It’s early afternoon in Phnom Penh, and a small crowd is gathered around a computer terminal set up under a plastic tarpaulin on a footpath near the city’s Central Market. A boy of about six years old and a girl aged about three are in front of a group of laughing and jostling teenage schoolboys.
On the computer screen are a series of still-frames from hardcore pornographic movies that are available to download onto a mobile phone for just 1000 riel ($0.25) each. The boys click on the links to play the clips before deciding if they want to upload them onto their phones. No effort is made to shield young children from the images.
This everyday scene neatly illustrates how patterns of viewing pornography have changed in Cambodia over the past decade or so. Studies show that many young people in the world today are being introduced to sex by explicit pornography rather than by the softer Playboy style magazines popular in the past.
New and inexpensive technologies including DVDs, the internet and mobile phones have led to a profusion of pornography, much of it hardcore. Most concerning of all is that regular exposure to graphic pornography is now widespread among Cambodian children.
The most popular format for viewing pornography in Cambodia is the VCD or DVD, which can be bought for 2000-6000 riel from many DVD shops, market stalls, or roving dealers on the street.
In cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the internet and mobile phones play a significant role in facilitating the distribution of pornography. Digital files are shared among friends whose phones are equipped with Bluetooth file-sharing technology or are exchanged over the internet.
Since a 2005 government crackdown on porn, so-called ‘good movies’ are rarely displayed openly anymore but are hidden away in a bag or box and are available for perusal only upon request.
According to Jay, who sells pornography from a market stall in Phnom Penh, most of the films he deals with are made in Thailand, Japan or the US, while the bulk of them are imported from Thailand.
In the countryside, pornography is usually distributed by village-level entrepreneurs who buy the films in Phnom Penh, or from dealers in neighbouring villages, and rent them out for as little as 500 riel per night. Although many rural people are poor and may be living without electricity, a surprising number have battery-powered equipment including expensive DVD or VCD players.
There is currently [as of 2007] no law in Cambodia which makes the production, use, or dissemination of child abuse images a crime. Those images may be presented as evidence in court to prove a charge of sex abuse, rape or debauchery, but the images do not constitute a crimeKatherine Keane of APLE
Watching pornography is often a group activity in Cambodia – a 2006 survey conducted by World Vision found that two-thirds of Cambodian youth who viewed pornography regularly did so in groups. It’s quite common for groups of young people – typically all male but occasionally mixed groups – to gather together to watch pornographic films, sharing the cost of the nightly rental and the cost of charging the battery.
Indeed, before the government’s recent anti-pornography efforts, X-rated films could be watched openly for the price of a coffee in many rural coffee-shops. Today, far fewer coffee shops play pornographic films for their customers. Those who do, play them in a back room or behind a curtain.
The range of pornography readily available on DVD in Cambodia is huge – everything from relatively soft ‘erotic’ films featuring full-body or semi nudity, to those containing scenes of bestiality, rape and child sexual abuse.
Child sex abuse DVD’s are readily available at many markets in Phnom Penh. “The police occasionally do crackdown on vendors, but the next day they are back selling again,” says Katherine Keane, country director of child-advocate NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE).
Experts say that the profusion of cheap and readily available hardcore pornography in Cambodia has resulted in many children being exposed to explicit images at a very early age.
World Vision found that over 20% of children who had viewed pornography were first introduced to it when they were younger than 12. The study showed that Cambodian boys were typically introduced to pornography in public settings such as coffee shops and karaoke clubs, whereas girls first exposure is typically inadvertent or unplanned, perhaps seeing the images through a gap in a thatched wall or by accident in a neighbour’s house.
Although the effects of pornography on society are a matter of some debate, human rights groups say that in the context of Cambodia the harm caused by pornography is clear.
In 2008, the Cambodian government enacted the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, placing stronger and better defined restrictions on the production, showing and selling of pornographic material in the Kingdom.
Article 39 of the law stipulates: “A person who distributes, sells, leases, displays, projects or presents in a public place, pornography shall be punished with imprisonment from 7 days to 1 month and a fine from 100,000 to 200,000 riels.”
Importantly, it also for the first time explicitly outlawed the production and sale of child pornography. Article 41 of said law stipulates: “A person who distributes, sells, leases, displays, projects or presents in 17 a public place, a child pornography shall be punished with imprisonment from 2 to 5 years and a fine from 4,000,000 to 10,000,000 riels.”
“Education is not free here, so you have a lot of young people who don’t have a good education. They don’t understand what is good and what is not,” says Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian human rights group Lichado.
“The young try to imitate what they see. They see some film and they want to do the same. We have had cases of rape by gangs and when we asked them why they did it they said that they had seen it in a porno film and that they wanted to experiment with it – so it’s become very dangerous.”
A big problem she identifies is a country wide lack of both formal school-based, and informal family-based, sex education resulting in a lack of informed resources available for young people to draw on to learn about sex. Instead, pornography is teaching young people abusive sexual scripts, she says.
“They think that porn is real and that that is how people behave in these ‘advanced’ countries.”
A number of studies show that exposing young people to pornography can result in their ‘premature sexualisation’. Many of the children interviewed by World Vision cited behavioural changes in their peers as a result of watching pornography.
“Boys would start using nasty words and try to touch the girls at school,” said one girl. Experts say that the effects of premature sexualisation include increased rates of teenage pregnancy and more unwanted babies.
Aids experts also warn that because condoms are rarely used in pornographic films, they contribute to the spread of HIV/Aids by promoting unsafe sex. There is also some evidence to suggest that pornography is linked to increased levels of domestic violence as men seek to act out scenes from pornographic films with the help of their unwilling spouses.
In Cambodia, rich dealers and suppliers can just pay the police. They never have a problem and only the poor get punished.Kek Galabru of Lichado
To help combat some of pornography’s worst effects, human rights groups want the government to speedily pass a number of new anti-pornography laws starting with a law banning child-sex abuse images.
“There is currently [as of 2007] no law in Cambodia which makes the production, use, or dissemination of child abuse images a crime. Those images may be presented as evidence in court to prove a charge of sex abuse, rape or debauchery, but the images do not constitute a crime in themselves,” says Katherine Keane of APLE.
“Pornography is an abuse of human rights,” believes Kek Galabru of Lichado. “All of it should be banned in Cambodia. The films should be seized and destroyed and those selling them should be fined. By doing this I think that it might reduce the market for these films. But it’s important that the law be implemented for everybody – not only for the poor seller who sells only a few films.
“In Cambodia, rich dealers and suppliers can just pay the police. They never have a problem and only the poor get punished. So you have to implement the law in the same way for everyone.”
But given the difficulty in controlling pornography with tools like the internet widely available, Galabru says that education is perhaps more important.
“We need to have a big national campaign to educate people. To show that it’s not a problem if we don’t want to give you freedom, but in this context, in Cambodia, with the courts not independent and there is no law, it’s very dangerous to let the young do what they want.
“We need to think about the victims – which includes those who appear in these films as well as the rape victims whose lives are destroyed in a large part because of them. Freedom is good – I fully support freedom of speech – but in this case, with pornography, I think that we need to have very strong laws.”