Monday, February 14, 2011

How Much Does Sex Cost in Southeast Asia?

How much does sex cost in Southeast Asia?  Sometimes everything. This is the story of one of those sometimes.

I'd like you to “meet” Sophie. She is my friend and was my neighbor. Sophie isn't her real name, of course, but it is the name she is known by, and it is what we will call her here.

Her story is typical. So many girls here have told me a similar story. She went to school only three years. She has forgotten how to read or write, but she can do simple sums and subtraction. Her family had to end her education when she was nine years old so she could go to work. First, she worked washing dishes in a local market, a pasar, and she was paid about $20 a month. It was better than paying $25 for school—a $45 net gain a month for the family, the price tag that was put on her future. Later, the family borrowed a little money to buy a cart, some jars and pickles, and she sold pickles on the roadside. The money was a little better and the work was not as hard, but at 500 reil a sell—that is almost 13 cents USD—it is hard to get ahead. The family was going into debt, though. They'd bought a motorcycle, and her father's work as a laborer was not steady. The Southeast Asian Recession must have impacted them. She ruefully told me that her father could, however, always afford 75 cents a day to smoke.

Then an uncle brought a friend home. The friend told the family that there was a job in Phnom Pehn for her working in a restaurant, waiting tables. The pay was good--$150 a month. Of that, $50 would go for her room and board, and $50 a month for the first year went to pay for the job. Lots of girls want a job like this, he told them, so you have to buy it. That would leave $50 a month for the family. What was more, he could give them a $300 advance now and would pay to take her there himself. She said if she had been asked, she would have gone. Going to live in the city sounded exiting to a young village girl. She'd never been to Phnom Penh before, and Kampong Cham was the largest city she had ever seen. She was never asked, though, and just before her 16th birthday she got on a bus with her uncle's friend and another girl from her same village to go to work.

Here, my telling of Sophie's story breaks down. I'm not sure if it is because she wanted to keep this part obscure, if it was the modesty of my translator who helped me learn Sophie's story, or if it was my own or the translator's confusion. What is clear is there was never a job at a restaurant. When they arrived in Phnom Penh, the uncle's friend handed them off to a madam and got $500 per girl in return. Then they were taken to a doctor. Then they were taken back and shown some Western pornography--job training, you could call it. I was later able to figure out the doctor's visit was probably to see if they were virgins.

Less than two weeks later, Sophie went to work. Her first client was a farang, a white man. She said was 45. His name was James, she remembers. She didn't speak any English. She knows only a half dozen standard phrases and how to count now. What she did know was that he had bought her for $2000 because she was a virgin. She has given $300 of that money. She was told she had gotten another $300 to pay for her expenses.  She remembers it hurt terribly, but he was very kind to her, bought her ice cream--the first time she'd ever had soft serve--and gave her $100 before he went home.

This began a familiar cycle. She was told she owed her madam thousands of dollars—what had been given to her family, her uncle, her uncle's friend, to pay for her room, her food, her clothes. She did not have to stay—as soon as she paid back the money, she could quit working. The one time she tried to run away they beat her. She couldn't work for two weeks afterward, and that only added to her debt. She never told her family the truth and diligently sent $50 a month, but later they found out somehow. She told me her mother cried, and her father didn't say a single word.  They needed her money.

That was in 2002. She has since moved to a different city, a different brothel. She costs men who use her body $30, but she only gets $20 of it. Her clientele has always been a mix of foreigners, some Europeans and Australians, but mostly Koreans and local Cambodians. She tells me none of the girls will go with blacks, Arabs or Indians. They smell bad, she says by way of explanation. 

She is always looking for a boyfriend. What that means is someone who will pay her not to have sex with other men. They come and go, a week or two weeks. She had a Korean man who had been sending her $100 a month, but that only lasted a few months and it never stopped her from working. She dreamed that one day a Korean man would fall in love with her and marry her, taking her to Korea. She tells me Korea is very beautiful. She likes Korean food.

Sophie moved two weeks ago. She went to Phnom Penh. She did not say good-bye to me or tell me where she was going or what she was going to do. It did not take long to find out, though.

Sophie has HIV. She gets tested after every 15 men, after every $300. That means about every month or so. The other neighbors, regardless of her confidence, divulged the entire story in the same way people relay the details of some horrific accident with a sort of tragic fascination. Sophie had gotten a “boyfriend” and he had been staying with her for the past three weeks. I hated him. I'd hear them fighting, and I'd seen her bruises. The neighbors had told me that after the second week, he'd convinced her to stop using a condom with him. After her test, he was tested, too, and was positive. The neighbors have concluded he must have given it to her since she used condoms with all her other clients, not considering that condoms are not fail-proof.

Sophie had to leave, though, because her madam found out she had the “bad inside” disease. That is what it is called—it was told to me, “She bad inside and now, maybe two years more, she die.” So she's gone back to Phnom Pehn where she can work in anonymity, where the disease inside of her will be unknown to the men who buy her, white, Korean, or Cambodian. Maybe she will have to work bars and streets as brothels may make her be tested--but where there are men, there are customers.

I asked this question to one of my “modern” Khmer male friends. I asked if it wasn't wrong for her to continue to work as a prostitute knowing she has HIV. His answer, harsh and unapologetic: “They know they're fucking a whore.” 

Bar Girls in Phnom Penh
When I posed the same question to my female friends, they were more sympathetic. “She's 24 years old, and all she knows is to boom-boom (have sex). How else is she suppose to get rice?” And then they inevitably give some commentary on their own good luck, that they have good husbands or have good jobs, or those that are also sex workers chide her for not wearing a condom with a three-week boyfriend knowing that three weeks is already a long stay.

Maybe you arrived here because my keywords matched your search as you figured out your sex budget. I hope that I've given you a picture of the real price of sex in Southeast Asia.

This article was originally published at http://www.southeastasiatraveladvice.com/2011/02/how-much-does-sex-cost-in-southeast.html

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