“My Blood, Sweat and Tears”:
Female Sex Workers in Cambodia –
Victims, Vectors or Agents?
Larissa Jane Sandy
A thesis submitted
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
The Australian National University
This work is the result of original research
carried out by the author except where
otherwise cited in the text.
Gender Relations Centre
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
The Australian National University
After five and a half years, I owe a great debt of gratitude to many different people and
organisations. I am first and foremost deeply indebted to all the women who shared
their lives with me for a brief period. I would like to express a special thanks to all
female sex workers I met as part of my research and to whom I owe a tremendous debt
for sharing their life stories with me; may my thesis help give voice to those who are
underrepresented internationally. Their generosity and openness was truly inspirational,
and it is to them that this study is dedicated. Their willingness to share their time,
knowledge and personal (and at times painful) stories with me is a testament to their
desire to bring an end to the intense social stigma and discrimination they face
everyday. I am also indebted to all the people who agreed to be interviewed.
I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisory panel. Their
encouragement and support, through the good and the bad, helped see me through to the
very end. I am truly privileged to have had the support of Prof. Margaret Jolly, my chair
and co-supervisor, from the very start of this work. The selfless work of my co-
supervisor, Dr. Penny Edwards, helped to see this project through to the end. I am
immensely thankful for the generous support, advice, enthusiasm and encouragement of
my two supervisors. Above all, I owe a great deal to their commitment and dedication to
this very long study. I am indebted to their guidance; may my thesis be worthy of their
stellar efforts. I am likewise indebted to my advisors: Dr. Alison Murray, who was with
me from the start of my work and Dr. Tamara Jacka who came on my panel midstream.
I would like to sincerely thank them for their generous advice and comments; my work
owes much to their fantastic structural feedback.
I would like to express my gratitude to all of the staff of WAC for allowing
me to volunteer with them while conducting fieldwork in Phnom Penh. Their insights,
assistance, knowledge, contacts, support and encouragement were both appreciated and
an invaluable aid in the completion of this project. WAC staff allowed me to participate
in fieldtrips and invited me to attend various workshops with them both in their offices
and around Phnom Penh and made office space and resources available to me while
volunteering with them. Likewise, I owe my thanks to the staff of KWCD for
accommodating me during my time in Sihanoukville. I greatly appreciated the
assistance and knowledge of the local staff, important in the completion of this project.
Furthermore, I thank KWCD for organising interviews for me with some of their peer
educators and for allowing me to participate in fieldtrips in Kampong Som as well as
inviting me to attend various workshops held by them at their office. I must also thank
the Australian National University, who provided me with financial assistance for this
thesis. This research was funded by an ANU Australian Postgraduate Award while the
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies provided fieldwork funding.
Many personal thanks are also due. I would like to express my particular
gratitude to Rosanna Barbero, Peter Arfanis, Helen Jarvis, Allen Myers and Gigi. I
would also like to thank Margaret Bywater, Chan Dina, Chea Chanthy, Graham
Fordham, Rachel Ingwersen, Kim, Craig, David, Con and Mr Lee, Simone and Adrian
Low, Manh Chhreup, Ces Millado, Greg Müller, all the staff at the National Archives
(especially Dari), Cheryl Overs, Pen Moni, Jodi and Christian Parvey, Pok Somnang
and her family, Prom Hen, Pry Phally Phoung, Elizabeth Reid, Ros Sokunthy, Sam
Vuthy, Madam Satum, all the staff at Scarlet Alliance, SWOP, SIN, SWOP ACT and
Empower Chiang Mai, Sim Socheata, Srei Mom, Josie Stockdill and John Thompson.
Each of you has contributed to this thesis in your own particular ways, for which I am
The biggest thanks of all goes to my family (Kay, Eric, Kylie and Martinique)
and partner (Matthew Sammels), as without them this thesis would never had come into
existence. Mum and Dad, your belief and pride in me saw me start and finish this.
Thanks for being brilliant parents and showing me how to dream and realise everything
I have ever wanted, but now, what next? My little sister, Martinique, had a helping hand
in my situation. Marti not only urged me to put in my Ph.D. application, but also
handled much of the trans-country (and cross-country) communications when I took off
to Asia after doing so. You‟re the best little sis, yarrh! I am also deeply indebted to my
wonderful partner, Matt, your material and non-material support and nourishment
sustained me through to the end. From the depths of my heart, I love you all, especially
Matt, to whom I owe so much.
This thesis sets out to explore and demystify two dominant images of female sex
workers produced by hegemonic discourses of our period: one a ruined, victimised
woman; the other a destroying body that is a public health menace. It challenges these
discourses of alterity, of the sex worker as “other” and their antithetical constructions of
In one discourse, sex workers are seen as “victims”, and their agency is denied
while the agency of saving redeemers is highlighted. Constructed as “helpless victims”,
female sex workers are seen as “erotic-pathetic sex slaves”, passive, exploited objects
often preyed upon by traffickers, sold into brothels by their parents or duped, lured or
tricked into situations of sexual slavery. Narratives on “sexual slavery” construct the
image of naïve, innocent, virginal victims enslaved in prostitution from which escape is
virtually impossible. In the other discourse, sex workers are seen as “vectors”. In this
discourse, deriving in large part from programs around HIV, sex workers have been
reinscribed as a “pool of infection” and constructed as agents of HIV. Their agency is
amplified to the extent that men and the “general population” are exempted from blame
and not seen as responsible.
The dominant contemporary images of sex slaves and infecting agents both have
deep historical roots. The thesis relates the contemporary sex industry to Cambodia‟s
colonial and independent history, suggesting that it has gone through important
transformations as policies have lurched from toleration and regulation in the colonial
period, and some later phases characterised by intolerance and suppression. This
historical tension between toleration and intolerance is reflected in the ambiguous
situation in Cambodia‟s laws today, an ambiguity that confers great powers on the
Based on ethnographic research and interviews with sex workers in
Sihanoukville, the later chapters show how women embrace multiple and conflicting
subject positions as they talk about structural constraints such as poverty and patriarchy
in relation to their own agency and self-determination. It thus sees women in a situation
of constrained choice.
My Blood, Sweat and Tears is part of the broader struggle to resignify the place
of sex workers internationally, especially in relation to the complex interplay between
structural constraints and determinants and women‟s agency and self-determination. Its
central conclusion is that an awareness of women‟s agency does not mean that we have
to ignore structural inequalities, grounded in gender or economics.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents vi
List of Figures viii
List of Acronyms x
Glossary of French and Khmer Terms xii
Map of Cambodia xvi
“Filles Malades”: Prostitution in French Cambodia, 1863-1953 52
Sihanouk‟s Thesis “A” and “B”: Prostitution in Modern Cambodia, 1953-2001 86
Sex Work and the Law: Beyond the Voluntary/Forced Dichotomy 124
Just Choices: Poverty, Patriarchy and Family Values 157
Inevitable but Undesirable: Sex, Stigma and Double Standards 197
The 100% CUP: The Promise of an “Enabling Environment” and the Reality of
Conclusion and Postscript 273
Research Disclosure in Khmer with English Translations 296
List of Interviews 300
Patient History and Medical Consultation Form for Sex Workers
First Attending Sihanoukville‟s STI Clinic 304
Standard Medical Consultation Form for Sex Workers Attending
Sihanoukville‟s STI Clinic 308
Throughout this thesis, pseudonyms are used for all sex industry participants in order to
protect their identity. The use of English language names was a requirement of the ANU
Human Research Ethics Committee who felt that the adoption of alternate Cambodian
names might have had ramifications for other sex workers who happened to bear those
names. Of course, this is not meant to reflect the adoption of English names by
Cambodian sex workers.
I follow Khmer conventions regarding given names and family names. In
general, the family name goes before the given name. For people from a non-Southeast
Asian background I follow the convention of given name, family name.
There is no standard romanisation of the Khmer language. To the best I was
able, I followed standard spellings in Khmer dictionaries such as Headley (1977).
Transliteration mostly follows the model formulated by Steven Heder and Judy
Ledgerwood (1996), based on Frank Huffman‟s system.
In interviews, … indicates a break by the speaker, while […] refers to the fact
that portions of the interview or citation have been edited out.
Throughout this study, all references to dollars are in US. While I was
completing my fieldwork, the US-riel exchange rate fluctuated from $1=3,800-4,000
List of Figures
Figure 1: Map of Cambodia (map by Cartography, Australian National University,
August 2006) xvi
Figure 1:1: “We Bid You Be Of Hope”, cover page of the „Maiden Tribute of Modern
Babylon‟ (Pall Mall Gazette 6 July 1885, p. 1) 16
Figure 1.2: “One of the Victims”, from „The Ruin of the Very Young‟ in the „Maiden
Tribute of Modern Babylon‟ series (Pall Mall Gazette 8 July 1885, p. 2) 17
Figure 1.3: “I Rescued These Girls From Sex Slavery” (Kristof, N. Marie Claire March
2004, p. 36) 30
Figure 1.4: “Love’s Labour Just Labour” (poster by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya
Committee, n.d.) 32
Figure 1.5: CPU Blessing, September 2003, Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh (photograph taken
by Larissa Sandy) 40
Figure 1.6: CPU Blessing, September 2003, Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh (photograph taken
by Matt Sammels) 40
Figure 2.1: Femmes Cambodigennes (photograph from H Series Photo Collection,
Archives Nationales du Cambodge, Resident Superieur Collection) 61
Figure 2.2: “Carte Politique de L’Indo-Chine”, October 1889 (map by M. François
Deloncle in Chhak Sarin, 1966) 68
Figure 2.3: Cadastral Map of Urban Lots in Phnom Penh, n.d. (Archives Nationales du
Cambodge, Resident Superieur Collection, File No. 403) 77
Figure 2.4: Rue de la Porte (now Street 15), circa 1900s (photograph from H Series
Photo Collection, Archives Nationales du Cambodge, Resident Superieur Collection)
Figure 2.5: Lots 216, 217 and 220 on Rue de la Glacière (Street 154), Phnom Penh,
March 2004 (photograph taken by Matt Sammels). 79
Figure 2.6: Close-up of a window of lot 219 on Rue de Fésigny (Street 148), Phnom
Penh, March 2004 (photograph taken by Matt Sammels) 79
Figure 2.7: Lot 214 on Rue de Fésigny (Street 148) looking down to Rue de la Glacière
(Street 154), Phnom Penh, March 2004 (photograph taken by Matt Sammels)
Figure 3.1: “Plan de Situation”, 1955 (map, Royaume du Cambodge, Mai 1955-Mars
1960, p. 3) 89
Figure 3.2: Sihanoukville, 1957 (aerial photograph reproduced in Royaume du
Cambodge, 1958, p. 23) 90
Figure 3.3: “Nouvelle Route (National Route 4)”, 1958 (map in reproduced in Royaume
du Cambodge, 1958, p. 35) 91
Figure 3.4: American Engineers Inspecting National Route 4, 1957 (photograph
reproduced in Vann, 2003, p. 193) 91
Figure 3.5: Norodom Sihanouk at Veal Renh Labour Site, 1967 (photograph reproduced
in Kambuja, 1967a, p. 39) 93
Figure 3.6: Veal Renh labour site, 1967 (aerial photograph taken by Raymond
Cauchetier reproduced in Kambuja, 1967a, p. 38) 93
Figure 3.7: “Flower of the Shore” (back cover advertisement, Kambuja, 1967b) 95
Figure 3.8: Sihanoukville Port, 1967 (advertisement printed in Kambuja, 1967a, p. 118)
List of Figures
Figure 3.9: Omui Street, Sihanoukville, October 2004 (photograph taken by Larissa
Figure 3.10: Omui Street, Sihanoukville, October 2004 (photograph taken by Larissa
Figure 3.11: Omui Street, Sihanoukville, October 2004 (photograph taken by Larissa
Figure 3.12: Omui Street, Sihanoukville, October 2004 (photograph taken by Larissa
Figure 3.13: Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh, April 1975 (photograph, DC-
Cam reproduced in the Phnom Penh Post, 8-21 April 2005, p. 9) 106
Figure 3.14: National Bank in Democratic Kampuchea (photograph taken by Ben
Kiernan, 1980) 106
Figure 3.15: Wax figurines of an UN blue beret with his arms around a srei taksii
(Cambodian Cultural Village, 2006) 114
Figure 3.16: “Darling!.. AIDS!.. Ouch!.”, 2004 (cartoon, sex worker and her client,
Cambodge Soir, 19 January 2004, p. 10) 120
Figure 4.1: Employees removing karaoke lettering from billboard, November 2001
(photograph reproduced in Cambodia Daily, 26 November 2001, p. 1) 149
Figure 4.2: “Martini Coming”, November 2001 (advertisement for re-opening of the
Martini Bar printed in Cambodia Daily, 28 November 2001, p. 7) 149
Figure 5.1: Population Pyramid, Cambodia, 2004 (graph produced by National Institute
of Statistics, 2004) 191
Figure 6.1: Tourist Map of Phnom Penh, 2006 (map by Kenneth Cramer reproduced in
Phnom Penh Visitors Guide, Canby Publications, accessed electronically) 214
Figure 7.1: WHO and NCHADS illustration of how the CUP is “the most effective
strategy” (World Health Organization and the National Centre for HIV/AIDS
Dermatology STDs, 2001, p. 5) 241
Figure 7.2: “No Condom No Sex” bilingual sign at the front of a brothel, June 2003
(photograph taken by Matt Sammels) 246
Figure 7.3: Regulation 104, the 100% CUP regulations in Sihanoukville, November
2003 (authors collection) 247
Figure 7.4: Medical control card, front view, March 2004 (authors collection) 251
Figure 7.5: Medical control card, back view, March 2004 (authors collection) 251
Figure 8.1: Hinterland of Sihanoukville port, December 2001 (photograph taken by
Larissa Sandy) 286
Figure 8.2: Hinterland of Sihanoukville port, June 2003 (photograph taken by Matt
Figure 8.3: Hinterland of Sihanoukville port, June 2003 (photograph taken by Larissa
Figure 8.4: Hinterland of Sihanoukville port, October 2004 (photograph taken by
Larissa Sandy) 287
Figure 8.5: Sihanoukville‟s EPZ as seen from Sihanoukville Mountain, October 2004
(photograph taken by Larissa Sandy) 288
Figure 8.6: The EPZ and the road leading to Phum Phka Chhouk, October 2004
(photograph taken by Larissa Sandy) 288
Figure 8.7: Inside Sihanoukville‟s EPZ looking out onto the rooftops of Phum Phka
Chhouk‟s brothels, October 2004 (photograph taken by Larissa Sandy)
Figure 8.8: Etching of Sihanoukville port on new 1,000 riel notes released in late 2005
(authors collection) 289
List of Acronyms
AFESIP Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (Acting for
Women In Distressing Circumstances)
AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
APNSW Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers
ANU Australian National University
BAY SWAN Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network
BSS Behavioural Surveillance Survey
CATW Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
CD Acts Contagious Disease Acts
COYOTE Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics
CPK Communist Party of Kampuchea
CPP Cambodian Peoples Party
CPU Cambodian Prostitutes‟ Union
CUMEC Condom Use Monitoring and Evaluation Committee
CUP 100% Condom Use Policy
CUWG Condom Use Working Group
CWDA Cambodian Women‟s Development Agency
DK Democratic Kampuchea
DMSC Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee
EPZ Export Processing Zone
FUNCINPEC Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre,
Pacifique, et Coopératif (National United front for an
Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia)
GDP Gross Domestic Product
GNI Gross National Income
HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus
HSS HIV Sentinel Survey
IEC Information, Education and Communication
INGO International Non-Government Organisation
IOM International Organization for Migration
JBIC Japan Bank for International Cooperation
KHANA Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance
KR Khmer Rouge
KWCD Khmer Women‟s Cooperation for Development
LNGO Local Non-Government Organisation
MFA Multi-Fibre Agreement
NAA National AIDS Authority
NCHADS National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology STDs
NGO Non-Government Organisation
NWSP Network of Sex Work Projects
100% CUP 100% Condom Use Program
OHK Oxfam Hong Kong
PRK People‟s Republic of Kampuchea
PRSP Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper
List of Acronyms
PSI Population Services International
RGC Royal Government of Cambodia
SEZ Special Economic Zone
SOC State of Cambodia
SRN Sangkum Reastr Niyum
STI Sexually Transmissible Infection
UN United Nations
UNAIDS Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS
UNICEF United Nations Children‟s Fund
UNTAC United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia
VD Venereal Disease
WAC Womyn‟s Agenda for Change
WHO World Health Organization
WNU Women‟s Network for Unity
Glossary of French and Khmer Terms
Brak khae salary or wages.
Brak khae tok table wages. The money earned by nightclub-based sex workers
when they sit at a customer‟s table and keep them company
throughout the night.
Carte santé health card all registered prostitutes were issued with by the
French colonial authorities.
Filles à numéro registered prostitutes working in a licensed brothel. They were
prostitutes with a number because their name and number was
recorded in a brothel-keeper‟s book.
Filles insoumises non-compliant or unregistered prostitutes who operated outside of
Filles isoleés prostitutes not dependent on a third party (e.g. a madam).
Filles publiques prostitute. Filles publiques means women for hire. At the turn of
the century, fille often meant “whore” and jeune filles was used
for “respectable girls” or young women.
Filles de maison brothel prostitutes.
Filles en carte independent prostitutes (filles isoleés) who registered with the
Filles soumises registered prostitutes who complied with the prostitution
regulations determined by the French authorities.
Joh chmouah to register with the authorities (a part of the 100% Condom Use
Kalib modern, high-class or sexy, from the French calibre.
Kmeng stiev bad boys (see also proh stiev).
Krouhtnak in the HIV discourse “risk”, especially sexual risk or sexual
Maisons closes plain compartment brothels located in the quartier réservé.
Glossary of French and Khmer Terms
Maisons de tolérance licensed brothels.
Mebaan the head of a brothel, or a brothel owner (madam) also known as
Muk thom big shots or village dignitaries (see also neak thom).
Neak thom big shots or village dignitaries, bong thom is also commonly used
by people living outside of Phnom Penh to refer to powerful
Police des mœurs/
Mœurs police Vice Squad.
Prakah ministerial proclamation.
Prapoun jong second wife or mistress.
Proh stiev bad boys. Proh stiev is often translated as “gangster”, however,
these “gangs” of mainly young urban men often lack the
organised networks associated with gang culture, and implied in
the sense of this English term.
Quartier réservé red light district.
Ruamphet kravbi pdayprapoun extramarital sexual relations, sex outside of husband
and wife or marriage.
Songsaa sweetheart or lover.
Srei baan brothel woman (brothel prostitute).
Srei bar bar woman (nightclub or bar-based prostitute).
Srei kalib modern, classy or sexy woman (see also kalib).
Srei karaoke karaoke woman (karaoke prostitute).
Srei khat leakkhana virtueless or disreputable woman.
Srei khouc prostitute (derogatory). Literally a spoilt, rotten or bad woman.
Khouc is also used to refer to naughty or disobedient children, but
when it is used to refer to women, as in srei khouc, it refers to a
woman who has sex before marriage or many sexual partners. In
this sense, khouc is gender specific, as it is a term that is not
applied to men. Srei khouc means a woman who has “gone bad”
or has been “spoilt” and attaches stigma not just to the occupation
of sex work but also to women personally. It is the most common
term used to refer to women working in the sex industry.
Glossary of French and Khmer Terms
Srei krup leakkhana perfectly virtuous woman.
Srei taksii taxi-girl. Many consider srei taksii to be a phenomenon from
Cambodia‟s UNTAC days; however, such explanations may fit
local versions of history, which boil down the effects of the UN
operation as bringing Cambodia AIDS and prostitution. Norman
Lewis (1982:172-4) discusses Cholon‟s Chinese and Vietnamese
“taxi-girls,” dance-hostesses that provided sex for a fee and their
“taxi-manager,” which shows that the term was in currency as far
back as 1950. Further, the term taxi girl was used in the 1930s in
Hong Kong, Shanghai and Malaya (Hershatter 1997; Manderson
1996). As a euphemism, “taxi-girl” refers to the fact that a
woman is believed to behave and be much like a taxi-car, in that
for a certain fee she goes around and rides (with) a lot of different
Srei thoamada “normal” woman, a woman who is not seen as behaving in a
sexually deviant manner or involved in allegedly criminal acts.
Srei trum truv “proper” woman. Like srei thoamada, srei trum truv is a married
woman with children who is seen to respect Cambodian cultural
Srei s’at la’or “respectable” woman, see above. S’at also means clean, so
literally srei s’at la’or means a nice and clean woman.
Srei roksii phlauvphet female sex worker. Literally a woman (srei) making a living
(roksii) from her vagina (phlauvphet). Srei roksii phlauvphet is a
gender specific feminine noun. It is considered offensive to use
the same masculine form for men, proh roksii phlauvphet, as it
implies a man making a living from his anus; proh lukkhleun (a
man selling his body) is generally used for male sex workers. Srei
lukkhleun is also used to refer to female sex workers.
Strei bumrao saevaa phlauvphet woman providing sexual services.
Taipan foreman or supervisor. Person/s in entertainment establishments
such as nightclubs and karaoke bars who are in charge of a group
of sex workers and who arrange sexual services. Also known as
mekar (minder or foreman) however, taipan is more widely used
in nightclubs and karaoke bars.
Thav kae the boss. Thav kae is used by sex workers to refer to their bosses
or sex business owners. This Chinese loan word means
snakehead in Cantonese and was originally used to refer to
people in control of Chinese migration chains.
Twer srei working girl, colloquial use by sex workers.
Glossary of French and Khmer Terms
Visite sanitaire health check for all registered prostitutes for venereal disease
conducted by physicians at the Dispensaire (Clinic). The visite
sanitaire was instituted by the French from the late 1880s onward
(also known as the contrôle sanitaire).
Map of Cambodia