A Thorn in the Heart: Cambodian Men who Buy Sex

A Thorn in the Heart: Cambodian Men who Buy Sex

A Thorn in the Heart: Cambodian Men who Buy Sex


We interviewed 133 Cambodian men who had bought sex from adult women in prostitution, with 37% also acknowledging having bought sex from minor girls. Almost all (95%) of the men interviewed for this study stated that children were available for paid sexual abuse in brothels, bars, and massage parlors in Phnom Penh. In order to measure the men’s attitudes and behavior, we used previously validated and standardized questionnaires, and a structured interview, yielding both quantitative and qualitative data. Conducted by a specially trained team of 8 interviewers, the interviews each lasted about 2-3 hours. Most of the men said that they had a wife or girlfriend when they used a woman in prostitution. They reported having many sex partners throughout their lifetime (21% had 21-50 sex partners and 35% had 50 or more sex partners). Prostitution was the first sexual experience of most interviewees, many of them having responded to peer pressure and the need to prove their manhood by using a woman in prostitution. Almost all of the men bought sex once a month or more often. Like men in other countries, they bought sex both indoors and on the street. Almost all the men bought women in brothels where they reported observing extreme violence, coercion and threats – evidence that may indicate sex trafficking. Thirty-nine percent of the interviewees described having seen trafficking of women and children. Almost all had bought sex from a woman who was controlled by a pimp. Most frequently the pimps were women but sometimes they were men.

In these interviews, the men dehumanized women in prostitution, seeing them as inferior to other women. They tended to blame prostituted women for the spread of HIV. The sex buyers believe that prostitution prevents rape, although there is no empirical evidence for that. In fact the opposite is more likely to be true: men’s prostitution activity is associated with an increased incidence of rape. The men who most strongly supported the institution of prostitution were also those men who had a hostile masculine self-identity. Such men think that dominance is important in love relationships and see relationships with women in adversarial terms. Those men with hostile masculine identities also tended to believe rape myths (for example they believed that women say no to sex when they mean yes, and women who dress provocatively are seeking to be raped).

The study found that men who bought women for sex generally lacked empathy for the women, failing to grasp the extremely negative feelings that the women say that they feel during prostitution. Most of the men in the study told us that in addition to acts of violence against the women they bought for use in prostitution, they had also committed sexually aggressive acts against their non-prostituted partners.

Pornography was used by almost all sex buyers. The men who watched the most pornography bought sex most often. The men who watched more violent pornography reported more frequent incidences of sexually coercive behaviors against both prostituted women and non-prostituted women. Most of the men explained that they copied what they saw in pornography with the prostituted women they bought.

An important component of this research study was the development of a greater understanding of gang rape/bauk prostitution, assumed by some to be a uniquely Cambodian form of gender based violence. From the men’s narrative responses to the structured interview and also from statistical analyses, it is clear that viewing gang rape pornography from other cultures (especially western/Caucasian, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai) has a strong effect on some men’s decision to perpetrate gang rape against women in prostitution. Many Khmer men reported that they watched gang rape pornography from other cultures and imitated what they saw when they perpetrated bauk against prostituted and non-prostituted women.

The sex buyers indicated that effective deterrents to prostitution would include greater criminal penalty and public exposure. Recommendations based on this research include enforcement of existing laws on prostitution and trafficking against buyers while at the same time decriminalizing women in prostitution, educational programs about the toxic influence of pornography in Khmer culture, and education and prevention programs for youth that challenge the notion that buying sex enhances masculinity.

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