Just as there is a pizza shop or deli on every corner in New York City, so too there is there sex for sale almost everywhere you look in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On the infamous street no. 63, customers meander nonchalantly in and out of local brothels located between busy coffee shops blasting music at ear-rupturing levels even at 9:30 a.m. School-aged girls on this street help out in cafés while classes are in session not far away, or just linger around watching bikini-clad, writhing Asian women on blaring flat-screen TVs.

As a middle-aged woman and some children sell fruit and snacks on the sidewalk under the morning sun in front of a storefront window, one young woman in white jeans and a t-shirt can be seen through the glass taking a male customer, presumably a Cambodian, into a room behind a curtain. Her colleagues, apparently waiting for customers, watch TV on a bench outside.

All over town, the women staffing these establishments come disproportionately from the country’s Vietnamese community, according to a report from Chab Dai, an NGO (non-governmental organization) that has found an increasing amount of anecdotal evidence that the number of ethnic Vietnamese sex workers is rising. It could even comprise up to 30 percent of Cambodia’s commercial sex industry, the group estimates.

Comprising a mere 5 percent of the country’s 14 million inhabitants, according to the CIA Factbook, Vietnamese represent a skewed proportion of the country’s commercial sex workers.

On the whole, Khmer families, Cambodia’s majority ethnic group, still comprise the bulk of those parents who sell their daughters into the sex trade, but research by Chab Dai suggests that nearly half of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese families have sold a girl into the sex trade.

“Most of the girls we rescue are Vietnamese,” said Steve Morrish, executive director of Sisha, an anti-trafficking NGO.

Cambodian men are estimated to account for around 46 percent of sex trade sales, according to Eleanor Brown, independent researcher and author of an International Organization for Migration report on trafficking. But NGOs say other nationalities, mostly Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Thai and other Asians (Westerners comprise the minority), are rapidly picking up the slack.

Traffic and demand for underage virgin girls is also thought to be on the upswing. Sanleang Seila, country director for French NGO Action pour les Enfants, said he expects the situation to worsen in 2008. The belief among some Asian men that sex with a virgin can bring physical rejuvenation and vitality is fueling demand, said experts.

“Based on today’s situation,” he said, “we perceive that the number will increase.”

Nonetheless, General Bith Kimhong, chief of anti-trafficking police of Cambodian’s Ministry of the Interior, downplayed concerns that the number of underage girls for sale was growing, saying that the government has seen no such increase.

Roots of the Vietnamese sex trafficking

Experts say that while a certain portion of Cambodia’s Vietnamese population is being trafficked within the country, the number coming from Vietnam is unknown. Still, one need not traverse borders to be considered trafficked, according to the United Nations, which defines trafficking broadly as the buying, selling, harboring or receiving of humans for exploitation.

“(The problem) is not just about Vietnamese crossing borders,” said Brown, “but it’s about the ethnic Vietnamese community here and why there’s so much trafficking among that community.”

Children in the Vietnamese community live in a “highly sexualized environment,” in which the adults around them habitually consume entertainment like gambling, cockfighting, heavy drinking and visiting brothels, Chab Dai reported. Children the NGO surveyed were easily able to point out local brothels and were often exposed to pornography, either at “porn cafes” or at home.

Chab Dai’s focus groups found that 70 to 80 percent of the Vietnamese community was “poor or very poor.” Families are often deep in debt and many earn $1 per day collecting cans from trash heaps. Women selling sex earn about $5 per day; this in a city where a single piece of fruit, for example, can cost up to 50 cents. The report also found that Cambodian NGOs were reluctant to engage the community due to historical animosities that appear to be increasing rather than abating.

Chab Dai found that poverty is just one of many economic factors for the prevalence of the sex trade among Cambodian-based Vietnamese families, along with sudden and extraordinary expenses, such as a sudden hospitalization in the family, debt and materialism. Cultural perceptions of the place of women also play a role.

Cambodia’s 1994 Immigration Law and the 1996 Nationality Law, which say essentially that ethnicity rather than birthplace determines one’s nationality, have banned ethnic Vietnamese, along with other foreigners from owning land.

Chab Dai found that ethnic Vietnamese are severed from their homeland. Added Brown: “Ethnic Vietnamese sometimes sold all they had to come to Cambodia,” yet remain largely disconnected from Cambodian society.

Brokering sex and parenting sales

Across town from street 63, more upscale women are found at a bar near the waterfront frequented by “sexpatriots” or mostly middle-aged Western men who come to Southeast Asia seeking cheap sex. Dim lighting and the music of such ’70s and ’80s rock icons as Journey and Queen provide the backdrop while young women encircle men twice or three times their age.

The women in this establishment, who outnumber the men at least five to one, are free to come and go as they please. For about $35, they can be taken to one of the many cheap hotels that line the dimly lit street.

“About 25 percent of the girls here are Vietnamese,” said one waitress who declined to give her name. She points out three heavily made-up girls in skin tight dresses hovering around a graying middle-aged Western man in a red Hawaiian shirt. He’s drinking a beer at a table on the balcony overlooking the palm tree-lined but trash-strewn street two floors below. A Vietnamese American interpreter describes the two girls’ accents and manner of speech as “ghetto,” indicating an under-privileged background.

The Vietnamese tend to be more fair-skinned than the Khmer, a physical attribute prized throughout much of Asia. For this reason, Korean tourists in the market for sex tend to be more interested in Vietnamese than in Cambodians, Brown said.

“They definitely go for lighter skin,” she said. By contrast, Western pedophiles tend to seek the swarthier Khmer, she noted.

About 30 minutes from Phnom Penh lies a village of wooden shacks accessible by a dirt road just off the main highway. Just seconds after entering, I was accosted by a young man with dyed brown hair who asked if I wanted a girl. When I declined, the young man said he could offer a boy or even children.

A sign on one of the shacks written in both Khmer and Vietnamese was telling, and locals say a good number of the women here are of Vietnamese descent.

Few in Cambodia are starving, but even so, both Cambodian and Vietnamese families in financial crisis, such as being hit suddenly with an emergency medical bill they can’t pay, are often approached by brokers, who are often known and even respected in the community, Brown said.

At times, the families themselves approach the brokers to sell their daughters, who may be told they are just going to a city to work. At first it may seem innocuous; girls work in beer gardens or Karaoke bars putting ice in customers’ glasses. But unbeknownst to them, the girls are actually on display to would-be clients wishing to purchase their sexual services from the club’s manager, said Brown. Girls are usually given a small portion of the profit, said Brown’s report.

Girls are often kept by the purchaser for two to four weeks and then returned back home where they attend school and do household chores as if nothing happened, said Brown. Other girls are put into brothels and stay in the trade for a longer time.

Lim Mony, director of ADHOC, an NGO, said that brothel owners selling girls have become adept at evading the gaze of authorities and are constantly changing the girls’ locations.

Indeed, the bulk of the sex trade has shifted from “direct,” or brothel-based sales, to “indirect” sales at high class establishments like karaoke bars and upscale hotels, said Brown.

Parents often play a key role, said Brown, whose report said parents sometimes even sign six-month renewable contracts with brothel owners so the owner can avoid responsibility if the police get wind of their activities.

Lim added that sex trafficking happens in all directions – from the provinces to Phnom Penh, from Phnom Penh to border areas near Vietnam and tourist centers like Siem Reap. Morrish said Thai men are also purchasing under-aged girls during trips to casinos in the country’s Ko Kong and Poipet provinces.

The sale of girls can command a high price from wealthy Cambodians or sex tourists.
Brown put the average fee for both Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) and Vietnamese at $482. Lim said it’s around $1,500.

The sex trade began to surge in the 1990s when UN peacekeepers arrived following the end of years of hostilities caused by the Khmer Rouge’s twisted ideology. While authorities have shut down some red light districts and commercial sex is theoretically illegal, it continues to thrive.

The link between Vietnam and Cambodia’s commercial sex trade dates back at least 100 years, as shown in a letter written in February 1875, during the French colonial period, by French naval officer Jean Moura. The letter was republished in “Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchman,” by Gregor Muller of the National Archives of Cambodia.

“Old women come to large towns, collect the abandoned prostitutes and bring them here (Phnom Penh), conjuring up in their mind a better future than in Cochinchina (Vietnam),” Muller writes. “Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, they are forced to make expenditures for which they can not pay and are kept in slavery and reimbursement (of the debt), the day of which never comes.”