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For Some Women, Sex Work Is a Choice, Not a Matter of Trafficking

A group of sex workers are given a class on safe sex by members of an HIV/AIDS outreach network at a karaoke club, file photo. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

To conservative Cambodians, sex workers are defying traditional values.

Cambodian sex workers are often thought of as victims of trafficking. And that may be true for some. For others, however, work in the country’s entertainment sectors offers financial security, and sex work becomes a choice.

In Siem Reap, Thea, a manager at a karaoke club, told VOA Khmer recently that she makes $200 a month—more than the minimum wage for factory work—in part through sex work.

“Men come here to have fun, and they do, drinking and being entertained by women,” she said. “They also negotiate with me for sex services.”

Thea’s story is a common one, but it is often confused with worries over sex trafficking, says Heidi Hoefinger, author of “Sex, Love, and Money in Cambodia,” who has researched the subject extensively.

“The work that they do in the bars is often conflated with trafficking, and it’s assumed they are exploited victims that have not made a decision to do this,” Hoefinger said.

Many women are making “active decisions” to participate in sex work within their constrained circumstances, she said. “Bar work is a viable means of labor and employment for some of them—that they choose—and what they are calling for is recognition and respect for their decision.”

To conservative Cambodians, sex workers are defying traditional values. But they are also often valued for their work in supporting their families.

“They experience this double value system, where they are heavily stigmatized as broken women and as criminals,” she said. “But at the same time they are highly praised in their family if they can contribute to their family’s economic wellbeing.”

A movement to abolish sex work in Cambodia then becomes “problematic,” she added.

Given other options, Thea said she would not choose sex work. It’s true that she works at a club where drinking, harassment and even violence can take place. But she believes that in negotiating with men for sex, she’s not in the same category as women who are trafficked for prostitution.

“I can decide whether or not to go with customers, whenever I feel like it,” she said. “No one can force me, neither the customers nor the karaoke club owner.”