Why did you choose to spend so many years researching this topic?
I fell in love with Cambodia the first time I went there as a backpacker in 2003. The energy of Phnom Penh was frenetic and addictive. I had met a few women in the bars and we became fast friends. We connected through music, dancing and talking about our boyfriends. I decided then that I wanted to spend more time in Cambodia and learn about their lives. I went back in 2005 to start formal academic research on the sex and entertainment sectors, and I’ve been going back every one or two years since.
What is the main message readers should take away from your book?
There are two really. The first is that the relationships between Cambodian ‘bar girls’ and Western men are complex, not always commercial and often filled with love and emotion. The second is that, despite being surrounded by a sea of gender stereotypes, strict moral and social codes, sexual violence, corruption and domestic abuse, the women are resourceful and use the tools available to them, like bar work, sex and intimacy, to improve their lives. Cambodia can be a tough place to be a woman; and, although their options for supporting themselves are limited, they’ve chosen what’s best for them at a particular moment in time.
For the women in the book, that was working in bars and seeking out foreign boyfriends. Many of them had tried other jobs, such as garment factory work, street trading or house cleaning, but bar work was the most lucrative, flexible, educational and sometimes the most fun. Many women learn English and about the outside world through people they meet in the bars. Of course, bar work has its bad points like any job, but these women make the most of their situations and support their families in the best way they can.
What were the most interesting findings to come out of your research?
For one, the majority of women in the book who work in hostess bars don’t do pre-negotiated ‘sex-for-cash’ and so don’t identify as sex workers – they identify as girlfriends being with boyfriends. Often the boyfriends treat them to gifts such as clothes, jewellery, meals and taxi rides, but it’s not considered payment for sex. The relationships exist in a ‘grey zone’ where sex, love and money all come together.
This makes some people uncomfortable because they think these things should never exist in the same space. But one thing I learned is that all relationships – in Cambodia and beyond – combine elements of economics, emotion and intimacy. So, with the book, I’m really trying to get people to reflect on the material and transactional natures of their own relationships and stop stereotyping those between Cambodian women and Western men.
Did you come up against any challenges or obstacles?
Talking about sex is always controversial. People get emotional and have strong views about what’s right or wrong, good or bad. I’ve found that it’s really hard for people to think about Cambodian bar workers as anything other than prostitutes, and prostitutes as anything other than poor victims, ‘broken women’ or criminals.
Saying they are resourceful and even empowered by this work really bothers some people – particularly those who insist on denying the women the agency to make their own decisions. It’s a complicated issue with no easy answers.