Listening to the Demand: A Study of Men who Buy Sex from Male Prostitutes in Cambodia

Listening to the Demand: A Study of Men who Buy Sex from Male Prostitutes in Cambodia

Listening to the Demand: A Study of Men who Buy Sex from Male Prostitutes in Cambodia

‘Listening to the Demand: A Study of Men who Buy Sex from Male Prostitutes in Cambodia’ is the second of a two-part study done by Love 146 on the demand for the sex industry in Cambodia. The first of these studies was done in 2013 and its focus was on the men who had purchased sex with female prostitutes (known in this report as the MSF demand). (Havey, et al., 2013) This research has used a very similar survey, but here, men who have sex with men#(MSM) were the focus, and so the survey was adjusted accordingly. There were also some questions added or removed within this survey from the last one due to the researchers development of knowledge about the demand and what was seen as more or less interesting to know about.

Research on prostitution has largely focused on the exploitation of girls and young women whereas the research extending to men involved in the sex industry has almost exclusively focused on HIV/AIDS and STI transmission. As a result, there is a considerable information gap on the male segment of the sex industry. In addition, the motivations, attitudes and behavior of those who pay for sex, are only vaguely understood. Other than the aforementioned predecessor to this present study, Melissa Farley did research on the MSF demand in Cambodia in 2007 called, ‘A Thorn in the Heart’ (Farley,# 2012). Both of these papers were used to understand the context of the male sex buyers in Cambodia.

In this research, 51 Khmer and 23 foreign MSM were interviewed from February to April of 2013 in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and one foreign man was interviewed in Battambang via phone. Foreign men were approached at bars known to be frequented by the MSM community. It was the researchers’ goal to interview at least 50 foreign MSM, but due to lack of interest and a misunderstanding of the goals of this research among this community, this was not attained. Contact with the Khmer MSM was made through collaboration with various men’s sexual health clinics in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Consistent with the demography of Cambodia’s population, the Khmer men interviewed were largely younger. All of them were under the age of 50 with 24 men being between the ages of 20-29. The foreign men were more ‘spread-out’ than the Khmer when it came to their ages, ranging from early 20’s all the way up to a man who was in his 70’s.

The majority of the sample group was single but there were some who had been divorced and others in significant relationships. Eight of the Khmer respondents were married to women, and two of the foreign participants were married to one another.

Seventeen of the foreign respondents said that they were homosexual and six of them said that they were bisexual. Data was originally collected about the sexual orientations of the Khmer participants, but as the study progressed during the interviews and the literature review about sexual orientations in SE Asia was being examined, it became clear that Khmer men do not fit into the same orientation paradigms in place in the West and thus this research does not define the Khmer MSM men in such way. Sexual orientation in Cambodia is a lot more fluid than in western cultures. It is also strongly linked with gender identity. One Khmer respondent, when asked about his sexual orientation, insisted that he was heterosexual despite his history of having intercourse with transgender women. He answered in this way because of the masculine characteristics he possessed.

At the heart of this research were the men who had purchased sex with men. There were some between both the foreign and Khmer men who had not purchased sex before, but the interview was still continued due to the researchers’ understanding that these men still possessed useful knowledge about Cambodia’s sex industry and its buyers. There were, 46-51 Khmer men who had purchased sex, along with 15-23 foreigners; and, four foreign and one Khmer men had purchased sex in the past but a noteworthy amount of time had passed since they had done so, therefore they were placed in a category entitled, ‘not anymore’.

The Khmer men had proportionally paid for more sex, more frequently than the foreigners had. The most frequently answered category between both groups was the 1-5 times range. This category also included answers such as, “a few”. Nineteen of the Khmer men had paid for sex between six and 30 times, and there were also ten men who said they had paid for sex over 50 times before. Ten of the Khmer respondents said that they pay for sex two to three times a week, and ten of the participants said that they pay for sex at least once a week with half of these men saying that it is more than just once a week that they pay for sex. A large majority of the Khmer participants pay under ten dollars for sexual services with none of them paying more than $35 per encounter.

The frequency of paying for sexual services was proportionally smaller among foreign interviewees than the Khmer. Nine of the foreigners had paid for sex one to five times in their lives, six of them answered a number between six and 20, and only one foreigner had paid for sex more than 50 times in his life. The largest amount of foreigners who regularly pay for sex (seven) said that they do so a few times per year. One of these men said that he would pay for sex monthly and another foreign participant said that he pays for sex two to three times a month. The foreigners were being charged a higher price than their Khmer counterparts however. Seven of the foreigners said that they pay $11-20 per service session, nine said $21-35 and one foreign respondent said that he pays over $100 to have sex with a prostitute.

There were three main paradigms that the respondents have encountered while purchasing sex. They describe the different ways that a male sex worker would acquire financial benefits from their clients. These models are broken down in Table 1.

It was interesting to understand the difference between how these men viewed prostitution and the individual sex worker. On the whole, the Khmer and foreign men interviewed had a  fairly mixed view of prostitution saying some positives and some negatives about the industry and the individual sex workers themselves. But, when asking about their views towards an individual prostitute, both the Khmer and foreigners had a more negative outlook. Many of the Khmer focused on how prostitutes had bad morals and a lower social standing whereas the foreign respondents said that they were deceptive and dangerous to their personal safety. There were also some respondents in both groups who did not view an individual prostitute any differently than someone who did not sell sex. They had a more holistic understanding about what drives a person into selling sex and the dangers they face in doing so.

One of the most interesting findings within this study was that a little over half the Khmer men interviewed had both bought sex. There was no substantial evidence that defined what type of man had participated in both the buying and selling of sex when this data was cross-tabulated with age, education, income level or the number of sexual partners the men had in their lifetimes. However, a certain ‘life-cycle’ of switching from the selling of sex to the buying did unfold. This quote is an example of this ‘life-cycle’: “When I was younger, I needed money and everyone wanted to buy me. I also enjoyed the sex and I could eat good meals. Now I am mostly the buyer and as long as I don’t hurt anyone it’s ok.” What this preceding quote also shines a light on was a common error among the Khmer participants about abusing someone physically and abusing their financial situation. This man stated that it is OK to purchase sex from someone because he was not physically harming anyone in doing so, but lacked the understanding that someone doing sex work out of need for the money is also a form of exploitation. A quote that further describes this misunderstanding was given by a man describing the advantages of paying for sex, “Because I have money, I buy sex. I don’t care what society thinks because I never force prostitutes to go with me. They need money, so I give it to them.”

The most popular place for a Khmer man to have found a prostitute to pay for sex with was the parks. Typically he heard about these places through friends. It appeared that the Khmer participants relied heavily on ‘word of mouth’ of prostitutes from their friends possibly out of a need to trust the sex\working individual. This trust and building of acquaintances with the prostitutes was also done through social networking websites and applications, specifically Facebook.

Foreign men typically found the prostitutes they were going to pay for sex with at bars. The second most popular place mentioned for a foreign man to acquire sexual services was at massage parlors and spas. Erotic massage appeared to be highly popular among the foreign group with 16-23 answering they had participated in one. After being asked if they had had an erotic massage, they were also asked if they found this to be a form of prostitution. Most of the men from both groups answered affirmatively, that erotic massage is a form of prostitution.  Among those men the common answers were that: it is a disguised form of prostitution, it involved sexual activity/arousal, or that masseurs asked if they wanted sex services with the payment given in tips. Those who did not find erotic massage as a form of prostitution said that the sexual services were value added and were not included in the original price of the massage.

Pornography appeared to be the largest influencer for Khmer men to seek prostitutes, with 80% of the men answering this way. Since there is a cultural taboo on masturbation in Cambodia, these men said that after watching porn they would be sexually aroused and would seek to pay for sex instead of releasing that tension themselves. The Khmer interviewees also said that they wanted to experience the various positions and activities they had seen within the pornographic material, and thus, was another reason to seek a prostitute.

Another interesting finding that this report explores was the mobility of the demand. The respondents were asked in which countries and/or Cambodian provinces they had also purchased sex. Sixteen of the 23 foreign respondents had paid for sex in other SE Asian countries, the main being Thailand. They said that they found Khmer men to be a lot shyer and less professional/experienced than the Thai men from whom they had purchased sex. Some of the Khmer men interviewed had purchased sex outside of Cambodia, but a much larger proportion had purchased sex in Cambodian provinces other than their home province. Other than Phnom Penh and Siem Reap as places these men were purchasing sex, the top provinces were Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Kampong Som. The data from this research also proved that it was not the highest economic class of our sample size of Khmer men that were purchasing sex outside of their home provinces, but rather it was the lowest. There can only be speculation as to why this is so, one being that Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are epicenters of Cambodian development and other provinces may be seen as being too proletarian to purchase sexual services from the men living there.

This research also addresses the issue of minors within the sex industry. The intention of this research was not to incriminate the respondents but rather allow them to speak openly about their experiences within Cambodia’s sex industry so the questions were geared accordingly. There were protocols in place however if one of the participants did give information about their own abuse of minors, but these never had to be used. The men were first asked if they had ever been offered a minor for sex, 12-23 foreigners and 8-51 Khmer answered affirmatively. These numbers are proportionally slightly higher than the previous MSF demand research. Furthermore, it was asked if the men had known of other men who had paid for sex with a minor, 8-23 foreigners and 12-51 Khmer said, ‘yes’. This specific question was not asked in the previous ‘Listening to the Demand’ research, but it has proven to be largely useful in understanding the presence of minors within Cambodia’s sex industry. Lastly, the men were asked if they preferred pornography depicting minors, no foreigner said that this was a preference, however, 7-51 Khmer did. It was also mentioned by a few of the Khmer participants that they would have sex with a minor if it were legal. This information confirms a sustained presence of demand for minors within Cambodia’s sex industry, an issue that needs to be addressed with vigilance.

Finally, the men were asked about what would deter them from participating in Cambodia’s sex industry. The largest deterrent for both groups was jail time with over half of the foreign respondents and about 70% of the Khmer respondents answering this way. Community service was the least effective deterrent listed by both the Khmer and foreigners. It is noteworthy that many of the Khmer participants had paid for sex but said that they would be deterred from doing so more easily than compared to the foreigners indicating that there is a perception that enforcement of these legal actions would be unlikely.

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