Leaning against the bar in Phnom Penh’s hottest night spot for ex-pats, NGO workers and sex-pats alike, I knew paying for my first drink with a $100 bill would attract the eyes of the local women looking to hook the night’s catch. (Is that how sex workers got the name ‘hookers’ ?) Sure enough, I feel the eyes of the young woman next to me eyeing up the note out of the corner of her eye. She is extraordinarily beautiful. But I’m not even sure she’s a sex worker. Is she? Isn’t she? She must be. She looks the part, dressed in a stylish Moschino skin-tight jumpsuit. High heels. And then she talks to me. With sign language. She’s deaf.
I chat with her for a bit. Her sign language is quite, well, visual, considering what she’s talking about. Usually countries have their own sign language, but the sign for ‘sex’ is clearly universal. My pity for her increases because of her disability yet this young woman, fully aware of the power her looks and body give her, has decided to use her beauty as a means to survive.
Most of the girls here are what the world would describe as visually stunning as this club is where the Western dollar can be earned. As soon as my company realises I’m not going to be a customer, she dances off to find someone who is.
I see a girl I haven’t seen for a while – Socheata. I sit next to her. Ask where she’s been. She’d had a boyfriend, she says. An American. But it’s finished. So now she’s back to work. She looks at me, eyes big, wide, filled with truth. “Not one of these girls wants to be here,” she says.
Most of the guys I know who buy sex think the girls enjoy it. Easy money. Get paid for sex. Maybe they can’t see past their own gratification. The old excuse is rampant here: ‘At home I’d have to take a girl out, buy her drinks, dinner, maybe a movie, and then if I’m lucky have sex at the end of the night. At least here I’m giving her money straight in her pocket. I’m helping her.’ And this is how the foreign men see themselves – as saviours.
Once I took Socheata to an NGO that offers girls re-training in beauty therapy and hairdressing. When she was prayed for she broke down in tears.
I’ve seen her go through several boyfriends. They all tell her they love her, promise her the world, then dump her. One of them, a Westerner, when she got pregnant, beat her and forced her to have an abortion. The current Western boyfriend already has a live-in girlfriend and two kids. But she’s hanging onto the dream that he will one day leave his other girlfriend to be with her forever.
My role is a listening ear. It took two and a half years for Socheata to say: “I used to see you as a [potential] customer but now I see you as a friend.” There’s no greater privilege. I try to imagine what Jesus’s friendships were like with the women of the night. I mean, his female friends washed his feet with their hair. Poured expensive perfume over him. They must really have loved him, and must really have believed he loved them. It’s not easy to love a broken-hearted woman. It takes time to build trust. Jesus must have given them his time. Is time the greatest gift we can give someone?
Socheata, and other girls here, are like Cinderella. They emerge from their $2 per night makeshift shack looking like princesses – a flower growing from the wasteland. And off they go to the ball – the nightclub – to make some cash, while hoping to meet their prince and live happily ever after. They don’t yet know their true prince – the only prince who can meet all their needs – the Prince of Peace.
I have met one or two girls here who know Jesus and are working as sex workers. It’s not their fault. What choice do they have? No education. No social security. What do you think? Are Western men ‘helping’ the girls by paying for sex? They are giving them money, after all. What would the girls do otherwise?
It’s interesting that the Khmer word for ‘prostitute’ is ‘broken girl’. Are you called to the sex work world? Called, like Jesus, to be a friend of the broken?
*names have been changed.