Hoefinger, Heidi: Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia. Professional girlfriends and transactional relationships. 214 pp. and 4 figs. The modern anthropology of Southeast Asia. Routledge, Abingdon and New York 2013, US-$ 145
Unlike the scorcher title of this publication might hypothesize, Heidi Hoefinger presents an in-depth field study on intimate ethnography, connected lives and sexual landscapes in developing Cambodia. Hoefinger, an American development researcher and lecturer of gender studies in Chiang Mai University, Thailand, examines bar-girl subculture in terms of alternative kinship, cross-border relationships and – assumingly most important – the access to assets, money and real estate resulting from sexual services delivered by Cambodian women. The materiality invested to maintain relationships, the global nightscape, the sexual landscape of Cambodia and the entertainment industry are closely connected to spatial, ethnic, political and legal dimensions. Starting with the essential figure of the “professional girlfriend”, Hoefinger is aware of the surely discomforting grey area where transactional relationships, supply and demand collide.
In seven chapters that are the result of multi-annual research studies including undercover examinations and interviews with female and male informants, the author shows that the resulting transnational relationships between Cambodian women and their foreign partners (Khmer: barang men) are multi-layered. Gender stereotypes and double standards: Hoefinger highlights the ever-present tensions modern Cambodian women experience between desires to be liberal and sexually modern – along with the growing economy in sectors such as garment, real estate, tourism, art and fashion – while retaining elements of “respectable” Khmer femininity and wholesomeness (p. 131). Surprisingly, the figure of the professional girlfriend who is on the rising trend particularly after the global financial crisis that hit Cambodia’s garment industry and left thousands of female garment workers unemployed and diverted them into the bar and club scene of Phnom Penh.
Following Hoefinger’s theory, radical feminist perspectives ignore the voices and agency of postcolonial women who are resisting and subverting the patriarchy. By leaving their homes and properties in the remote rural provinces and moving to cities such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville – the tourist destinations of Angkor Wat and the seaside – young Cambodian women are resisting the demands of contemporary codes that require them to remain subservient (p. 6). On one hand, emotional labour is moving to the marketplace, not only in Cambodia, but also in Vietnam and – with a remarkable history – in Thailand. On the other hand, the phenomenon of taboo-breaking “phallic girls” or “modern global girls” (pp. 17 and 55) mirrors a new emerging sexuality within the Cambodian youth. The existence of transnational partnerships has to be contextualized through the looking-glass of history, gender equality, power, political economy, family and sexuality.
Intimate ethnography involves alternative kinship and subculture in Phnom Penh’s three legendary tourist areas: The lakeside (the filled-in Boeung Kak Lake), the strip (a tourist street near the central market, renowned for its debauched nightlife and increasing income of the landowners) and the riverside (several streets parallel to the Tonle Sap River). Within the riverside territory, there are still numerous prime land plots waiting for professional entertainment development to host hostess bars, brothels, karaoke venues and beer gardens (pp. 112–116). Doubtlessly, competition in this sector is increasing. As Phnom Penh continuously expands due to population growth, selected valuable sites will become scarce. Both sexual and real estate landscapes including rent-seeking behaviour of landowners are steadily evolving.
Although attitudes around gendered domesticity are changing in Cambodia, according to Hoefinger, female bar managers express frustrations with the position of women in the country and the stigma people have against women who work in bars. Women attach themselves to westerners in the hope of gaining social, sub-cultural and material capital including “a large house and hire domestic help” (p. 166). In addition, a gap between official law and general implementation practice can often be diagnosed. Land law, family law, the Civil Code or the Cambodian Constitution may simply be unknown by the majority of the population, or the legal system can be de facto out of reach for many. The popular transactional relationships have to be contextualized with the inner-Cambodian migration as said above. Field surveys brought evidence about the lack of security in view of joint land titles in particular in the event of separation, divorce, abandonment, multiple marriage relationships (polygamy) or death of the husband.
Hoefinger’s work does not only show the materiality of everyday relationships, the expansion of prostitution following foreign troops after 1979 or designing the “emotional geography” in modern Cambodia, far beyond the debate on human trafficking, exploitation and prostitution in Southeast Asia. Instead, Hoefinger offers multiple examples of Cambodian women acting self-confident in the sexual landscapes and who circumvent asymmetries of power. Thus they could turn Phnom Penh into a space of opportunity rather than one of domination (p. 178). The current debate in Cambodia among NGOs underlines this. Women are to have the same rights in marriage as their spouses with respect to ownership, management, enjoyment and the disposal of property.
In the final chapter, Hoefinger presents scenarios of positive changes – she calls them success stories – of girls with whom she had consistently communicated with over several years in her research. Some managed to move out of Phnom Penh, back to their provincial villages and families. Indeed, the irony here is that these women found happiness not in the arms of a distant foreign lover, but right in their own backyards and homelands. Some purchased concrete or wooden houses with joint-titled land certificates and open shops. Joint titling of land has generally increased in the Cambodian land distribution program due to pressure from the women’s movement, NGOs and international donors. Joint ownership – in the terminology of the Cambodian Land Law: Undivided ownership – may be interpreted as an important strategy to ensure that the process of formalizing land ownership does not unwittingly produce gender-discriminatory effects.
Geographers and ethnographic scientists dealing with “emotional issues” such as transnational migration and access codes to natural resources should have a look inside this unusual, however controversial, Cambodian history from the perspective of gender and sexuality.
(former Land Management and Planning Advisor for GIZ in Cambodia, 2008-2011)
Marks, S. and Prak, C. T. (2009): Hostesses’ hard choices. Tracing the career paths of Phnom Penh’s hostesses. The Cambodia Daily, 11–12 July, 12–13.
Mehrak, M.; Chhay, K. and My, S. (2008): Women’s perspectives: a case study of systematic land registration. Phnom Penh.