Variations of one Khmer proverb go something like this:
Men are gold, women are cloth. . .
The implied meaning is that men who do something unacceptable are like gold; they will be as clean as the metal after it is washed. The converse is suggested for women; when sullied, even washing won’t rinse off all the dirt. They will be perpetually dirty objects of scorn.
Two one-hour documentaries that are a few years old underscore the persistence of belief in the proverb and the harm that results. Their production values are pretty low, but their impact is searing.
I finally caught up with The Virginity Trade and The Girls of Phnom Penh not long ago, and each offers wrenchingly sympathetic insights into the world of Cambodian prostitutes. (Like me, perhaps you will be surprised to learn that “only” 10 percent of pedophiles are reported to be Westerners.)
Virgins are highly valued in Asian cultures, and poverty drives some mothers actually to sell their pubescent daughters into prostitution. Deception — for example, a relative claims to know of a good job elsewhere for the girl — also plays a role.
Mothers who are asked why they effectively have sold their daughters into sex slavery say their families have no money, that they cannot support the child they have doomed.
One mother said she accepted $500 from an “old man” to help her family. The daughter, the woman allowed, was their only thing of value. No doubt, she was not exaggerating.
There is widespread credence to the notion that having sex with a virgin provides men with youthfulness, beauty, longevity and, what else, virility. So, once with a virgin never is enough.
Ever younger virgins also are in demand. That is because men expect that they are young enough to assume the likelihood of their having had sex previously is incredibly low.
A key reason for desiring children is fear of HIV and the notion that there is no way of ensuring that a girl presented as virginal hasn’t had a physician’s attention to dupe Johns — in other words, no way to be sure that she hadn’t been infected before surgery.
One man shamelessly related how he had saved up five months for the $800 that he paid to deflower and spend a week with a young girl. For the youngest children, prices go much higher, easily to $1,000 or more.
Of course, the girls end up as prostitutes. As such, they are the easy targets of gang members. In The Girls of Phnom Penh, interviewees said that men would get horny after watching pornography together and then wanted life to imitate “art,” resulting in serial rape.
Not only are the girls gang-raped, but they always are otherwise abused, singularly depressed, forever damaged. In their villages when they can return home, they are outcasts.
To make ends meet, girls who work as “hostesses” at beer gardens or in Karaoke parlors that are ill-disguised as legitimate centers of entertainment can make ends meet only by selling their bodies.
The police always know what is going on, the films make clear, and they unsurprisingly enhance their own paltry pay by exacting bribes. Similar corruption is a way of life in Cambodia and even is institutionalized by a government that authorizes — authorizes! — the traffic police to collect 70 per cent of a ticket’s value on the spot as they capriciously enforce the laws.
Thanks to widespread belief in the proverb, the young women have no future. They are not marriageable and have no means of earning money another way.
Their lives today and tomorrow define not only depravity but also deprivation.
Aside from the impossibility of closing down the oldest profession, there must be a way to end the cycle. Doing so must focus on poverty on the one hand. On the other hand, birth control and the cultural imperative among many Asians here to have large families must be quelled.
Women who chose to be prostitutes is one thing. Girls who are forced to become sex workers are a different matter altogether.
Certainly, there are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) doing their best, but the immensity of the problem dwarfs their efforts.
How to do more escapes me. It is a painfully depressing situation.