage, which seemed to be the ultimate goal for most of the professional girlfriends.
But this isn’t to imply that all bar girls in Cambodia are professional girlfriends.
Despite popular belief, there are actually many virgins who work in the bars. Nor are women who have sex with lots of people for the fun of it – because they might actually like sex – professional girlfriends.
As bar owner Saley, 28, pointed out: “I take care of myself. I don’t ask for money or anything from boyfriends. Actually, I take care them! I just like to play around with some men for fun.”
Some observers argue, well – the women who exchange affection for gifts with several different men are still prostitutes, or at least like escorts providing the western-style “girlfriend experience” (GFE).
But this type of transactional sex is different because the people involved view themselves as boyfriends and girlfriends; the relationships aren’t viewed as work or commercial exchange; there are no pre-determined time limits, prices or services discussed; and the exchange of gifts for sex is part of a broader set of obligations and expectations.
That’s because transactional sex happens all the time – the girl who goes home with a random stranger who bought her drinks all night; the guy who sleeps with his teacher for a grade; the women who marries the rich doctor for his money.
Lots of us do it – or have done it before.
Just because Cambodian women have transactional sex with different people does not mean they are bad or broken. When western women do it, they are considered smart, and even powerful.
Bar girls and professional girlfriends don’t want to be viewed as prostitutes by default, but instead as sexually active women by default – who live in a consumerist society and want to have sex with the men of their choosing.
Bar manager Sophea, 29, expressed her frustration with the position of women in her country and the stigma people have against women who work in bars: “I really want people to stop looking down on bar girls. We’re not bad girls. We help our families. I want to see women come up … to be treated the same like men. Not more than men. Just the same … like equal.”
In the end, the main point of this story is to show that instead of being “cheating whores” or “poor victims” who should learn how to sew, bar girls and professional girlfriends are resourceful and entrepreneurial people who use the tools around them to improve their lives and find enjoyment in a sea of constraints and uncertainty.
Rather than needing saving by those who think they know best, these clever young women are essentially saving themselves.
Dr Heidi Hoefinger has been researching the hostess bar scene in Phnom Penh since 2003. She received her PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is author of upcoming book titled Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia (Routledge 2013).