I was recently asked by Hysteria, a new feminist periodical coming out of London, to contribute a piece on sex work and feminism for their third issue titled "Abjection". I took this opportunity to talk about the recent Somaly Mam scandal that was exposed in Newsweek, and its relationship to anti-trafficking efforts, sex work realities, and the problems with 'anti-sex work' abolitionist feminism in Cambodia. The print copy of the periodical was launched in New York in August 2014, and the online version of the article will be available on the Hysteria website in October 2014. For now, here is what the print layout looks like, with the text copied and pasted below so it's easier to read. I'd like to thank Larissa Sandy, Joanna Busza, John McGeoghan and Melissa Ditmore for their feedback on this article.
What does feminism look like in Cambodia? It comes in many forms. Women fighting for their rights in response to forced evictions from their land by male-dominated governments and international corporations. Female garment workers striking against their (mostly) male bosses for increased pay and better working conditions. Women politicians trying to have their voices heard within stringently male-dominated politics. Female and transgender sex workers demanding respect and recognition as human beings for the decisions they make to sell sex. The first three examples are fairly uncontroversial territory within feminist debate in that they are generally agreed upon as worthy and acceptable feminist issues—all women should have the right to their land, to better factory work conditions, and to participate in politics. But the fourth example remains a fierce ideological battleground.
The dominant feminist discourse around sex work in Cambodia—at least the one most audible due to the hegemony of the international ‘rescue industry’ there—is that of ‘anti-sex work’ abolitionist feminism. Within this model, prostitution is conflated with sex trafficking and is thus always viewed as an act of violence against women; no 'prostituted woman' could ever willingly decide to do this work, and thus she should be rescued from it and taught other vocational skills, like sewing, so that she can participate in forms of more ‘dignified' labour, like factory work; and any 'prostituted woman' who does not identify as a victim in need of saving is simply an objectified pawn of the patriarchy. Hence, the sex industry and sexual slavery (considered one and the same) should essentially be abolished.
One of the most visible abolitionists in Cambodia has been Somaly Mam. Cambodian-born Somaly Mam and The Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) have become globally famous due to Somaly Mam’s efforts in speaking internationally about her own experiences as an orphaned trafficked victim who allegedly spent her life enslaved by various violent men and brothel owners. These stories have been painstakingly detailed in her memoir, The Road to Lost Innocence (2005). As a result of her confessions, and the parading of other female 'victims' of trafficking in front of cameras so that they may describe their abuse in lurid details, Somaly Mam has won prestigious awards and millions of heartfelt dollars. Rich westerners and celebrities, both outraged and moved by the ‘trauma stories’ have generously opened their pockets so that she could continue her rescue work—work which has involved accompanying police on brothel raids in order to rescue women (who do not necessarily want to be rescued) and detaining them in vocational shelters, or sending them to government-sponsored ‘rehabilitation centres’ (which, in Cambodia, are nothing more than prisons).
The problem with Somaly Mam’s work is that it has mostly been based on falsehoods and exaggerations. According to investigative journalist Simon Marks, who broke the latest story in Newsweek in May 2014, she was not an orphaned sex slave for most of her young life. Instead, she was raised by her biological parents and attended school until high school (a privilege many girls do not have in Cambodia due to gendered inequities in education). In at least two cases, the young women she paraded in front of the media were not victims of sex trafficking either—but instead persuaded to say so in order to raise funds for SMF and Somaly Mam’s anti-trafficking NGO in Cambodia, AFESIP (Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire).
After seeing these revelations in print, I am left with two feminist questions: How is this kind of feminised exploitation for gain any different from the male ‘pimps’ and other third parties who profit from the labour of sex workers whom she so vehemently opposes in her abolitionist anti-trafficking work? What have been the consequences of these allegedly false and unethical abolitionist tactics for other sex workers in Cambodia?
The answer to the first question is simple: in many ways, it is no different. She has used poor women and fraudulent stories for her own gain and international prestige—which works only to create a credibility issue for real survivors of abuse. She is guilty of exploitation for profit, and the consequences of this, and the anti-trafficking gravy train it has influenced, have been detrimental for many other people in Cambodia who make their livings from trading sex.
The anti-trafficking movement that Somaly Mam helped spur (starting with her first public appearance in a French documentary in 1998 with a Cambodian girl who allegedly auditioned to tell fabricated stories of her own sexual slavery), gained momentum when the anti-trafficking agenda became a priority of the Bush Administration in the early 2000s. By 2003, the ‘Global AIDS Act’ and the ‘Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act’ were implemented, which created a series of conditions for organisations receiving US funding for HIV or anti-trafficking programming. One of these conditions was the ‘anti-prostitution pledge’, which required recipients of USAID grants to explicitly oppose sex work and trafficking. Sex worker advocacy groups that did not have these policies in place or that refused to sign the pledge, had important funding pulled. As a result, certain condom programmes ended, and certain drop-in centres for sex workers were closed (Busza 2006).
Grassroots community-led groups in Cambodia, such as Women’s Network for Unity (WNU)—the current sex worker union with approximately 6400 members—were directly affected. Most local and international NGOs working with WNU at the time were heavily dependent on US funding, and as a result of the new stipulations, they ended their support for fear that collaborations with WNU would jeopardise their funding (Sandy 2013). Already-marginalised sex workers and their supporters, including feminists of other kinds (namely liberal, Marxist, socialist, or sex radical feminists), were further pushed to the periphery as the abolitionist anti-trafficking bulldozer raged ahead.
By 2008, the abolitionist movement had gained so much power in Cambodia that under pressure from the US and UK, the Cambodian government passed the ‘Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation’. This anti-trafficking law formally criminalised ‘soliciting in public’ and according to WNU, its implementation was (and continues to be) devastating to sex workers: large police sweeps of parks began taking place, where the possession of condoms was used as evidence of prostitution (despite that in the late 1990s, Cambodia implemented the ‘100% Condom Use Programme’ whereby owners and managers of all entertainment establishments had to enforce condom use as a condition of commercial sex).
According to both WNU and a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch titled Off The Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses Against Sex Workers in Cambodia, many cis- and transgendered adult women arrested during these sweeps were sent to vocational shelters, or to government run rehabilitation centres where they faced a number of abuses. These included being forced to urinate in the same plastic bags their rice was served in; HIV positive folks were denied their medications, and ‘pretty’ women were sexually assaulted by prison guards and police. The law that was meant to ‘save’ and protect victims of trafficking and prostitutes—who are one and the same according to the discursive and practical conflation of sex work and trafficking—has actually put many more cis- and transgendered women in danger of violence, abuse, stigma, and HIV transmission.
Another harmful consequence of Somaly Mam’s efforts, and those of other Western abolitionist feminists, has been the establishment of a culture of permanent victimhood for poor women in Cambodia. Impoverished women who sell sex are all portrayed as duped, naïve, lacking agency—and in need of saving (a convenient subjectivity for those making money off the rescue industry). Whenever I or other feminists contest this construction of powerless sex workers in favour of one that is more focused on agency and self-determination, we are told that we are simply perpetuating patriarchy; that “approving of the 'chosen careers' of such women does little to ground their 'choices' in reality”; and that in “portraying such women as self-reliant, capable, and career-oriented” we are overlooking the “more desperate aspects both of their individual situations and the situation of women in Cambodia in general”. Here, the ‘desperate’ effort of these feminists to continuously position Cambodian sex workers as powerless and incapable becomes clear.
Sex workers’ decisions to sell sex (within a stifling system of gendered constraints), and our recognition and respect for those decisions—are very much grounded in reality. And here’s the reality: Cambodia is, indeed, an incredibly patriarchal society. Women live under oppressive patriarchal conditions associated with strict gendered ideals, and on a daily basis, must negotiate the harsh social and moral codes that are meant to control their behaviour (originating from the Chpab Srei –or Women’s Code-- that were written by monks and elite men between the 15th and 19th centuries). These codes require women to stay close to home, to speak quietly, to dress conservatively, to not enjoy sex, and to accept their subordinate position to men, so that they remain ‘virtuous,’ and the household remains peaceful.
So, by leaving their homes in search of work, opportunity, and often respite from other, more oppressive conditions or abusive situations, they are breaking many of the social rules, and defying many of the moral codes which keep them subordinate and dependent on men. Thus, it could be argued, they are in fact, resisting and subverting the patriarchy—despite that this is often done in the context of the existing sexual and gendered status quo. Although sex workers’ experiences are heterogeneous and vary greatly across the sex and entertainment sectors, the case could also be made that by utilising men for their own material benefits, some women are undermining the unidirectional exploitation argument by blatantly ‘exploiting back’. And finally, although they are regularly stigmatised as ‘broken’ and ‘stained’, many Cambodian sex workers transgress the boundaries of respectability and challenge gendered double standards by becoming proud patrons and providers for their families, despite that their work is considered unrespectable and immoral.
This perspective of self-empowerment is by no means an attempt to ignore or deny the vast structural violence that women in Cambodia must grapple with on a regular basis. Instead, my aim is to point out that feminist perspectives which continually focus on victimhood, exploitation, powerlessness, and patriarchal oppression ignore not only the agency of Khmer women, and the unpredictable fluid ways that power shifts in structurally unequal situations, but also the ways in which young women blatantly subvert 'the patriarchy’ through the decisions they make to sell sex (--decisions which are often made after they have tried other forms of low-wage, ‘oppressive’ feminised labor such as factory work, street trading, or domestic work). By being proactive and attempting to find solutions to, at times, deeply violating social conditions such as domestic violence and poverty through their engagement in sex work, the women challenge perspectives of victimhood, and disrupt the dominant global discourse taking place around their lives.
In Cambodia and beyond, sex workers want to be respected for the decisions they make within some very difficult circumstances and constrained environments. They do not all want to be saved by ‘saviours’ who claim to know best. If anti-traffickers really want to put and end to the most exploitative cases of sexual exploitation, they should build trust and alliances with sex workers on the ground who most often have the closest access to these situations--not take away their main livelihoods by abolishing 'sexual slavery'--which is simply an inaccurate framing of the complexities of adult sex work.
Perhaps during this critical moment of re-evaluation of anti-trafficking efforts resulting from the fall of the ultimate 'rescue hero', concerned feminists of varying perspectives can come together to turn attention to broader issues such as global racial, economic and class inequalities, neoliberalism, and corporate globalisation, as well as to more localised issues in Cambodia such as gender disparities, rapid industrialisation, land disputes, working conditions, violent governmental suppression and political corruption. Only then can the structural preconditions behind the expansion of the contemporary Cambodian sex sectors—as well as the rights of the workers in those sectors—be addressed. Only then might the needs and desires of women and children involved in ‘real’ cases of sexual abuse and sexual labour against their will, be met.
Busza, Joanna (2006) "Having the rug pulled from under your feet: one project's experience of the US policy reversal on sex work" Health Policy Plan. 21 (4):329-332.
Sandy, Larissa (2013) "International agendas and sex worker rights in Cambodia" in Social Activism in Southeast Asia, Michele Ford (ed.), pp. 154-169, London: Routledge.