Some of my friends and colleagues here in the anti trafficking community in Phnom Penh spend our Friday evenings going into the red light areas of the city. We’re looking to talk to men, to understand why they are there, and if possible, offer an alternative conversation to what they may have with patrons and peers in the bars. We meet up to check in before and afterwards for our own protection and accountability. On a recent Friday, we went out on our usual jaunt… Some nights there seem to be a ‘theme’ when talking to the men in the red light district. This particular night the focus was on how prostitutes were liars and cheaters.
A tall young good looking guy full of energy passed us several times After he passed us the third time in the street (each time we had said hi!) he came back and asked if we were the self proclaimed greeters for that particular street! We laughed but it opened up the conversation. He said that he ‘had to leave in a hurry… ‘ but he still stayed and talked to us for about 45 minutes.
It became apparent very quickly that his heart had been broken by a young prostitute and he was furious. Unlike many men that visit this area, this man knew what was going on. He had got to many of the girls and heard their stories but everything had become filtered through the hate of being jilted. He had been paying her to be monogamous to him but she had cheated on him and he could only feel the pain and not the reason why she might do it. It illustrated just how much pain can be found in a red light area. Two people desperate for intimacy and love and neither finding it. He was seeing himself as the victim and was angry with us because he felt that we were only seeing the young women as victims.
But the reality is that in this situation everyone is a victim. The client is a victim because he believed the lies that pornography taught him that sex = love and love can be bought. The girl is a victim because she was first raped in a brothel by a foreigner when she was 16 years and now sees no other future. Why should she be ‘faithful’ to him when she herself had been betrayed by men before who hinted at the promise of the possibility of a life free of poverty? In order to survive she says so many lies she must sometimes wonder what is real anymore. Her family were victims because they felt the only way out of poverty was to allow her to become a prostitute. Cambodia itself is a victim because it is increasingly becoming the focus for sex tourism and as the garment industry shrinks in the global economic recession the local sex industry grows.
As abolitionists, we are seeking to expand our perspective and attune our posture towards perpetrators, exploiters, “good guys and bad guys,” as well as victims. It’s obvious to us that women are degraded in these situations, but the uncomfortable truth is that men are degraded as well. We work to break cycles of degradation – this is a holistic approach. When I go out to have these conversations, I choose to treat men with dignity, believing that they can change and themselves show dignity others.