Cambodia Barworld Studies: The Life of the Phnom Penh Barboy

Going through some old magazines that were lying around my house last weekend, I came across an edition of the feminist quarterly Leisure Studies (No. 22, July 2003). I used to subscribe. It contained an article by Sheila Jeffries, a well-known theorist on sex tourism, called, ‘Sex Tourism: Do Women Do It Too?’

The article argues in favour of a distinction made in the academic study of tourist related sexual activities between ‘sex tourism,’ being a man’s holiday flings with prostitutes, and ‘romance tourism,’ being a female’s holiday flings with beachboys, gigolos, and skanky-pankies. The argument is that there is something fundamentally different between the romances of Western men and women in the Third World.

This is, of course, not the only view on the subject. Other scholars have argued that there is only in a difference in semantics, at best perceptions, but nothing in the actual character of the relationships. Those like Jeffries who believe there is a difference commonly assert that these scholars put too much emphasis on the economic factors in the relationship, led astray by their Marxist feminist paradigm, and not enough on the radical feminist issue of gender roles.

Recently, my own gender consultancy was hired to do a study on the sexual activities of white NGO women with barboys in Phnom Penh in order to highlight important new policy implications, identify funding requirements for future projects, and broaden the theoretical discussion related to these quasi-commercial sexual activities.

I won’t bore you with the design of the study or its methodology. Suffice it to say that the research team conducted indepth qualitative interviews with eighteen barboys, applied rigorous coding schemes to identify key themes, and also conducted extensive covert ethnographic observations.

The results of this research present a harrowing picture of the gender-based violence perpetrated against barboys. It’s important this trend be identified and brought to the attention of the NGO community. While male NGOs for years have abstained out of principle (and sometimes religious convictions) from the dens of iniquity that are Phnom Penh’s hostess bars, female NGOs are now venturing into what can only be described as male whore houses in ever growing numbers.

Young Khmer boys are easy prey for these women, who use the economic power afforded by high foreign donor salaries to sexually abuse barboys. Far from being the ‘romances’ depicted in the feminist literature on female sex tourism, these women are constantly on the prowl for short sexual liaisons, not based on the open exchange of money, but on the giving of gifts, where they can use the boys as sexual objects to gratify their own selfish sexual desires.

Many of these barboys were trafficked to Phnom Penh. Promised jobs as shoeshine boys and newspaper sellers by unscrupulous agents controlled by an inner ring of gender consultants moonlighting as mamasans for the sex-starved female NGO community, they were lured into the city and then sold into prostitution at clandestine male brothels like Chattin’ to a Wanker.

Initially, most of the barboys were hesitant to speak to researchers about their situation. So mistrustful of foreigners after their abuse at the hands of white NGO women were they that they were even afraid of white male researchers. Once they realised that we weren’t a threat to them, however, they opened up about the hardship they suffered on the road to becoming barboys.

These poor young men face a brutal initiation into the barboy business. Being from the provinces, they are used to slim, demure, brown-skinned beauties whose potent sexuality is focussed into graceful hand movements, sensual strides, and coyly fluttering eyelashes. Upon being trafficked to Phnom Penh, they undergo dehumanising training to desensitise them to 200 lb. white heifers in spandex tops, with grossly exaggerated breasts and bottoms, getting drunk and aggressive and chain-smoking Marlboro reds.

To do this, they are often tied to beds, not unlike those in Toul Sleng, and fed a constant diet of fetishistic porn featuring granny plumper incest scenes. They’re often forced to endure revolting smells and tastes in order to prepare them for what they will routinely face as part of their job. They’re given old haddock, warmed to body temperature and smeared with a cat’s post-coital snatch, and forced to lick it for hours on end while moaning, ‘Oh, you?re sexy, baby! I love your round bottom!’

Put behind the bar, you’d never think that the young man with the warm and inviting smile, the eagerness to serve and readiness to laugh at all your jokes, is a poor, traumatised boy stolen from his village, robbed of his dignity, degraded in the eyes of Khmer society, and scarred for life by the horrifically exploitative, and often abusive, barboy system.

Sometimes these boys, when they’re too old to catch the fancy of the latest NGO women, go back to their villages. Research suggests that many are able to reintegrate into the community. But they will always carry the indelible memories of exploitation in Phnom Penh.

Action is now being taken to bring this shocking situation to the eyes of the government and the international community. We face strong resistance from female NGOs, whose vested interest in the continuing gender-based violence against barboys is one reason there is still insufficient research into the barboy system and proper funding allocated to combating it.

Nevertheless, with your help and support, we can make a difference. To find out what you can do to help liberate Phnom Penh’s barboys, contact the author at [email protected] Say no to gender-based violence in all its forms.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and hate mail are welcome. Write to [email protected] using a recognisable subject line.

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