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					                                      Chapter One

   Two long rows of wooden shacks stand divided by an impossibly pot- holed dirt road.
   Out the front, young girls hover in doorways illuminated by dim red lights. Hidden
   behind the flimsy plywood walls lurk armed gunmen – vicious pimps with powerful
   connections – who are ready to protect their precious bounty at the slightest
   provocation. This is Tuol Kork, one of the most notorious districts in Phnom Penh,
   where many prostitutes are underaged, most of them are HIV positive and virtually
   all of them are slaves (Basil 2001:13).

Cast as ―slaves‖ or ―victims‖, depictions of sex workers in Cambodia, as elsewhere in

the ―Third World‖ (Kempadoo 1999:234), often evoke images of helpless, ignorant and

dependent women and girls: ―most of them are HIV positive and virtually all of them

are slaves‖. Challenging conventional images of Cambodian sex workers as little other

than ―slaves‖ my thesis focuses on women‘s individual agency in sex work. This is

partly in response to accounts of prostitution in Southeast Asia and other parts of the

world that concentrate on the horrifying life stories of individual ―victims‖ trafficked

into ―sexual slavery‖.

       In this thesis, I interrogate the concept of ―slavery‖ and its blanket application to

sex work in Cambodia, as claimed by Helen Basil above: ―virtually all of them are

slaves‖. While I demonstrate that institutionalised debt bondage is a major structural

feature of sex work in Cambodia, in Western understandings, slavery usually means

ownership of a person in perpetuity, and this includes their children (Miers 2004:1).

Enslavement does not just refer to a person‘s labour or their time for a certain period. It

is a state from which a person has no hope of ultimate freedom for themselves or their

children, and slaves bear dividends both in productive labour and through reproduction

(Campbell 2004:xxv).

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

        In such populist writings on trafficking, debt bondage is represented not just as a

traditional and common form of indentured labour in Southeast Asian societies, but is

often claimed to be ―slavery‖ (Murray 1998). Such rhetorical and metaphorical use of

the term stretches the definition and practice of slavery beyond its original meaning.

Some sex workers may be indebted and under obligation to work for someone for a

period of time, however, as I argue in this thesis, as a contract bonded labour is not

slavery and the period of contract is generally very brief. Debt bondage is a means of

paying off a loan with labour rather than currency, and thus indenture or bonded labour

is not identical to slavery.

        The practice of ‗indenture‘ or ‗debt bondage‘ is often understood in the West as

forced labour, that is the provision of labour for no financial recompense, and the

deprivation of liberties and freedoms, yet, such ―slavery‖ is an enduring institution in

Cambodia. It is prevalent not only in sex work but rather widespread throughout

Cambodia. For example, the use of bonded domestic labour is common in Cambodia

and often involves the curtailment of women‘s mobility and other freedoms. In

Southeast Asian societies many people work for no payment from a patron to whom

they feel bound by either debt or tradition or in return for a past favour or protection

(Reid 1993:64).

        These practices render the cross-cultural translation of such concepts

problematic. As Anthony Reid (1993:64) suggests, the centrality of relations of

obligation lends importance to studies of slavery in Southeast Asia, but it also renders

the concept sensitive and problematic. ―Slavery‖ is thus rather different in the

Cambodian context. Hence, my study sets out to examine the meanings and limits of

such concepts as they are applied to Cambodia‘s capitalist sex industry. However, the

―traffic in women‖ discourse is not the only hegemonic discourse shaping

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

understandings of sex work in a Southeast Asian nation; dominant images of the ―Asian

prostitute‖ also rely on other discourses of equal salience.

       The HIV discourse also plays a part in constructing the prevailing view of sex

workers as inherently diseased: ―This is Tuol Kork, one of the most notorious districts

in Phnom Penh, where many prostitutes are underaged, most of them are HIV positive

and virtually all of them are slaves‖ (Basil 2001:13). The ―Asian prostitute‖ is both an

exotic commodity and an alleged focus of the global HIV pandemic (Murray and

Robinson 1996:43; Law 1997:233). In the delineation of the epidemiology of HIV, sex

workers are typically seen as a ―major vector‖ for the transmission of HIV:

   The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), first detected in Cambodia in 1991,
   continues to spread and the country now faces potentially the worst epidemic in Asia.
   Heterosexual intercourse is the predominant mode of HIV transmission in the
   country and commercial sex workers are believed to be a major vector for the spread
   of the disease (NCHADS and Oppenheimer 1998:1).

In the HIV discourse, sex workers have been constructed as agents of HIV. The

stigmatised social role of ―prostitute‖ heavily informed the reinscription of sex workers

as a ―pool of infection‖, itself a label of earlier public health models (Law 1997:234). In

local (and international) understandings of HIV, sex workers as ―core transmitters‖

become symbolic of both AIDS and death and are blamed for infecting the population

with a disease associated with the ―Wicked West‖, HIV.

       However, much like the trafficking discourse, in the HIV discourse the creation

of sex workers as deviant women and diseased sexual subjects relies upon the

construction of sex workers as an ―other‖. Thus, my thesis critiques and challenges two

dominant images of sex workers produced by hegemonic discourses of our period: one a

ruined, destroyed, victimised woman; the other a destroying body that threatens society

(Bell 1994:44-5 see also Law 1997:233). Although both are discourses of alerity, of the

other, in the first the agency of sex workers is denied, while that of saving redeemers is

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

celebrated, and in the second their negative agency is exaggerated in such a way that

men (and the ―general population‖) are exculpated from blame.

Victims, Vectors, Agents: Discourses on Prostitution

In this chapter, I look at the historical origins and transformations of competing

discourses on prostitution. I begin my examination with the emergence of the view of

sex workers as inherently diseased or contagious in Europe from the seventeenth

century onward as people struggled to understand complex biosocial phenomena with

the spread of ―the pox‖. In this section on sex workers as ―vectors‖, I focus on a

nineteenth century public health model of control, namely the English Contagious

Disease Acts, because in these acts the view of prostitution as medically and socially

dangerous coalesced. The acts were also the logical extension of views which all too

often perceive women as ―pollutants‖ or agents of disease.

       I also focus on the English acts because, in my view, the modern feminist

discourse on prostitution arose as a specific response to attempts to regulate and control

women working in prostitution through these acts. The English feminist Josephine

Butler led this challenge and in the following section on the ―victim‖ discourse, I

discuss the early origins of her challenge, largely confined to Britain and focusing on

the repeal of the legislation (Corbin 1990:214-58). In this section, I look at the

representation of women workers as ―helpless victims‖ to be saved in modern English

feminist discourse, which can perhaps be seen as a precursor to contemporary feminist

discourse on trafficking and prostitution.

       This discourse constructs sex workers as ―victims‖ of structures, their bodies

represented as ruined, destroyed and victimised. This was partly in reaction to

frameworks that reduced sex workers to ―pollutants‖, or agents of disease wherein their

bodies were represented as pathological and destroying. Paralleling these nineteenth

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

century debates, contemporary frameworks create the impression that sex workers are

victims forced into the trade in which women are doubly dispossessed of self-

determination by gender and economic structures.

       I look at the historical origins and transformations of these discourses because,

as I show later in this chapter and throughout my thesis, historical genealogy is

important. Contemporary debates parallel nineteenth century debates on ―white slavery‖

and the ―traffic in women‖. In the HIV epidemic, sex workers have been constructed as

an epidemiological ―vector‖, as a group responsible for spreading disease to previously

uninfected individuals and groups. Contemporary efforts to control sex work have led to

the reintroduction of regulatory systems that closely parallel those implemented in the

nineteenth century.

       I close my examination of global discourses about prostitution with the ―sex

work as work‖ discourse which developed in response to these dominant frameworks.

The contestation of dominant representations of sex work as a form of slavery and sex

workers as ―helpless victims‖ or as a source of moral and biological contagion by sex

workers themselves has led to a shift in meanings of prostitution internationally.

Providing a detailed exposition of approaches which posit sex workers as ―vectors‖

and/or ―victims‖ helps to contextualise the sex work discourse, which is a reactive but

self- identified discourse. It is also the discourse in which the now dominant free/forced

dichotomy was developed, largely in response to the dominant discourse on trafficking.

In this section, I look at the limits of this framework and the divergent geographies of

representations of sex workers within it.

       In the latter parts of this chapter I provide an explanation of my research

methods and approach, explaining some of the reasons why I set out to critically

examine sex work in Cambodia by bringing to the fore sex workers‘ own experiences

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

and perspectives. I also discuss some of the methods I employed in this project such as

long-term fieldwork, participant observation and in-depth interviewing, methods which

are essential in making visible women‘s lives and their voices capable of being heard.

Finally, I close this chapter with a brief synopsis of each individual chapter in my thesis.

“Vectors”: Sex Workers as “Pollutants” and Approaches to Prostitution Control

As Catherine Waldby et al. (1993:29) and Paul Farmer (2001:16) suggest we all

struggle to understand complex biosocial phenomena such as epidemic diseases. In

making sense of what is often unpredictable and even chaotic – illness and sexual

desire – notions of ―pollution‖ and ―infection‖ are a means of imposing a conceptual

pattern and methods of control and prediction over wild and uncontrollable forces which

threaten the social order (Waldby et al. 1993:30 see also Douglas 1966). Hence, these

concepts are often deployed in responses to infectious epidemic diseases in ways which

far exceed the biomedical facts. In responses to infectious epidemic diseases, certain

women are too often perceived as ―pollutants‖ or agents of disease (who infect men)

(Manderson 1997:384-5).

       In Europe from the seventeenth century onward, while there was a proliferation

of ideas about the causes and spread of ―the pox‖ or venereal disease, many popular

theories linked the disease with women (see Siena 1998:555-568 and also Quétel 1990).

However, when the transmission of venereal disease was linked with sex in early

modern venereological literature, the disease became linked to certain women:

   The Pox is a contageous Distemper occasioned by contact and by means of a
   Venomous Salt, proceeding from the mixture and corruption of the seeds of divers[e]
   persons received and contained in the wombs of publick women; by which all liquid
   substances wherein it mixes do thicken and corrupt the nerves, skin and in general
   the flesh to which it adheres, becomes prick‘t, gnawed and dry, and lastly the bones
   and cartilage‘s that it penetrates do rise up, rot and corrupt (de Blegny 1674 cited by
   Siena 1998:562).

                                                                                  Chapter One: Introduction

         This popular theory on the origins of venereal disease formulated by the French

venereoligist Nicholas de Blegny in 1674 clearly articulates the idea of prostitutes as

purveyors of disease. 1 In this theory, de Blegny identifies and holds ―publick women‖,

then a euphemism for prostitute, responsible for both the origins and spread of venereal

disease. His construction rests on a set of moral and ideological assumptions: because

the ―wombs of publick women‖ bore such heavy traffic and because in them the semen

of so many men mixed, pell- mell, together (Laqueur 1990:230). ―The pox‖ is thus

represented as a corrupted mixture of different men‘s semen inside a prostitute‘s

(oversexed) body. De Blegny‘s theory builds on sex differences, then an emerging point

of social division, and shows how sexual relations were believed to involve danger to

the body‘s boundaries: for de Blegny the interpenetration of orifices and mixing of

bodily substances are synonymous with the process of infection (Waldby et al. 1993:30

see also Laqueur 1990; Manderson 1997).

         De Blegny‘s masculine metaphor of prostitutes as little other than vestibules of

men‘s semen and as a source of moral (and biological) contagion fuses with the Judeo-

Christian notion of prostitution as a ―necessary evil‖. As Alain Corbin (1990:4)

suggests, this viewed prostitution as an indispensable excremental phenomenon that

protects the social body:

    Rid society of prostitutes and licentiousness will run riot throughout. Prostitutes in a
    city are like a sewer in a palace. If you get rid of the sewer, the whole place becomes
    filthy and foul (Aquinas 2:2).

However, as Claude Quétel (1990:211) argues, those who viewed prostitution as a

―necessary evil‖ and thus supported regulatory controls over prostitution lacked

 In this thesis, I do not use the terms ―sex worker‖ and ―prostitute‖ interchangeably. However, wh ile I
personally prefer to use the terms ―sex work‖ and ―sex wo rkers‖, I also recognise that the sex work
discourse is a comparat ively modern one. Throughout my thesis when discussing sex work h istorically I
use the terms specific to the times I am writ ing about. I do this to prevent introducing a concept that had
no currency in these time frames and projecting backwards a modern -day subject position and
consciousness that did not necessarily exist in these historical epochs.
                                                                               Chapter One: Introduction

theoreticians who could link moral considerations with sanitary and administrative ones.

In the nineteenth century, as science and the medical profession were beginning to wield

greater influence than the Church over regulating industrialising societies, two books

from the emerging field of public health that presented proposals for the sanitary

control of prostitution were published: one by Dr. Alexander Parent-Duchâtelet in

France in 1836, who was later dubbed the ―Newton of Harlotry‖ by his contemporaries

(see Acton [1870]1972); the other by William Acton in London in 1857.

        In the nineteenth century syphilis epidemics, Parent-Duchâtelet and Acton

constructed prostitute women as purveyors of disease. In their landmark ―scientific‖

studies of prostitution, prostitutes became iconic signs of ―the pox‖, signifying disease,

pollution and moral corruption:

    What is a prostitute? She is a woman who gives for money that which she ought to
    give only for love; who ministers to passion and lust alone, to the exclusion and
    extinction of all the higher qualities, and nobler sources of enjoyment which combine
    with desire, to produce the happiness derived from the intercourse of the sexes. She
    is a woman with half the woman gone, and that half containing all that elevates her
    nature, leaving her a mere instrument of impurity; degraded and fallen she extracts
    from the sins of others the means of living, corrupt and dependent on corruption, and
    therefore interested directly in the increase of immorality – a social pest, carrying
    contamination and foulness to every quarter to which she has access, who—
                           ―like a disease,
         Creeps, no precaution used, among the crowd,
         Makes wicked lightnings of her eyes‖,
         -----------------------―and stirs the pulse,
         With devil‘s leaps, and poisons half the young‖ (Acton [1870]1972:166). 2

        As Shannon Bell (1994:54) suggests, Acton accorded disease a moral as well as

a physical meaning, and in his study on prostitution the two meanings were collapsed

into one: ―The moral injury inflicted on society by prostitution is incalculable, the

physical injury is at least as great‖ (Acton [1870]1972:73). Similarly, Sander Gilman

  Here Acton is paraphrasing Tennyson‘s Guinevere, part of his body of work on the Arthurian legends.
This passage of Guinevere describes the beguiling effects of a ―femme fatale‖, or harlots, on men. Th is
was a recurring theme in Tennyson‘s Idylls of the King (1859) (see also Phillips 2002:247-9). The original
passage is as follows: ―She like a new disease, unknown to men/Creeps, no precaution used, among the
crowd/Makes wicked lightnings of her eyes, and saps/The fealty of our friends, and stirs the pulse/With
devil‘s leaps, and poisons half the young‖. (Guinevere, lines 518-522).
                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

(1985:94) proposes that in constructing the dominant cultural image of prostitutes as

purveyors of disease, Parent-Duchâtelet‘s use of the public health model reduced

prostitutes to a source of pollution in much the same way as the sewers of Paris were.

This depiction resonated with the Christian maxim of the gospel according to Saint

Thomas: ―prostitutes in a city are like a sewer in a palace‖.

          Both Parent-Duchâtelet and Acton wrote from within the emerging field of

public health, not venereology, and thus, they sought to prevent rather than treat

venereal diseases through surveillance and control of people‘s behaviour. However, like

the earlier venereologists, they firmly marked prostitutes as a site of disease and social

decay: ―[a prostitute is] a social pest, carrying contamination and foulness to every

quarter to which she has access‖ (Acton [1870]1972:166). In viewing prostitution as a

necessary evil, it was seen as a perduring source of pollution, which needed to be

contained and controlled.

          In so constructing prostitutes as prime purveyors of disease, both Acton and

Parent-Duchâtelet considered prostitution as the single most important factor in the

transmission of venereal diseases. They held prostitutes responsible for spreading

disease by conveying deadly pathogens from themselves to their male clients, who were

viewed by them as a ―bridge‖ to wives or ―respectable women‖ rather than responsible


   [Prostitutes are] engaged in the occupation of spreading abroad a loathsome poison,
   the effects of which are not even confined to the partakers of their skin, but are too
   often transmitted to his issue, and bear their fruits in tottering limbs and tainted
   blood. Broken constitutions, sickly bodies, and feeble minds are times out of number
   the work of the prostitute (Acton [1870]1972:74, emphasis mine).

Mixed with new urban concerns about the management of populations, these authors

argued that prostitution was a danger to the public‘s health, and their public health

models urged that prostitution needed to be contained and controlled.

                                                                               Chapter One: Introduction

         Unlike other imperial powers (e.g. Britain), the regulation of prostitution in

France had a long history. According to Jill Harsin (1985:59), a policy of ―toleration‖

had started to loosely evolve from the fourteenth century. By the eighteenth century, the

regulation of prostitution in France developed from police initiative and through local

laws (such as decrees), rather than through the legislative action of the government.

         The system developed more or less by the arbitrary action of the authorities and

regulated prostitution through medical controls and police supervision. This included

the licensing of brothels, registration of prostitutes and compulsory health checks. Town

planning efforts were also directed towards the concentration of brothels in distinct

areas known as quartiers réservés (red light districts) (see Harsin 1985; Corbin 1990).

Arbitrary methods were used because, according to Harsin (1985:57), throughout most

of the nineteenth century the lack of public outcry in France allowed the police to get

away with them.

         This system, often dubbed the ―French system‖, heavily influenced ideas on

regulation in Britain, as can be seen in the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, and

1869) that I discuss below. 3 Indeed, Corbin (1990:215) labels the British legislation an

―embryonic‖ form of the ―French system‖. In chapter two I cover in some depth French

regulations instituted in colonial Cambodia. However, in the following sections I focus

on the English acts. I do this because the modern feminist discourse on prostitution,

which developed in the late nineteenth century, arose as a specific response to attempts

to regulate and control prostitutes through these acts. While a similar discourse

  Now synonymous with Victorian hypocrisy, the Contagious Diseases Act (1864 – hereafter CD act) was
initially introduced in 1864 as a temporary and experimental p iece of legislat ion designed to control the
spread of venereal diseases in the English armed forces. Two further acts were passed in 1866 and 1869
that extended its application to eighteen garrison towns and naval ports in Southern England and in
Ireland (see Schedule of the Act of 1869 in Jordan & Sharp 2003:28-29). The enact ment of Contagious
Diseases Ordinances in England‘s colonial territories also shows that, as Manderson (1996:171) suggests,
prostitute women were important actors in colonial urban life and medical history, subject to scrutiny and
surveillance. For Acton‘s argument supporting the CD legislation see [1870]1972:58-72, 124-128.
                                                                      Chapter One: Introduction

subsequently developed in France, according to Corbin, ―it was in English and Swiss

Protestant circles that the challenge to the ‗French system‘ began‖ (1990:214).

       The association made between desire, disease and sexual danger in Acton‘s

study of prostitution in London and England‘s garrison towns supported the English CD

acts. These acts epitomised the regulationist approach to the control of prostitution

through medical supervision by establishing a ten- mile sanitary cordon around

England‘s garrison towns (Davidson 1984:164; Doezema 2000:27). Any woman

suspected of being a ―common prostitute‖ (streetwalker) in this cordon could be

arrested. Women were also forced to submit to pelvic examinations for venereal disease

on a regular basis. The acts permitted the forced detention of women in lock hospitals

for up to nine months, or until they were cured. Resistance to the acts rendered women

liable to imprisonment (with or without hard labour) (Jordan and Sharp 2003:25-9;

Walkowitz 1980).

       The rationale for the CD acts centred on their status as national defence

legislation and was informed by the idea that prostitution was a necessary sexual

practice, itself the logical extension of the enforced celibacy required of the military life

(see Walkowitz 1980). However, the acts attempted to control outbreaks of venereal

disease in the British armed forces by regulating women in prostitution only. Within the

acts the frame in which prostitutes were viewed shifted from a ―social evil‖ to a ―public

health‖ problem. Hence, they drew heavily on a set of moral and ideological

assumptions as well as medical representations of prostitutes as purveyors of disease

and, viewed as profane and diseased, prostitutes were thus excluded from society.

                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

“Victims”: Sex Workers as “Helpless Victims” and Approaches to the
Suppression of Prostitution

The ―Magdalene‖ model of saving and redeeming prostitutes has a long history,

especially in the Roman Catholic Church (Roberts 1993; Perkins 1991). However, the

associated modern feminist discourse on prostitution in which prostitutes were

constructed as ―helpless victims‖, to be saved, and especially as exploited ―victims‖ of

male oppression arose as a specific response to the English Contagious Diseases Acts

(1864, 1866, and 1869).

       Judith Walkowitz‘s study shows that by 1869 the CD acts:

   …had been extended well beyond their initially defined limits as exceptional
   legislation for the military. They broke new ground as domestic social measures,
   creating new medical institutions and new precedents for police and medical
   supervision of the lives of the poor (1980:88).

       The passage of the third act in 1869 significantly extended the jurisdictional

coverage of the acts and, as the legislation assumed a greater permanency, organised

resistance against it began to emerge. Spearheading this opposition was the late

nineteenth century feminist activist Josephine Butler, who is widely regarded as being a

great founding mother of modern feminism. Butler was then the Secretary of the Ladies‘

National Association, which formed part of the Repeal Movement against the CD acts.

Butler opposed ―the slave class of ‗clean‘ women required to serve male sexual

appetites‖ (Jordan 2003:3). She attacked the sexual double standards the legislation was

predicated on and which the acts perpetuated: ―Their system is to obtain prostitution

plus slavery for women, and vice minus disease for men!‖ (Butler cited by Jordan

2003:3, emphasis in the original).

       Feminist discourse within the Repeal Movement reversed the argument about

female transmission of disease by shifting the blame or responsibility from women to

men. According to Walkowitz (1980:2-3) and Bell (1994:61-4), feminist efforts in the

                                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

campaign against the CD acts were organised around three key objections: the sexual

double standard which punished women and not men for engaging in the same act; the

class basis of the acts as only ―common prostitutes‖ (streetwalkers) were punished

under the legislation; and the interference of the state in enforcing sexual and social

discipline among the poor.

         Militant bourgeois feminists involved in the campaign rejected the prevailing

social view of prostitutes as ―pollutants‖ of men. Instead, they depicted prostitutes as

―victims‖ of male pollution, as ―women who had been invaded by men‘s bodies, men‘s

laws and by the ‗steel penis‘, the speculum‖ (Walkowitz 1980:146). 4 In the Repeal

Movement, feminists acted against the sexist moral and ideological assumptions

informing the acts. However, they were also responsible for constructing a restrictive

and moralistic image of prostitutes as hapless, passive victims. Walkowitz (1980:146-7)

argues that this image reflected their own perceptions of the women themselves, not

concrete social realties. But, the construction of prostitutes as ―victims‖ also served a

political purpose, as this was important in gaining public support and sympathy for their

cause: the Victorian ―sexual deviant‖ was not an ideal construct to elicit sympathy or

support (Doezema 2000:28).

         In their early attempts to cast prostitutes as ―victims‖, feminists in the Repeal

Movement deployed the ideology of rescuing and redeeming prostitutes (based on the

  In the 1830s, French doctors popularised the use of the vaginal speculum as a means of examin ing
registered prostitutes for venereal disease (e.g. for gonorrhea and sy philis) and of apply ing caustic lotions
to local lesions (Walkowitz 1980:56 see also Corbin 1990:86-100). According to Corbin (1990:388), the
vaginal speculum was widely used in the contrôle sanitaire (compulsory health check), which led
registered prostitutes in North Africa (then a French colony) to dub the speculum ―the government‘s
penis‖ (for more on the French system of regulat ing prostitution in the nineteenth century see chapter
two). According to Walkwotiz, in the 1840s and 1850s British doctors like Acton tried to introduce the
speculum into general gynaecological pract ice. However, they faced strong criticis m fro m their
colleagues on the speculum‘s sordid origins: ―The speculum emanated fro m the syphilitic wards of the
hospitals at Paris, and it would have been better for the wo men of Eng land had its use been confined to
those prostitutes institutionalized‖ said Acton‘s contemporaries, imply ing that speculum examination
might be appropriate for wo men ―dead to shame‖, but constituted a shocking ―immorality‖ when imposed
on virtuous women (1980:56). Ho wever, in the English feminist outcry over the use of this intrusive
mode of d iagnosis with the implementation of the CD acts, the vaginal speculum examinat ion was viewed
as ―instrumental rape‖ (Walkowit z 1980:57).
                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

Roman Catholic Magdalene model). Forming alliances with conservative Christian

forces, most notably with Catherine Booth (founding mother of the Protestant

Evangelical denomination the Salvation Army), middle-class feminists such as Butler

emulated the Christian concept of charity and opened her house as a refuge for ―fallen

women‖. Christian missionaries involved in the Movement like Mrs. Lewis who ran the

Magdalene Institution (a home for women leaving prostitution) depicted prostitutes as

―fallen women‖ capable of being rehabilitated.

       This ―rescue movement‖ argued against the dominant view of prostitutes as

unchaste and degenerate women, as evidenced in Acton‘s writings. They stressed that

prostitutes could be ―brought back to womanly dignity and virtue‖ and thus had the

potential of being an ―honourable wife with little children‖ (Butler cited by Bell

1994:61). Embracing asexual femininity and motherhood as the image of respectability,

early feminists claimed that rescue and reclamation could restore prostitutes to their pre-

fallen state of virtuous morality and purity (Bell 1994:62, 64). Positioned as ―victims‖

to be rescued by their fellow sisters, the strong emphasis on victimhood in bourgeois

feminist discourse on prostitution justified the involvement of middle class women in

the lives of urban poor women.

       In the 1880s, as the Repeal Movement gained momentum, it broadened its

efforts and began to push parliament into passing the Criminal Law Amendment Bill.

This bill was to raise the age of consent for girls but had been shelved. The participation

of members of the Repeal Movement also saw them become involved in the debates

about child prostitution. As a precursor to the ―white slave trade‖ discourse that

eventually emerged during this campaign, the Repeal Movement made metaphorical use

of the slavery trope. However, the advent of the campaign against ―white slavery‖ saw it

                                                                                Chapter One: Introduction

transformed into a literal description of the condition of prostitution (Doezema


         William Stead‘s ―Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon‖ series published in the

Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 was instrumental in this (see figure 1.1, “We Bid You Be Of

Hope”, cover page of the ―Maiden Tribute‖ series, over the page). Connoting images of

virgin sacrifice, Stead‘s part titillating, part horrifying ―story of an actual pilgrimage

into a real hell‖ pioneered the method of undercover investigative journalism (Pall Mall

Gazette July 4 1885:1). His stories claimed to provide first- hand evidence of

―purchasing‖ a girl and writing about it and described a ―veritable slave trade […] going

on around us‖, of thousands of young English girls lured, deceived, coerced or drugged

into prostitution (Pall Mall Gazette July 6 1885:1, 5-6). His narrative on the ―violation

of virgins‖ constructed the image of naïve, innocent, virginal victims enslaved in

prostitution and represented them as little other than ―human chattel‖.

         Stead blamed poor parents for selling their daughters to ―white slavers‖ (white

slave traders). 5 ―Imprisoned in brothels‖, he outlined how young British girls were

drugged, lured and deceived by white slavers into a life of horror from which escape

was virtually impossible:

    It is easy enough to get into a brothel, it is by no means easy to get out […] women
    are practically prisoners, forbidden to cross the doorstep and [are] chained to the
    house by debt, cases are constantly occurring in which girls find themselves under
    lock and key (Stead in Pall Mall Gazette July 8 1885:5).

Stead‘s slippage between women and girls blurred the distinction between child and

adult and fixed the image of prostitute women as young and helpless (Doezema

  See ―A Child of Th irteen Bought for £5‖ in Pall Mall Gazette (July 6 1885:6). Despite exhaustive
efforts, Stead was unable to ―purchase‖ a young girl or find any first-hand evidence of ―flesh markets‖ in
London. In subsequent court proceedings, it was revealed that Stead ―bought‖ Eliza Armstrong (the
―Child of Thirteen Bought for £5) with the assistance of Bramwell Booth, Catherine Booth‘s son, then a
high-ranking member of the Salvation Army (see Plo wden 1974).
                                                                         Chapter One: Introduction

Figure 1.1: “We Bid You Be Of Hope”. Cover page of the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.

                                                                            Chapter One: Introduction

2000:30-36). This was strengthened by the only image published as part of the series

(see figure 1.2, “One of the Victims” below), being a ―portrait of a tiny little mite‖

rescued by the Society for the Protection of Children, a branch of the Salvation Army

(Stead in Pall Mall Gazette July 8 1885:2).

Figure 1.2: “One of the Victims” fro m ―The Ruin of the Very Young‖ in the Maiden Tribute series.

        Stead‘s publication of this series, designed to shock the public, had its desired

effect: the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was quickly re- introduced into Parliament. As

public outrage reached fever-pitch levels, the bill was passed in late 1885, and the age

of consent for girls was raised from 13 to 16 years, existing legislation designed for the

suppression of brothels was strengthened, the CD acts were repealed (1886) and male

homosexuality was recriminalised (see Weeks 1977).

        While Stead‘s powerful discourse of a ―modern Babylon‖ in prostitution,

featuring ―maiden tribute‖ of ―young girls sold into ruin‖ took hold in the public

imagination, historical records indicate that evidence of widespread involuntary

prostitution of British girls at home or abroad was slim (see Plowden 1974; Bristow

1977; Walkowitz 1980; Corbin 1990; Guy 1992; Irwin 1996; Chapkis 1997). Most

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

prostitutes were not children sold into the trade but rather young women who

consciously engaged in prostitution for economic reasons (Walkowitz 1980:247;

Chapkis 1997:41). However, the idea of ―white slavery‖, first popularised by Stead in

―The Maiden Tribute‖, successfully linked in the public‘s mind two previously

unrelated topics: prostitution and slavery, and campaigns against the ―white slave‖ trade

quickly spread beyond Britain (Irwin 1996:1).

       ―White slavery‖ came to mean the procurement by force, deceit or drugs, of a

white woman or girl against her will, for prostitution (Doezema 2000:25). The idea of

―white slavery‖ centred on the so-called involuntary or forced prostitution of young

white girls and women abroad and created the impression that prostitution was little

more than their enslavement. While most women did not indicate that trafficking was

the reason they entered the trade, as Chapkis (1997:44) suggests, the presence of white

women in a world of carnality and commerce demanded an explanation which ―white

slavery‖ provided. It was easier for the public to believe in the notion of ―white slavery‖

and the image of the ―sexual slave‖ rather than acknowledging women consciously

chose to migrate for prostitution. This myth resonated with long-standing assumptions

about women‘s sexual vulnerability and the proper relationship of women to sex,

commerce and travel (then the province of men) (Chapkis 1997:41).

       ―White slavery‖ was instrumental in enabling the public to view prostitutes

sympathetically, as the victims of social and economic forces beyond their control,

which, as Mary Irwin (1996:1-2) suggests, redirected public debates over prostitution. It

enabled dominant representations of prostitutes as threatening and dangerous and the

associated practices of surveillance and control to be challenged by social reformers,

feminists and socialists who had come to view prostitutes rather as victims forced into

prostitution (van der Veen 2000:125). However, it was only by removing all

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

responsibility for her own condition that the prostitute could be so constructed as a

victim, and that a groundswell in public sympathy could be generated (Doezema

2000:28). This led to a shift in social attitudes and support for the end goal of abolition

of ―white slavery‖.

       Despite little actual evidence of forced prostitution, the ―traffic in women‖

discourse gained enough power and support that by 1921 and 1933 two international

conventions were signed by the League of Nations for the abolition of ―white slavery‖.

Then, the 1949 UN convention For the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the

Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others codified in international law the ―traffic in

women‖ discourse – a convention still in effect today (Kempadoo 1994:32).

Trafficking Today

Chapkis (1997:46) and Doezema (2000:30-1) argue that by explicitly reframing the

problem as one that confronts women of all races, contemporary anti-trafficking

campaigns have distanced themselves from the defence of ―white womanhood‖ carried

in the former ―traffic in women‖ discourse:

   All kinds of women are vulnerable to slave procurers. The assumption that only
   women of a particular class, race, or age group are potential victims of sexual slavery
   [is incorrect …] sexual slavery lurks at the corners of every woman‘s life (Barry

       Redefining ―sexual slavery‖ as broadly as possible, Kathleen Barry‘s 1984 work,

Female Sexual Slavery was an important text in updating the concept and in expanding

it beyond the issue of forced prostitution:

   … [sexual slavery is] a highly profitable business that merchandises women‘s bodies
   to brothels and harems around the world. Practiced individually, without an
   organisational network, it is carried out by pimps [… and] by husbands and fathers
   who use battery and sexual abuse as a personal measure of their power over their
   wives and/or daughters (1984:39-40).

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

Collapsing all forms of sexual violence into ―sexual slavery‖ also broadened potential

―victims‖: a ―victim [of sexual slavery] can also mean prostitute, battered wife,

incestuously assaulted child, veiled woman, purchased bride‖ (Barry 1984:41).

       Barry, however, viewed prostitution as the definitive manifestation of male

dominance: ―My study of sex as power … inevitability, continually, unrelentingly

returns me to prostitution … [which is] the cornerstone of all sexual exploitation‖

(Barry cited by Doezema 2001:26). Thus, according to the principle that male sexuality

under patriarchy is more about power than sexual desire, Barry constructs all

prostitution as coercive. This perpetuates the view that all prostitutes are victims forced

into the trade and that prostitution is inevitably a form of slavery (Murray 1998:53; van

der Venn 2000:125, see also Kempadoo 1994; Chapkis 1997; Alexander 1998).

       When the anti- trafficking movement re-emerged in the late 1970s radical

feminists such as Barry focused on the ―traffic in women‖ as exemplary of the

victimisation and violence against all women perpetrated by male domination and

patriarchal institutions (van der Veen 2000:125). In her book on the ―traffic in women‖,

symptomatically titled Sex Slaves, Louise Brown asserts:

   Significantly, the extent of prostitution, trafficking and abuse within the sex trade is
   inseparable from the level of sexual repression within a society and the degree of
   control that is exercised over women. It is no accident that life for poor Pakistani
   prostitutes is abysmal because it is also pretty tough for most Pakistani women.
   There is a beautifully neat symmetry: strict sexual codes and rigorously male-
   dominated societies are mirrored by widespread systems of sexual slavery and a
   regular supply of trafficked women to the sex trade. When these unhappy factors are
   added to poverty and to wide income disparities the results are catastrophic for the
   most vulnerable women (2000:25).

       Today the trafficking in persons refers to men, women and children and the issue

covers both internal or domestic and cross-border trafficking, often for migratory

labour. Unlike the earlier ―white slave trade‖ discourse, the element that defines

trafficking is force, not the nature of the work to be performed (prostitution) (Murray

                                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

1998:53). Trafficking is not only for the purposes of prostitution, but for forced labour

in many industries in all parts of the world. However, as Melissa Ditmore (2002:1-7)

argues, what captures the often voyeuristic attention of the media, the general public

and policy makers is women and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual slavery. 6

         Sustaining the view that all women are ―victims‖ of trafficking and that

prostitution is a form of slavery, stories of ―sex slaves‖ in Cambodia sensationalise the

issues. They often evoke moralistic, even paternalistic responses that have been

instrumental in informing public opinion and narrowing the view of trafficking (for

examples of such stories see Basil 2001 and Kristof 2004). However, for sex workers in

Cambodia, the ―sexual slavery‖ discourse is not the only hegemonic discourse shaping

international understandings; the HIV discourse also plays a part in constructing the

prevailing view of sex workers as inherently diseased. Here I recall the conjunction that

I opened the chapter with: ―most of them are HIV positive and virtually all of them are

slaves‖ (Basil 2001:13).

Sex Workers as “Vectors” in HIV Discourse

Drawing on dominant cultural images outlined above of prostitutes as purveyors of

disease (see pgs 6-11), for many people ―prostitute‖ is a label which prejudges a person

as diseased and evil, as a source of both biological and moral contagion (Pheterson

1990:399-402; Alexander 1998:215). Serving as the foundational logic of public health

interventions, epidemiological frameworks privilege the notion of ―vectors‖ in

  For example, in only August 2005 leg islation on ―trafficking‖ in Australia was expanded. The Criminal
Code Amendment (Trafficking in Persons Offences) Act (2005) was revised to include a general o ffence
that criminalised bringing a person to Australia by means of threat, force or dece ption. Prior to the
passage of this bill, ―trafficking‖ was narro wly defined as ―sexual servitude‖. ―Trafficking‖ legislation
dealt only with ―slavery‖ and ―slave trading‖ pertaining to ―sexual servitude‖ (see Criminal Code
Amendment (Slavery and Sexual Servitude) Act 1999). It is debatable whether the 2005 changes are
indicative of a shift in thin king, as much of the new leg islation still focuses on ―sexual servitude‖, and the
Australian med ia reinforces such approaches (see for examp le Sydney Morning Herald June 9 & 20 2006,
July 14 2003; The Age September 3 2005).
                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

understanding and interpreting HIV, and central to epidemiological discourse are

categories of ―risk groups‖.

       Derived from biomedical and behavioural frameworks for understanding and

responding to HIV, the concept of ―risk groups‖ was developed by the Centres for

Disease Control (CDC) in late 1982. ― Risk groups‖ were based on the notion that

reported HIV infections could be ―separated into groups of people based on risk factors‖

including ―unnatural sex acts‖ (homosexual sex), intravenous drug use, unusual sexual

or religious customs and, as straight men began to figure in the epidemic, ―commercia l

sex‖ (1982:508). Thus, biomedical researchers constructed certain kinds of behavioural

practices as ―high risk‖, including unprotected penetrative sex, both anal and vaginal.

       The labelling of prostitutes as a ―high risk‖ group along with the assumption that

prostitution was a factor fuelling HIV saw the development of a ―core transmitters‖

ideology, which suggests that women working in the sex industry are largely

responsible for the ―alarming‖ rise in HIV, through its ―spread‖ to the ―general

(heterosexual) population‖. While serious misgivings surround the ―risk group‖

approach of public health epidemiology (Bolton 1992; Walbdy et al. 1993, 1995;

Treichler 1999), this framework has been influential in shaping responses to HIV and it

is still a dominant paradigm in the HIV discourse.

       ―Risk group‖ frameworks have led to the creation of fatally flawed but socially

comforting hierarchies of infection (Waldby et al. 1995:6-8). The construction of ―risk

groups‖ and ―the general population‖ central to the HIV discourse partakes of a process

of division and ordering: those belonging to ―the general population‖ (heterosexual,

married with children) are represented as both separate from and threatened by ―risk

groups‖ (prostitutes, homosexuals, drug users, ethnic ―others‖) (Waldby et al. 1993:30

see also Farmer 2001). This has encouraged members of ―the general population‖ to

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

create a margin of safety, a cordon sanitaire of the mind, between themselves and those

they perceive as ―risky‖ as an appropriate method of protection (Walbdy et al. 1993:30-

1). Further, this has become a fundamental factor in social division and conflict in

countries devastated by HIV.

         As I show in chapter seven on the 100% Condom Use Program, it has also seen

the re- introduction of the control of prostitution through medical supervision. In this

framework, the agency of sex workers is either lost as the ―sex worker‖ becomes a

vector of infection or, as an agent of HIV, their negative agency is exaggerated to such

an extent that men and the ―general population‖ are excluded from blame (Law


         The label ―AIDS vector‖ is a heavy burden for the millions of women and men

working in global sex industries and detaching this label is a crucial part of their attempt

to redefine sex work internationally. Hence, in my thesis I also look at the effects of the

re-entrenchment of sex workers as epidemiological ―vectors‖ and how powerful

moral/corporeal conflations are further compounding their disempowerment and

exclusion from society as evoked by Chan Dina of the Cambodian Prostitutes‘ Union


   My body is tortured
   I am full of pain
   I am not a citizen
   I am not a person
   You see me as a virus
   I am invisible
   Your eyes do not see me
   You hate me
   You blame me
   Some of you pity me
   I do not want your pity
   I do not want your charity
   I want my rights
   Not your lies and abuse (Chan 1999:176).

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

“Agents”: Sex Work as “Work”, Prostitutes Assume Their Own Subject Position

Arguing for both the legitimacy of their work and their inclusion in society, in the late

1970s people working in the sex industry started to challenge the one-dimensional

views on sex work expressed by feminists and public health officials (Pheterson 1989;

Nagel 1997; Delacoste and Alexander 1998). As sex workers started speaking for

themselves without the mediation of feminists or public health officials, many spoke out

against the hegemonic logic that excluded sex workers from discussions and

theorisations about their work.

       Sex worker activists like Carol Leigh (aka Scarlot Harlot) argued against

dominant cultural understandings of sex work as a form of slavery and sex workers as

hapless victims or as a source of both moral and biological contagion:

   We‘re doing prostitution
   Although it‘s no solution
   It‘s just a substitution
   We make a contribution
   We‘ve found a resolution
   To our destitution
   We don‘t want persecution.

   We‘re doing prostitution
   It‘s an age-old institution
   Ya know, it‘s not pollution
   We need some absolution
   Perhaps a revolution
   A brand-new constitution
   To end this persecution

   Yeah, yeah, c‘mon yeah! (Leigh 1998:61).

In developing a reactive but self- identified discourse, sex worker activists created a new

discursive field, with novel terms which attempted to explain the reality of their lives

and their work.

                                                                                Chapter One: Introduction

         Leigh, a feminist sex worker, developed the neologisms ―sex work‖ and the ―sex

work industry‖ as part of her attempt to end divisions between women. 7 Unlike other

terms of reference for sex workers, Leigh claimed that the terms ―sex work‖ and the

―sex work industry‖ actually described what women did in the industry, rather than

being euphemisms. This includes terms such as hooker, lady of the night, femmes

publique or prostitute. According to Leigh (1997:229-230), terms such as ―prostitute‖ or

―femme publique‖ do not refer to a person providing sexual services but rather mean,

―to offer publicly‖. 8 Leigh argues that these euphemisms function to veil the ―shameful‖

activity that many attribute to sex work and, as part of her effort to demystify the sex

industry, the term sex work ―acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our

status‖: ―Sex work has no shame, and neither do I‖ (Leigh 1997:230).

         Sex work defines the provision of sexual services as a trade or profession. It

encourages the view that sex work is a job where the performance of sexual labour is a

means by which a person makes a living by helping people gain sexual gratification

through various means for an agreed price (see Perkins and Bennett 1985). It is a term

  Carol Leigh is a sex worker, activist and artist in the San Francisco Bay area of the US. She is
recognised as one of the leaders of the sex workers‘ rights movement in the US and internationa lly. Leigh
is a spokesperson for COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a sex worker organisation founded by
Margo St. James who is widely recognised as being the founder of the sex workers‘ rights movement in
the US. A mong other things, Leigh co-founded BAY SWAN (Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy
Network) and has also worked on the issue of sex workers‘ rights in Eastern Europe and Asia.
  The etymology of terms for prostitute indeed suggests this. In its original usage ―harlot‖ was not gender
specific, but rather signified a ―bold strip ling‖ (a rowdy juvenile). ―Harlot‖ came fro m the Welsh herlawd
and referred to a boisterous youth but over time the term came to exclusively refer to a ―common wo man‖
or a wo man for h ire (Og iliv ie‘s Imperial Dict ionary cited by Acton [1870]1972:27). The orig inal verb
form of prostitute comes fro m the Latin prostituere and prostitut – to offer for sale (Oxford Concise
Dict ionary 1990:960), a mean ing connected to the Old English ―whore‖, past tense of the verb to hire and
the French femmes publiques. ―Whore‖ means ―one hired‖ with the ―w‖ being prefixed through everyday
usage (see Acton [1870]1972:1-2). ―To prostitute‖ is formed by the Latin prefix pro (in front of) and
statuere (to set up or place) and it was these Latin orig ins which led Acton to define the word as ―at once
suggest[ing] a standing forth, or plying for h ire in the open market‖ ([1870]1972:1). The Latin root word
prōstitūtus (related to pro-statuere) means, ―placed before‖ or ―exposed publicly‖ (Macquarie Pocket
Dict ionary 1998:839). Prostituto, the term for prostitutes in ancient Ro me was a derivative of this Latin
root word. The mean ing of prostituto was connected to Roman social p ractices which dictated that, unlike
Ro man wo men cit izens who covered their faces in public, prostitute women had to appear in public with
their faces uncovered (Perkins 1991:19). Thus, some of the euphemisms fo r sex worker, ―prostitute‖ ,
―publick wo man‖, ― femme publique‖, ―harlot‖ or ―whore‖ are gender specific and further, most are
derived fro m attempts to stigmatise and marginalise a group of wo men.
                                                                                Chapter One: Introduction

that suggests prostitution be viewed not as an identity, a social or psychological

characteristic of women, but as an income-generating activity or a form of labour for

women and men (Kempadoo 1998a:3). 9 Moreover, as Kempadoo (1998a:3, 8) suggests,

the definition stresses the social location of people engaged in the sex industries as

working people. Reconceptualised as work, as with any other labour, the oppression of

(sex) working peoples becomes a force for mobilisation in struggles for rights, better

working conditions and benefits. Thus, through this neologism, sex worker activists and

their supporters revisioned social practices and called for the radical transformation, not

the abolition, of their work (McClintock 1993:8).

         While the sex workers‘ rights movement is now global, in the 1970s and 1980s

it was mainly based in the United States (the movement‘s birthplace) and in Western

Europe. In the early years of the movement, Western sex worker activists struggled to

improve conditions for people in the trade who chose the profession while they

simultaneously opposed all forms of coercion. Attempting to redirect public discussions

about sex work, which failed to distinguish between voluntary and coerced sexual

exchanges, sex worker activists pushed for a differentiation between voluntary and

forced prostitution, while denouncing only the latter (see Nagel 1997). Thus, as

members of the sex workers‘ rights movement fought to advance their new political

subject status as politicised prostitutes who were not victims or coerced into working in

the industry, Western sex workers developed a distinction between free and forced

prostitution (see Doezema 1998).

  The term ―sex worker‖ includes prostitutes, porn actors, writers, producers, professional dominatrixes,
erotic dancers (strippers, lap dancers, table top dancers, peep show dancers etc.) and phone sex workers.
The concept of the ―sex industry‖ refers to a range of practices involving the exchange of sex and/or
sexually related goods or services for money (Nagel 1997:1).
                                                                      Chapter One: Introduction

The Free/Forced Dichotomy

As a member of the sex workers‘ rights movement, Jo Doezema (1998:37) claimed that

the free/forced distinction emerged in response to radical feminists such as Barry (and

the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) which she founded) who view all

prostitution as coercive. While this may have been unintentional, this new model

centring on a free/forced dichotomy was soon articulated with hegemonic North/South

grand narratives. As Lisa Law (1997:234) and Alison Murray (1998:52-60) argue, it led

to the division of sex workers into ―forced‖ innocent victims who thus need to be

rescued, and ―voluntary‖ whores (see also Doezema 1998:34).

       Reinscribing neo-colonial divisions, the dichotomy led to divergent geographies

in representations of sex workers: ―voluntary prostitutes‖ are Western sex workers who

have the capacity to make rational choices about whether or not to sell sex; ―forced

prostitutes‖ are from developing countries, constructed as ―victims‖, passive ―exploited

objects‖, often ―prey‖ for ―traffickers‖, they are unable to make similar choices (Murray

1998:60). As Law (1997:234) suggests this dichotomy reflects the colonialist tendency

for Western women to author themselves as agents and Third World women as victims,

a dichotomous tendency that features regularly in descriptions of Third World women.

This dichotomy is further compounded in radical feminist analyses such as Brown‘s in

which sex workers from developing countries are portrayed as the most victimised of

all, because of the prevailing poverty and/or male domination in their countries.

       Doezema (2001:30) considers that the view of ―Third World women‖,

particularly sex workers, as victims of their backward, barbaric cultures pervades the

rhetoric of CATW and other feminists involved in the trafficking debate. Cogently

analysing the racism suffusing Barry‘s and CATW‘s argument, Kempadoo states:

   [Barry] constructs a hierarchy of stages of patriarchal and economic development,
   situating the trafficking in women in the first stage that ―prevails in pre- industrial and

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

   feudal societies that are primarily agricultural and where women are excluded from
   the public sphere‖ and where women, she states, are the exclusive property of men
   […] at the other end of the scale she places the ―post- industrial, developed societies‖
   where ―women achieve the potential for economic independence‖ (1998a:11).

Exhibiting the hallmarks of a new Orientalism, Barry represents Western cultures, and

Western feminism, as more advanced and presents ―non-Western‖ women as helpless

childlike creatures. This perpetuates the ―colonial gaze‖ of Western feminists identified

by Chandra Talpade Mohanty and the discursive colonisation of their lives and struggles

(Mohanty 1986 see also Doezema 2001:28; Constable 2005):

   Some [Asian] women choose to become prostitutes because of [the] financial
   rewards, but most women have no option. They are reared in poverty, socialised
   amid discrimination and conditioned to accept narrow choices. They are not
   exercising their right to ‗choice‘ in entering sex work. They are vulnerable, and this
   vulnerability, together with their sexuality, is commodified and commercialised so
   that they can be traded on the sex market (Brown 2000:29).

Glossed as ―trafficked women‖, Brown reads the claims of women who say they choose

to do sex work as a kind of false consciousness: women are victims whether they know

it or not. In this framework, any migration for sex work becomes trafficking and all

women are ―victims‖ (Murray 1998). All women are of necessity forced: ―They are

reared in poverty, socialised amid discrimination and conditioned to accept narrow

choices. They are not exercising their right to ‗choice‘ in entering sex work‖. Brown‘s

act of discursive colonisation obscures important reasons for women‘s migration, and

this does not allow us to gain a fuller understanding of the material and non-material

motivations for women‘s migration (Constable 2005). Nor does it encourage us to fully

understand women‘s stories, their lives and struggles. They are homogenised ―victims‖.

       However, this view is not limited to feminists. Kristof‘s account of sex work in

Cambodia titled ―I Rescued these Girls From Sex Slavery‖ depicts highly oppressed,

poor, ignorant women living in a backward culture:

   As one of the world‘s poorest nations, Cambodia has perhaps the worst prostitution
   scene of any country. Countless thousands of young girls are owned by brothels,

                                                                       Chapter One: Introduction

   which cater primarily to local men. Many girls are sold to the brothel by their parents
   or relatives while in their early to mid teens, but some are kidnapped or recruited by
   agents who promise them jobs in restaurants. The majority of these girls, and often
   their parents, are uneducated and unfamiliar with life outside of the villages (Kristof

        Aspects of Kristof‘s exposé on ―sexual slavery‖ bear an uncanny resemblance to

Stead‘s ―Maiden Tribute‖ series from 1885. Kristof, ―tired of interviewing child

prostitutes without being able to help them‖, claims to provide first-hand evidence of

buying young Cambodian women out of a brothel and writing about it:

   When Nicholas Kritsof went to report on Cambodia‘s child prostitution industry, he
   met two girls locked in a cycle of despair. Moved by their stories, he brought their
   freedom – for just a few hundred dollars – returned them to their families and helped
   them set up a new life (Kristof 2004:36).

In this tantalising teaser, we can see an important narrative device: the agency of sex

workers is denied while that of Kristof as the ―saving redeemer‖ is celebrated. His

caption of ―being tired of interviewing child prostitutes‖ while he is pictured standing

next to one of the women he ―rescued‖, plants the idea that the two women he ―rescued‖

are child prostitutes. Yet, from the photographic evidence he presents, the two women

(pictured in figure 1.3 over the page) do not seem to be child prostitutes but rather

young adult women. It is unfortunate that Kristof does not provide the actual age of the

women he ―rescues‖. Rather, he continually refers to them as ―girls‖, ―teenage girls‖ or

―petite teenagers‖, all of which are devices designed to infantilise the women.

Much like Stead‘s 1885 ―Maiden Tribute‖ series, Kristof‘s narrative on ―sexual slavery‖

constructs the image of naïve, innocent, virginal victims enslaved in prostitution. Again,

like Stead did in 1885, Kristof blames poor parents for selling their daughters to

brothels and outlines how young girls are lured into a life of horror from which escape

is virtually impossible. It is little surprise then that his exposé of ―sexual slavery‖ in

Cambodia mixes moral outrage and sexual sensationalism and, as Murray

                                                                        Chapter One: Introduction

Figure 1.3: ―I Rescued These Girls From Sex Slavery‖.

suggests, draws heavily upon the ―erotic-pathetic stereotype of the Asian prostitute

which creates the possibility for […] trafficking hysteria‖ (1998:60):

   Srey Neth, a petite teenager, squeals when she sees my interpreter and me […]
   Westerners are an unusual sight in the brothels of the Cambodian town of Poipet –
   most customers are Cambodian or Thai […] her awkwardness turns to curiosity as
   she realises we are not going to make her perform the sexual favours she is forced to
   bestow on customers up to three times a day. As one of at least a dozen teenage girls
   in this brothel, her situation is dire, but it is not as bad as in the seedy street bordellos
   where girls have sex 10 times a day for little more than a dollar a time. Within
   minutes Srey Neth admits that she is imprisoned by her pimp [brothel owner]. Even
   if she wanted to escape, there is really no way she could (Kristof 2004:37).

Blurring the distinction between child and adult, Kristof fixes the image of Cambodian

sex workers as young and helpless. When combined with his emphasis on the

overwhelming structures of the slave experience – ―even if she wanted to escape, there
                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

is really no way she could‖ – we are led to a conclusion similar to Brown‘s: they are

hapless victims who need to be saved.

       However, the construction of a free/forced dichotomy that has enabled such

representations does not necessarily reflect the reality of sex workers from developing

countries. We might take, for example, an excerpt from the manifesto of the Durbar

Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC – Committee for the Coordination of Women).

Or the ―Love‘s Labour Just Labour‖ artwork series pictured in figure 1.4 over the page,

produced by members of this Kolkata-based organisation of more than 60,000 female,

male, transgender sex workers and their children, which demands the decriminalisation

of the sex industry and the recognition of sex work as a profession:

   Like many other occupations, sex work is also an occupation […] we systematically
   find ourselves to be targets of moralising impulses of dominant social groups,
   through missions of cleansing and sanitising, both materially and symbolically […]
   As powerless, abused victims with no resources, we are seen as objects of pity […]
   we are refused enfranchisement as legitimate citizens or workers, and are banished to
   the margins of society and history (DMSC 1997:2-3).

Chan Dina, of the Cambodian Prostitutes‘ Union (CPU), echoes these concerns:

   I want you to listen, to me the real person […] we are not ―problems‖ we are not
   animals, we are not viruses, we are not garbage. We are flesh, skin and bones, we
   have a heart, and we have feelings, we are a sister to someone, a daughter, a grand
   daughter. We are people, we are women and we want to be treated with respect,
   dignity and we want rights like the rest of you enjoy […] Let me continue to practise
   my occupation, but recognise my occupation and give me rights, so I am protected
   and I can have power to demand justice (Chan 1999:176, 179).

―Love‘s Labour Just Labour‖ (figure 1.4 over the page), reminds us that working in the

sex industry is, for some women, a way of expanding life choices and livelihood

strategies (Doezema 2000:47). However, the insistence on viewing sex workers from

developing countries as ―victims‖ or ―erotic-pathetic sex slaves‖ means denying that

they have agency in their own lives (Murray 1998:60; Doezema 2000:47). Members of

the DMSC as well as Chan Dina from the CPU have, as Doezema (2001:29) argues,

                                           Chapter One: Introduction

Figure 1.4: “Love’s Labour Just Labour”.

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

seen through the patronising attitude of many like Barry who would save them for their

own good:

   I do not want to go to your shelter and learn to sew so you can get me to work in a
   factory. This is not what I want. If I tell you that you will call me a srei coit [srei
   khouc whore]. But those words are easy for you because you have easy solutions to
   difficult problems you do not understand, and you do not understand because you do
   not listen (Chan 1999:179).

Unfortunately, as Chan makes clear, listening is a habit rarely cultivated in

conversations and political coalitions with sex workers from developing countries.

Theoretical contribution

My study attempts to acknowledge the crux of the question set by sex worker activists

in Cambodia such as Chan Dina:

   People look down on me. I‘m considered as a bad person because I choose to remain
   a sex worker. But I think that it is our Cambodian society that is bad. It doesn‘t give
   me choices; choices that I see are better for me (Chan cited by Rahm 2000:1).

This is also a question that other feminists such as Louise Brown address, although she

attempts to answer it in a different way. For example, Brown writes about a Pakistani

woman: ―It is, she said, her choice to sell sex, and I believe that she told me the truth‖

(2000:26). However, in the same paragraph, after discussing how her beauty is fading as

she ages, and describing how she is in the process of ―grooming‖ her eight- year-old

daughter to sell sex, Brown asks ―What kind of choice, I thought, did this mother and

her young daughter really have?‖ (2000:26). Brown‘s rhetorical question, ―What kind of

choice…‖ reduces the question Chan poses, about the kinds of choices available to

women, to a cliché. Colluding with the woman‘s marginality and vulnerability, Brown

extinguishes her agency: because of poverty and patriarchal domination, in the end she

is cast as a ―victim‖ to be rescued.

       My work is also influenced by feminism and postcolonial theory, particularly on

the way in which hegemonic discourses distort the experiences and realities of sex work

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

and sex working peoples and inscribe their inferiority. I am also interested in writings

by sex workers which, like most subaltern literature, attempts to articulate and reclaim

their lives, their work and working identities in the face of their otherness.

       Influenced by the writings of feminists from the so-called Third World, my work

is a cross-cultural critique of frameworks which employ Eurocentric standards of

judgement, for unfortunately in some feminist circles, postcolonial discursive practices

still carry traces of colonial representations of the other. The rhetorical and metaphorical

use of terms in dominant American and European schools of feminist thought

(especially radical feminism and its focus on ―sexual slavery‖) implies that all women,

particularly so-called Third World women, have the same experiences and that these

experiences have to be judged by the standards and experiences of American and

European feminist assumptions.

       Taking a different approach, my thesis attempts to restore the agency of

marginalised women, which is often erased within the dominant Euro-American

feminist scholarship on trafficking. This thesis addresses the very difficult questions

raised by Brown and Chan, of how structural factors interact with s ubjective choices. In

this my aim is, as Mohanty suggests, to ―be attentive to the micropolitics of context,

subjectivity, and struggle, as well as to the macropolitics of global economic and

political systems and processes‖ (2003:501).

       Fundamental to Western representations of sex workers from developing

countries is the denial of sex workers‘ agency and self-determination, as evinced by the

CPU‘s Chan Dina: ―I choose to remain a sex worker‖ (Chan cited by Rahm 2000:1). It

is my argument that in the trafficking discourse, the suppression of women‘s agency in

sex work is necessary in situating sex workers as ―victims‖ to be rescued by foreign

women or men – a position encapsulated and amplified by Kristof. His racialised

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

representations of an ―other‖, a helpless child- like victim, strips sex workers of their

agency and in his exposé the trope of slavery serves to demonstrate the need for

intervention (Doezema 2001:29). This is then used as justification for his own impulses:

―‗I‘m going to buy your freedom‘, I say to Srey Neth, and we begin to plot her

liberation‖ (Kristof 2004:38). In a way similar to Kristof, modern-day feminists who

construct a dichotomy between highly oppressed women in Third World/agrarian

societies and potentially liberated women in Western/industrialised centres often rely

upon this to advance their position and justify rescue-based interventions (Kempadoo


       Kamala Kempadoo‘s work challenges conventional thought about sex work in

non-Western countries in analysing the collective action and agency of sex workers

from developing countries. Writing about sex worker organising and sex worker

agency, Kempadoo poses an extremely thought provoking question:

   …how do we conceptualize prostitution in the face of this activity and self-definition
   by the women who practice the trade in the Third World and other non-Western
   countries? Can we simply ignore these voices and continue to view the women as
   victims of patriarchy? (1999:228).

Looking at the complexities surrounding Cambodian women‘s individual and collective

agency in sex work, my thesis is a response to Kempadoo‘s challenging question. But as

well as these collective forms of agency, I analyse the agency of female sex workers as

evinced in the life stories of individuals and how women themselves look at the

complex issue of ―choice‖.

       Whilst I challenge dominant frameworks for understanding prostitution

internationally, such as the free/forced framework, in this thesis I attempt to respect the

specificity of women‘s particular experiences by emphasising the situated, and therefore

partial, nature of sex workers‘ experiences. Thus, in this thesis I show how women

working in the Cambodian sex industry embrace multiple and sometimes conflicting

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

subject positions as they talk about structural constraints (such as poverty and

patriarchy) and their own agency and self-determination: ―I think that it is our

Cambodian society that is bad. It doesn‘t give me choices; choices that I see are better

for me‖ (Chan cited by Rahm 2000:1).

       I am also concerned however, with the relationship between agency and

structure, and as such my thesis focuses on the social and economic structures that

shape and give meaning to women‘s lives and experiences. My work counters

frameworks that portray women through a singular identity as either victim or agent, for

as Kempadoo (1998a:9) suggests, women are both active subjects and subjects of

domination (see also Law 1997:233). In this thesis, I address some of the challenges

faced in the struggle to resignify the place of sex workers in international politics,

namely the complex relationship between structural constraints and women‘s agency

and self-determination. I argue that an awareness of women‘s agency does not mean

that we have to ignore structural inequalities.

       My theoretical framework was also influenced by sex worker activists who often

claim that research conducted by academics and professionals (for example consultants)

about sex work and sex workers is ―insulting, humiliating and disempowering‖ (Fawkes

n.d.; see also Chan 1999). This is partly because, despite a proliferation of publications

and theorisations about sex work, the lives and experiences of actual sex workers are

often dismissed. Their voices are rearticulated in academic theories that do not

necessarily reflect their own perceptions and which yield little improvement in their

lives. Moreover, many see themselves as erased or misrepresented within dominant

Euro-American-Australian feminist scholarship:

   … how acute the irony, how many times has someone told me that sex work is
   humiliating and disempowers the women in the industry and yet the only times I feel
   these things is when I listen to people talking about me and my peers with an obvious
   lack of understanding. This was only made worse by the appearance of Sheila

                                                                                Chapter One: Introduction

     Jeffreys [at the sixth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in
     Melbourne 2001], the Australian [feminist] academic […] who would have us
     believe that we are victims of abuse but are not intelligent enough to see this for
     ourselves…. (Fawkes n.d). 10

Deeply affected by these debates, the overall aim of my thesis was to encourage an

understanding of sex work in Cambodia from the perspective of women‘s lived


Research Rationale and Approach

I was interested in conducting research in Cambodia as, while numerous academic

studies have been conducted in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Thailand, the

Philippines, and Indonesia (see for example Murray 1987, 2001; Troung 1990;

Sturdevant and Stoltzfus 1992; Hilsdon 1995; Bishop and Robinson 1998; Law 2000),

in-depth studies on sex work in Cambodia were almost nonexistent. When I embarked

on this study, no comprehensive research of this nature had yet been carried out in

Cambodia. Thus, I proposed this research in order to fill a gap in the literature and

provide a more nuanced study of the sex industry in Cambodia, which considers the

historical, economic and social context in which sex works takes place.

         There is, however, a rich local NGO literature on the topic, b ut outside of the

country, these reports are very hard to access. Indeed, the number of reports on this

issue has led some to claim that Cambodia‘s sex industry is ―relatively well-researched‖

(Derks et al. 2006:15). While to a certain extent this may be true, the overwhelming

majority (that is, nearly two-thirds) of these reports focus on the issue of trafficking for

prostitution and not sex work per se (see for example CWDA 1994, 1998; UNICEF

1995; RGC 1997; Derks 1997, 1998a,b; Dougals 2003; Steinfatt 2003; Preece 2005;

   Sheila Jeffreys is an Australian-based radical feminist who views sex work as a form of female
degradation, male sexual v iolence and as a crime against wo men (see Jeffreys 1997). Jeffreys is the
President of the Australian branch of CATW. She is vehemently anti-sex work and considers the
distinction between trafficking and sex wo rk to be false (see Jeffreys 2002).
                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

Derks et al. 2006). Other reports on sex work seem to be driven by the notion that sex

work is the primary driving factor in the country‘s incidence of HIV. These reports

often have a restricted focus and concentrate on sex work in relatio n to sexual health,

behavioural practices, condom use and women‘s labour migration and sexual health (see

for example CARAM 1999; Prybylski and Alto 1999; Ohshige et al. 2000a,b; CAS

2002; Nelson 2002; Ramage 2002; NAA, MoH and UNAIDS 2003; Lowe 2003; ILO

2004). A handful of these reports do, however, focus on the lived experiences of women

working in the sex industry and either go beyond the issues of sexual health and

condom use or tackle issues inextricably connected to this such as violence and

vulnerability (see for example Wilkinson and Fletcher 2002; Derks 2004a,b; WAC

2005a; Jenkins et al. 2006).

        My work is thus, part of a small but growing community of scholars in

Cambodia who are questioning the representation of sex workers as ―victims‖ such as

Annuska Derks. Derks‘ research focuses on the ―trafficking‖ of women and children

and her thesis on Khmer women‘s rural to urban migration was only concluded in the

past two years (Derks 2004a see also 1997, 1998a,b). While Derks writes from within

the field of trafficking, she, like me, seems to be influenced by the sex workers‘ rights

movement and the writings of feminist academics from within this discourse (see Derks

2004b). Thus, I see my thesis as contributing to the broader struggle to resignify the

place of sex workers from developing countries in international politics, in which as

Doezema (2001:18-9) suggests, a number of feminists and sex workers are at the


        Over thirty-six percent of the population or 4.5 million Cambodians live in

poverty and survive on less than $0.46-60 a day (UNDP 2003:228). Cambodia was a

research site where I could explore the relationship between poverty and ―victimhood‖.

                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

The country‘s 1998 per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $250 was reported as

one of the lowest in the global economy (Associated Press 2001). In the region,

Cambodia‘s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in 2002 of $280 was lower than

that of the Lao PDR ($310), Viet Nam ($430) and Thailand ($1,980) (UNDP 2004:3).

As one of Asia‘s transitional economies, Cambodia recently ―opened up‖ to the West

after a long period of international isolation and bloody civil wars. Socio-economic

conditions such as these are often a focus of many trafficking studies. Indeed, those who

privilege more deterministic constraints (structure) often claim that these conditions are

precisely the cause of the global sex traffic (Law 1997:233, 252 for an example of such

frameworks see Jeffreys 2002:3).

       Another motivating factor was my own personal experiences working with

women in Cambodia‘s sex industry. The totality of the slave experience depicted by

many did not gel with my earlier experiences with women working in the industry. For

example, in September 2000, I attended celebrations for the blessing of the Women‘s

Room of the CPU alongside Cambodian sex workers, locals and other expatriates – see

figures 1.5 and 1.6 over the page.

       The Women‘s Room is a drop in centre established by sex workers for sex

workers with support from local NGOs such as the Cambodian Women‘s Development

Agency (CWDA) and the Womyn‘s Agenda for Change (WAC – formerly Oxfam Hong

Kong). It is located in Tuol Kork where the headquarters of the CPU are. The CPU itself

was founded in 1998 with the demand of rights and respect for sex workers in

Cambodia. In a country where women working in the sex industry are seen as ―bad

luck‖, the blessing of the Women‘s Room was important in advancing the women‘s

sense of self, confronting entrenched negative social attitudes and offering a catalytic

point for change.

                                                                             Chapter One: Introduction

Figure 1.5: Monks scattering petals and sacred water over members of the CPU, their families and
supporters as they bless the CPU‘s Women‘s Roo m, September 2000.

Figure 1.6: Members of the CPU giving alms to monks after the blessing of the Women‘s Roo m,
September 2000. The author is pictured centre, wearing a b lack shirt.

                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

       Before I commenced work on my thesis, I volunteered with the Womyn‘s

Agenda for Change on their Sex Worker Speak-Out Project. As a consciousness-raising

program, it set out to create safe spaces for women to speak out about their lives and

working conditions and supports building solidarity among women and their

empowerment. Among other things, I documented the training workshops of the ―Train

the Trainers‖ for the National Team to Combat Trafficking, established by the

government and International Organisation for Migration (IOM). I also assisted in the

preparation of a model for the geographical centralisation of sex work and assisted in

the collection of sex worker testimonies and case studies. Volunteering with WAC

presented me with the opportunity of attending this event among many others, and this

experience was the catalyst for this thesis.

       Significantly, through my involvement with WAC, I was able to observe how

the lives of local sex worker activists were more complex than merely being women

who were victims of structures. Indeed, local activists like Chan Dina contested

frameworks that minimised the complexity of their life choices and agency (see also

Law 1997:255).

       Despite the lack of recognition in some feminist publications and sensationalist

media accounts, and feminist academics such as Donna Hughes claiming sex workers‘

unions to be ―a fantasy‖ (2004:3), sex workers in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh

(where the headquarters of at least two sex worker organisations are located) have been

organising themselves, demonstrating against the injustices they face and demanding

their basic human rights for many years now. Collective action by sex workers in the

CPU and the Women‘s Network for Unity (WNU), established in June 2000 with the

goal of improving working conditions and ending abuse in the industry, invites us to

question the notion of ―sexual slavery‖ so central to dominant representations of sex

                                                                                  Chapter One: Introduction

work internationally. But as well as these collective forms of agency, the agency

available to women in Cambodia is evinced in the life stories of individuals.

         Recognised by many of the women that I spoke with as a form of hard physical

labour, often performed in difficult and degrading circumstances, as their own ―blood,

sweat and tears‖, I approach prostitution in Cambodia as a form of labour (Interview,

Sasha, 11 December 2003). 11 However, while I argue that prostitution is a form of

labour, I also view it as being produced and reproduced by a variety of gendered,

economic and social relations of power (Kempadoo 1996; Chapkis 1997).

         Aiming to critically examine sex work in Cambodia by bringing into the

foreground sex workers‘ own experiences and perspectives, my ce ntral research

objective was to engage with the daily lives and to hear the voices of sex workers. Thus,

I employed qualitative research methods such as long-term fieldwork, participant

observation and in-depth interviewing. I selected these methods because, as Shumalit

Reinharz (1992:48) suggests, participant observation is essential in making women‘s

lives visible while interviewing is an important method in making women‘s voices

audible in feminist social research.

Research Methods - Gaining Access into the Field

While undertaking language training in the nation‘s capital Phnom Penh, I volunteered

with WAC in their Sex Worker Speak-Out project. Through this, I was able to learn

about working conditions in the industry and listen to some of the women‘s sto ries. This

gave me an early understanding of the lives and livelihoods of women working in

Phnom Penh‘s sex industry; the lack of options, social exclusion, discrimination, and

violence that women face, but also the hope that they have for their own and their

   In my thesis I use pseudonyms for all sex industry participants in order to protect their identity. The use
of English language names was a requirement of the ANU Hu man Research Ethics Co mmittee who felt
the use of alternate Cambodian names might have had ramifications for other sex workers who happened
to bear those names. It is not meant to reflect the adoption of English names by Cambodian sex workers.
                                                                           Chapter One: Introduction

families‘ futures. Through this experience I learnt about some of the key issues of

importance to sex workers; their demand to earn a living in a safe environment, free

from exploitation and stigmatisation; and the need for people to understand their lives

and their situation; and not to see them as victims or vectors. Volunteering at WAC also

afforded me the opportunity to learn about appropriate language use, enabling me to talk

with sex workers in a sensitive and respectful way.

        Out of Cambodia‘s twenty- five provinces and municipalities I selected

Sihanoukville as the site for the interviewing component of my research. This was

because from October 1998 the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) trialled the

100% Condom Use Program (100% CUP) in this southern municipality. As a result of

the claimed success of the Sihanoukville trials this regulatory mechanism was extended

throughout the country. I selected Sihanoukville in late 2002 as I was interested in

studying the implementation of the 100% CUP and its effects on sex work and sex

workers in the area. To the best of my knowledge, when I commenced this project in

early 2001, no in-depth studies available to the public had been carried out on the sex

industry in Sihanoukville in the wake of implementation of the 100% CUP. However, as

I show in chapter seven, several reports on the 100% CUP have been published since


        To identify sex work districts in Sihanoukville I conducted several

―reconnaissance‖ trips from Phnom Penh beginning from November 2002. By ―hanging

out‖ in local bars and restaurants and talking with customers and staff, both expatriate

and Khmer, I was able to pinpoint the location of several sex work sites in

Sihanoukville. 12 During visits to these sites, I decided to limit my research focus to one

district. Site selection was restricted to two potential sites, as karaoke bars and massage

  In co mmon usage the term ―Kh mer‖ denotes the majority ethnic group in Cambodia. The term
Cambodian denotes Cambodian nationals and includes people of different ethnicities who have
Cambodian nationality.
                                                                   Chapter One: Introduction

parlours at the third site were staffed predominantly by Vietnamese women. For various

reasons that I discuss later I had decided to restrict my research focus to Khmer women.

       Having selected my research site, my early approach was to ―hang out‖ with sex

workers at the brothels, rather than relying on the usual methods of gaining access to

research sites such as making friends or alliances with bar owners, madams, heads of

NGOs, doctors or health professionals working in local STI clinics (see Agustin 2004).

Before I conducted interviews, and during the interviewing stage, I hung out regularly

in brothels and bars and thus befriended many women working in the sex industry. Of

course, this occasioned sex workers‘ curiosity about a young foreign woman, as I was

one of very few foreign women who could speak Khmer in Sihanoukville. As my face

gradually became more familiar and I formed early friendships with some women

working in Sihanoukville‘s brothels, others called out to me and asked me to come over,

sit down and have a chat. Our shared interest in learning about each other allowed me to

not only make ―first contact‖, but also to begin forming friends as we started hanging

out together. Over time I kept on visiting, and we would sit and talk over drinks, snacks,

meals, play card games, make jewellery, dye each others‘ hair, get manicures or

pedicures. We even went mud-crabbing in the local National Park one day.

       Through a colleague still engaged in development work in Cambodia, in July

2003 I was invited to participate in a workshop conducted in Sihanoukville on

reviewing and expanding a new HIV intervention strategy. This presented me with the

opportunity of being introduced to some of the staff of Khmer Women‘s Cooperation

for Development (KWCD), a local non-government organisation (LNGO) that had

programs with sex workers in Sihanoukville. This was a timely introduction and

allowed me to develop a relationship with KWCD, which I maintained throughout my

fieldwork. Further, this workshop allowed me to identify key government and other

                                                                             Chapter One: Introduction

non-governmental staff and agencies involved in the regulation and monitoring of sex

work and sex workers in Sihanoukville. This included the Department of Health, Office

of Social Affairs, Labour, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation, and the

Municipal Authority (most notably the Third Governor of Sihanoukville).

Interviews with Sex Workers and Sex Business Owners and Managers

In-depth interviews were based on a process of free interaction between participants and

myself, and of talking with and listening to participants. I conducted in-depth face-to-

face interviews with women working in brothels and nightclubs and sex bus iness

owners and managers in Sihanoukville during the later stages of my fieldwork.

        Consent to conduct interviews with sex workers and brothel owners was gained

verbally prior to commencing interviews. 13 Overall, I conducted forty interviews with

sex industry participants. 14 Interviews with brothel-based sex workers were conducted

at their place of work during daylight hours as this minimised the impact on workplace

schedules and routines. For nightclub-based sex workers, interviews were conducted

during daylight hours at their rented accommodation. Respecting that most sex workers

were potentially at work while I was speaking with them, I did not let the interview

impinge upon work requirements and minimised interference by conducting interviews

when client turnover was low (Wade and Matelijan 1994:292-300). During daylight

hours, most women had their free time, a time when customers are few and they are able

to relax, have fun and do what they want to. Women working in the nightclub were able

to do as they pleased during the day because their shifts did not start until approximately

7 pm. During interviews, we discussed their life stories, migration, poverty, debt, rural

and urban life, working conditions, and the 100% CUP and policing practices.

   Appendix one contains a basic Khmer language research disclosure used for negotiating the consent of
brothel owners and sex workers with English translations.
   Appendix t wo contains a list of all interviews conducted as part of my research.
                                                                                  Chapter One: Introduction

Research Sample

Based on my own observations and supported by statistical data provided by the Chief

of Ward (Sangkat) Three, Pov Rithy, on the registration of workers and brothels as part

of the 100% CUP, I estimated that approximately one hundred and seventy five (175) to

two hundred (200) female sex workers worked in Phum Phka Chhouk during the time

of my fieldwork (Interview, Pov Rithy, 7 February 2004). 15 From this number,

approximately fifty women had migrated from Viet Nam, bringing the total amount of

Khmer sex workers to more or less one hundred and twenty five (125) women

(Interview, Pov Rithy, 7 February 2004). This total was further broken down to ten

Cham (Khmer Islam minority group) women, with the remaining one hundred and

fifteen (115) women identifying as Khmer Buddhist (Interview, Pov Rithy, 7 February

2004). I carried out thirty-three in-depth interviews of approximately one and a half to

two hours duration with Khmer female sex workers at fourteen of Phum Phka Chhouk‘s

estimated forty-eight brothels. However, due to extreme noise levels from funeral rites,

karaoke and other celebrations, audiotaping did not work for two interviews that were

very hard to conduct. This thus represents about 30% of the selected population in


           While Pov Rithy claimed that forty-eight brothels were registered with him

under the auspices of the 100% CUP, when I was conducting my fieldwork I estimated

that just under a third of this number were closed down and not open for business

(Interview, Pov Rithy, 7 February 2004). This observation also matches the numbers he

cited for worker registration being 175 women. Most brothels that I visited were staffed

by four to five women, which would account for approximately thirty- five to forty

brothels open for business. I carried out interviews with five brothel owners and a

     Phum Ph ka Chhouk (Lotus Flower Village) is not the real name of the area.
                                                                    Chapter One: Introduction

nightclub manager. This represents about 17% of Phum Phka Chhouk‘s estimated

thirty-five brothel owners and managers.

       Vietnamese sex workers were not included in this study as their life stories

introduce different issues and practices beyond the scope of this project. Further, the

inclusion of Vietnamese women working in the Sihanoukville sex industry would have

necessitated learning another language and examination of a very different cultural

context and would have been a thesis in itself. With the assistance of KWCD I was able

to interview two of their sex worker peer outreach officers.

       I also interviewed the Chief of Ward Three who was an invaluable source of

statistics and information on the city‘s 100% CUP, in operation since October 1998. In

addition to this, I met the HIV/AIDS Program Manager at the sex workers‘ STI clinic at

the Chamkar Chek (Banana Field) Hospital in Sihanoukville. I interviewed the local

Chief of the Police, Director of the Department of Health and the Third Governor. I also

interviewed a staff member of the local branch of Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation

Précaire (Acting for Women In Distressing Circumstances – AFESIP) and the Director

of KWCD.

       In Phnom Penh, I met with founding members of the Cambodian Prostitutes‘

Union (CPU). I also conducted interviews in English with the Asia/Near East Regional

HIV/AIDS Advisor for the United States Agency for International Development

(USAID), Directors of the non-government organisations (NGOs) AFESIP, Khmer

HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance (KHANA), Cambodian Women‘s Development Association

(CWDA) and the Deputy Director of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology

STDs (NCHADS). During interviews we discussed the 100% CUP, police practices, the

situation of sex workers in Cambodia and their various programs related to sex workers.

                                                                                 Chapter One: Introduction

         All interviews with sex industry participants and the staff of LNGOs and civil

servants were conducted in the Khmer language and were taped only after gaining the

permission of participants. I reached intermediate proficiency in written and spoken

Khmer. However, coming from a Northeast Asian language learning background

(Korean and Japanese) I did find the Khmer language very difficult to learn. While I

reached an intermediate level, my training did not give me the level of fluency I had

hoped to achieve before commencing interviews. Despite this, I wished to act as the

principal interviewer because, as my thesis shows, sex workers in Cambodia are a

heavily stigmatised and socially ostracised group. I did not wish to risk these dynamics

in my interviews so I decided to carry out interviews with sex workers and sex business

owners and managers as well as civil servants on my own.

         While in Sihanoukville I employed two part-time field assistants who

transcribed verbatim all interviews, as I did not have the level of language experience

required for the task. 16 My field assistants also helped me to understand colloquial

Khmer and from their initial exposure to interviews, they helped me understand

people‘s responses and helped me refine questions and understand answers. Upon

transcription into Khmer by my field assistants, all tapes were erased, as was required

by the ANU‘s Ethics Committee.

Thesis Overview

My thesis examines the experiences of women working in the sex industry in Phnom

Penh and Sihanoukville, Cambodia. It looks at the social and legal status of sex work in

the country and issues related to sex workers‘ autonomy and factors constraining this

  I would like to thank Madam Satu m, Director o f KWCD, for allowing me to take on one of their
volunteers; I met my other field assistant through my part-time job at a local expat bar/restaurant. I
emp loyed both on a part-time basis because of their prior co mmit ments and heavy workloads.
                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

that extend beyond structural forces (poverty and patriarchy) and includes laws, police

practices and HIV interventions.

        In chapter two I examine the modern history of regulating prostitution in

colonial Cambodia, a former French colony. Focusing on French attempts to regulate

prostitution, in this chapter I trace the development of a regulatory system in which

prostitution was ―tolerated‖ in certain circumstances. I argue that the policing of forms

of recreational sex, such as prostitution, through the establishment of regula tions,

taxation and health systems, saw prostitution solidify, and led to the genesis of the ―sex

industry‖ as it exists today.

        Then in chapter three, I look at how prostitution became embedded in local

cultural practices and outline the ambivalent attitudes towards prostitution during the

years of independent rule. I consider the move away from tolerance-based approaches to

prostitution control, as more extreme views towards prostitutes and prostitution began

to surface, and then the reinstatement of ―cond itional tolerance‖ with the threat of HIV.

However, throughout these different regimes the prevalent view was (and still is) that

women who exchange sex for a fee are morally corrupt. Thus, while I argue that

prostitution was ―tolerated‖, it certainly was not approved and the profession continued

to carry social stigma for women.

        In chapter four I examine the laws surrounding sex work in Cambodia today. In

this chapter, I consider the ways in which the laws impinge on women workers and how

working conditions mould the differential power that women can exert. With many

women coming from villages in rural Cambodia, in this chapter I show how as part of a

capitalist sex industry, many women have been proletarianised. I look at some of the

consequences of this for women workers and highlight how being seen as members of a

nascent proletariat limits their choices and experiences. Examining differences in

                                                                     Chapter One: Introduction

women‘s labouring experiences, in this chapter I argue that the dichotomy of

―voluntary‖ and ―forced‖ sex work is not as clear cut as many seem to believe, and

show how the free/forced framework does not necessarily reflect women‘s lives and


       I continue with the issue of women‘s agency in sex work in chapter five as I

examine some of the varied reasons for women becoming involved and staying in the

trade. In this chapter, I draw out the intricate patterning of individual choice and

coercion in women‘s experiences and link the situation of women to that of constrained

choice. Thus, I argue against the free/forced dichotomy which informs understandings

of sex work internationally.

       In order to understand the dominance of female labour in Cambodia‘s sex

industry, in chapter six I examine some of the ideologies that are used to justify and

legitimate the sex trade, which is predominantly ordered around male interests. In this

chapter, I look at how sex workers are affected by ideologies that both create the

demand for sex work and condemn women working in the industry as deviant. I

examine the consequences of this for sex workers who are often working women driven

by strong family values and aspirations for a better future for themselves and their

families. In this chapter I argue that, while women working in the sex industry face

strong social stigma, the modern day trade is an integral part of the social fabric of

Cambodian society.

       Chapter seven looks at the 100% CUP and demonstrates how, despite the

promise of providing an enabling environment, it is rather compounding the

disempowerment of sex workers. In this chapter, I look again at the complex dialectic of

agency and coercion in the specific context of HIV interventions. I examine the

dominant medico-moral discourse informing this approach and show how ultimately it

                                                                                 Chapter One: Introduction

is a discourse of exclusion and control. In this chapter, I argue that the labelling of sex

workers as ―core transmitters‖ in the HIV discourse has led to their further harassment,

control and medicalisation, as the program has combined mandatory medical

registration and health testing with police registration. I show how this has intensified

the coercive power that the authorities can exert over women.

           I close my thesis with a postscript for a very important reason. As I write this

thesis, the area where I based my research has ceased to exist, at least in the form in

which I and everyone who participated in the study knew it. This alarming erasure was

captured by the Sihanoukville-based contributor to the popular expat magazine Bayon

Pearnik: ―Next month we will rove around looking for that special lady that supposedly

used to be in abundance in Snooky but is now nearly extinct‖ (2005:7). 17 Known by

expats as the notorious ―chicken farm‖, when I returned for a follow- up trip in October

2004 almost all of the brothels on the north side and parts of the south side of the

roadside brothels were gone to port redevelopment and construction of a Special

Economic Zone (SEZ). With the red-dirt road in such a serious state of deterioration

that it was little more than an unnavigable sea of car-eating potholes, many of the

remaining brothels had lost their women as, like their customers, they headed into town.

           In my postscript I consider the influence of the 100% CUP on the rise in karaoke

and, as part of Cambodia‘s ―growth corridor‖ stretching from Phnom Penh to

Sihanoukville, the redevelopment of the port zone. This will fundamentally transform

the future of monetised sexual exchanges in this coastal city. As Cambodia pins its

economic hopes on a heavily feminised labour sector, predicated on the exploitatio n of

local labour to produce export products, these changes have broad reaching

ramifications, not only for my study but also for Cambodian women.

     ―Snooky‖ is expat slang for Sihanoukville often used by foreign nationals residing in Sihanoukville.

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