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Child sex: a secret shame
The myth that most paedophiles in Cambodia are Western belies a darker truth


ourteen years ago, a senior
member of Cambodia’s government was asked why the country
seemed indifferent to the sexual
exploitation of its children by expats.
He replied thus: "Do you not think that
Cambodians do these things yourself ?”
Contrary to its international reputation as a haven for Western paedophiles,
Cambodia has long harboured a secret
shame: the majority of child sex offenders that plague its provinces are not from
far-off lands, but native Khmers – a phenomenon not readily admitted by the
proud descendants of Angkor.
"Cambodian men are interested in
child sex because they believe – and this
belief has existed for many years – it can

help build or maintain their strength,"
says Chin Chanveasna, executive director of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT). "Local demand hasn't
been brought to the attention of the
public because the offenders are rich and
ECPAT prompted headlines in October
when it released a report in which all but
one of 43 child sex workers interviewed
said their clients were Cambodian. Although Chin Chanveasna described the
findings as "surprising", on closer examination they are anything but.
The misconception that sexual depravity is a foreign problem arose following
the arrival of the United Nations Transitional Authority on Cambodia in 1991.

Such was the sexual appetite of the 22,000
soldiers, police officers and administrators
who made up the peacekeeping force that,
within two years, the number of prostitutes in Phnom Penh swelled from 6,000
to more than 20,000.
As Cambodia struggled to regain stability, the clamour from Cambodian men
for underage prostitutes threatened to
outpace that of the UNTAC forces. Between 1992 and 1993, figures from the
Cambodian Women’s Development Association suggest, the average age of girls
entering commercial sex dropped from 18
years to between 12 and 15.
For the men who offend, the lure is
linked inextricably to myths of luck,
prosperity, even immortality. The pursuit

Photos: John Vink/Magnum Photos, APLE

By Laura J. Snook

of virgins is a distinctly Asian preoccupation, according to the International
Office for Migration, which in 2007 reported that only 9% of virginity-seekers
in Cambodia were of Western origin.
In The Virginity Trade, a recent documentary by British film-maker Matthew
Watson, one such buyer describes the
forces that drove him to deflower a child.
"Cambodian culture regards virginity as
very important. It is most sought after by
Cambodian men, so I decided I was ready
to pay for the thing men want the most. I
was told that if I had sex with a virgin girl,
it would increase my powers; enhance my
beauty. That is, stay young forever."
This concept of sexual alchemy can be
traced back to Taoism, a web of philosophical and religious traditions that
has been shaping Asian beliefs for more
than 2,000 years. In Secret Instructions
Concerning the Jade Chamber, a fourth
century Taoist text on harmonising male
and female energies, the author describes
the potential rewards:
'Now men who wish to obtain great
benefits do well in obtaining women
who don't know the Way. They should
also initiate virgins [into sex], and their
facial colour will come to be like [that
of ] virgins. However, [man] is only distressed by [a woman] who is not young. If
he gets one above 14 or 15 but below 18
or 19, it is most beneficial... The masters
preceding me, who transmitted the Way
to each other, lived to be 3,000 years old.
Those who combine this with medicines
can become immortal.'
Almost 1,000 years later, similar impulses were being etched into the walls
of Angkor Wat, seat of the mighty
Khmer empire between the 11th and
13th centuries. One inscription describes Jayavarman II's infatuation with
a woman of 'perfect body; of irreproachable face' waning when he realised she
was 'already deflowered'. Another speaks
of the king being pleasurably aroused by
'a virginal and enchanting wife, awkward
in revealing her charms'.
Within the temple city of Angkor,
prepubescent girls were ritually deflowered by Buddhist priests. A visiting

"I was told that if I had
sex with a virgin girl
it would increase my
Cambodian virginity-seeker

Chinese diplomat, Tcheou Ta-Kuan,
witnessed one such occasion in 1296.
Once a year, he wrote, the authorities
chose an astrologically auspicious day
for the ceremony. Girls aged between
seven and 11 would be summoned to a
deflowering chamber built by their parents, often deep in the jungle. There, the
priest would spend the night alone with
the girl, emerging the following morning with a vessel of bodily fluids believed
to possess magical, restorative powers.
The practice, known as chen-t'an by the
Chinese, had swept across Asia by the
13th century, but the beliefs at its core
would prove even more enduring – and
nowhere more so than among the political
elite. Reports of the personal life of Mao
Zedong, founder of the People's Republic
of China in 1949 and responsible for 70
million deaths, make reference to young
virgins being brought to his bed on a regular basis. The chairman believed it "would
help to restore and reinvigorate a man's
health and vigour", a sentiment that would
be echoed 25 years later by the Maoist
leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who, despite
banning sexual relations between ordinary

citizens, retained all the feudal rights of
deflowering virgins.
Religious prostitution has since ceased,
but the pursuit of child sex continues.
So cheap is Cambodia's supply that, by
2006, Chinese men accounted for 60%
of virginity-seekers in Phnom Penh (so
highly prized is virginity in China that,
until last year when it provoked outrage
among conservative lawyers in Egypt, one
Chinese company, Gigimo, distributed
an Artificial Virginity Hymen Kit. The
$30 product, designed to be inserted and
then 'broken', helps women fool men into
believing they are still virgins – culturally
important in societies where pre-marital
sex is considered illicit. The product has
since been withdrawn).
Some believe it can prevent and cure
HIV/Aids, a powerful motive in a country where many older prostitutes carry
the virus. Although it sounds primitive,
it’s a belief that straddles every strata of
society – even the moneyed elite, among
the most frequent offenders.
“Most of the customers who had sex
with virgins were Cambodian highranking officials,” one prostitute at a beer
garden says. “People tried to keep a low
profile regarding this problem, so that
not many people knew about that."
The modus operandi of virginity-seekers
often involves the promise of marriage,
a significant amount of money or both.
Within a few days, however, the perpetrator has usually fled. A Singaporean revealed many wealthy Asian businessmen
– including offenders from Korea,

Behind bars: in 2006
Henning Opitz from Germany
was arrested in Cambodia after
police found images of him with
children on his computer
DECEMBER 2010 31


Japan and Taiwan – tour Cambodia's
provinces, paying up to $4,000 for virgin
girls held captive in private homes while
potential buyers are brought in. The average age of the girls is 11.1 years.
What makes these violent acts of exploitation possible is the desperate plight
of a faltering, post-conflict economy
erected on the twin pillars of corruption
and impunity. This, along with the social
conflict that accompanies accelerated
modernisation, has created a genderdysfunctional society in which women

are expected to act both as guardians of
tradition and economic providers.
"In the past, the role of women was upholding the sovereignty of the nation on
the battlefield,” says Mu Sochua, opposition lawmaker and former minister for
women's affairs. “You can see on the basreliefs of Angkor, women holding spears.
One of the former leaders on trial now,
Ieng Thirit, is also a woman – the brains
behind the Khmer Rouge."
It was in the wake of the Khmer Rouge's
collapse in 1979 that, for Cambodia's



he United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by
Cambodia on November 14, 1992, but its implementation is left to individual governments and it would be 16 years before the provisions entered
the nation's legislative text. In 2005, the ministry of interior developed 'Plan
of Action No. 23', which outlined several measures to combat the exploitation of women and children. In a bid to centralise anti-trafficking efforts, the
government established its first national task force in 2007. A year later, it
passed the law on trafficking and exploitation, increasing penalties against
child sex and adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards corrupt government
officials. In 2009, the ministry of social affairs issued new guidelines to improve victim treatment and protection, but the effects have yet to be seen. The
same year, the US Department of State's annual trafficking report identified
local demand for child sex for the first time and placed Cambodia on the Tier
2 Watch List. Despite noting that corruption continues to plague anti-trafficking efforts, the US removed Cambodia from the list in 2010.


women, the real battle began. "Most of
the men were killed, but women came
back and we reformed the land on our
own," Mu Sochua says. "We're out now
in the factories due to economic necessity, but because this is a time of peace,
our culture expects us to be the woman
in the home."
In 1993, the new Constitution promised
an unprecedented age of gender egalitarianism – a promise it has failed to deliver.
Women's primary role in Khmer society is
still to embody purity and those who challenge that expectation are treated harshly.
"In many senses of the word, from physical virginity to moral and mental purity, it
is carved in stone – and if your culture is
carved in stone, it is extremely difficult to
change," Mu Sochua says.
The tenets behind this mentality can be
found in the Chbap, moral treatises combining popular custom with Buddhist
principles. The rules for girls, Chbap Srey,
were adopted as the basis of the new curriculum in 1979 as the few teachers who
survived Pol Pot scrambled to rebuild the
nation's education system.
According to the Chbap Srey, young
women have a duty to remain a virgin out
of 'gratitude' to their parents and any girl
'indecent enough to venture out alone at
dawn, noon or twilight' risks being raped.
The gender imbalance is reinforced in the

Street crawlers: a young girl waits for clients. Police raids on brothels have since forced the child sex trade deep underground

Photos: Siv Channa, Ryan Plummer, both for SEA Globe; Matthew Watson/Zealot Films (3)

Watch out: an example of a poster aimed at reducing the exploitation of children in Cambodia's provinces

Khmer proverb 'Men are gold, women are
cloth', which suggests boys can be washed
clean, but once a girl is stained, she's ruined for life.
This sense of jengjom, or filial piety,
helps perpetuate child prostitution to
this day. Mothers sell daughters into
sexual slavery to repay the debt of raising
them; the social stigma attached to being
a victim of rape, often committed by male
relatives or neighbours, drives other girls
to seek out sex work voluntarily. Underpinning these decisions is the Buddhist

At risk: child
sex workers
filmed in
areas in Phnom

notion of karma, which results in many
women simply accepting their fate.
This mother's tale is typical of many:
"My living was desperate and I was in
debt. I had to sell my daughter to someone. I sold her for $300. My daughter has
to work for the [brothel] owner for one
year to pay back the $300 debt. Now I'm
thinking of taking my daughter back. I
feel so sorry for her. I love her so much."
Earlier this year, the US Department of
State removed Cambodia from the list of
countries not doing enough to combat
human trafficking, while acknowledging the relevant laws are at best patchily
implemented. The decision met with ire
from human rights activists, who pointed to the department’s own Trafficking
In Persons report, which notes that police raids on brothels are often linked
to non-payment of bribes and detained
prostitutes are regularly raped.
While this climate persists, responsibility for reducing local demand falls primarily to the non-governmental sector.
Some advocate education, others condone a more punitive approach. Steve
Morrish, executive director of SouthEast Asia Investigations into Social and
Humanitarian Affairs, is among the latter. "Asian interest in the virginity trade
is built-in and no amount of education is
going to stop that,” he says. “You can't just

get a manual out and tell people 'Don't
do that because it's wrong.'"
Asked by ECPAT what would change
their behaviour, most Cambodian men
took a different view. Campaigns that
raise awareness and encourage buyers to
rethink their role were identified as potentially effective by 78.6% of respondents. Less than 50% listed prosecution.
The Cambodian Defender’s Project
offers legal representation to victims of
trafficking. Executive Director Sok Sam
Oeun concedes that changing men’s
mindsets will take generations. Until a
few years ago, the legal age of consent
was not specifically defined in Cambodian legislation, but was widely understood to be 15. “The problem is custom
versus modern law,” he says. “In Cambodian custom, when a girl reaches puberty, she is considered an adult. Some
police officers don’t even know the legal
age is 18.”
Unravelling a cultural phenomenon
"set in the mind as much as it is set in
stone" requires a seismic shift in gender norms. "All that you can't change
by arguing between preserving culture
and advancing human rights," says Mu
Sochua. "It has to be equal: that's what
we need to teach society. That's why we
need to change the proverb to 'Men are
gold, women are precious gems.'"
DECEMBER 2010 33

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