Sex Trafficking: An Inside View - Episode IV


An Unspoken Voices Exclusive

For the next four weeks of Sex Trafficking Awareness Month, Unspoken Voices will share stories from one of our own volunteers who chose to fight against trafficking and tyranny in an incredible way. He traveled to some of the biggest hot-spots for trafficking—from places like Hong Kong to Cambodia.

The stories can be heartbreaking but they are realistic. There is humor and grace, fear and pain.

I invite you along on this journey of extraction into the tragic & dark world of trafficking.

Episode IV

by Jay Morse

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

One night I and my earplugs were at a club with a few friends listening to a French punk rock combo.  (If that sounds ludicrous to you, dear reader, you're absolutely right.) After hearing "I Wanna Be Sedated" get butchered I couldn't take it anymore and hit the street to find a tuk tuk back to my guesthouse. That didn't take long, but soon enough the driver started giving me a sales pitch about a young lady he could get for me.

He said she was from Vietnam, had been working at a factory that had just closed and needed money to get home.  Yeah, right.  He went on to claim that there was "no more chicken ranch," referring to streets of brothel shanties with trafficked girls that Phnom Penh used to be known for.   In other words, he was claiming to be the only game in town.  I said "no thanks, maybe tomorrow" as he dropped me off at my guesthouse.

To my surprise he was waiting for me outside my guesthouse the next night.  I thought "Ok, I might learn something" and boarded his tuk tuk.  In a minute I didn't know where I was.  He made call, took a walk, and came back with two young women.  Then he astounded me by demanding $200 to take both of them for the night.  I didn't have that kind of money.  I did not trust being with two strangers.  I did not want to be out all night.  I'd also read years ago that trafficked Vietnamese girls in "chicken ranches" were $10, though only for a matter of minutes.  I optimistically hoped that the much higher price might reflect a greatly reduced supply due to foreign pressure on Cambodia to have police do their jobs.

I told the driver I would pay $40 for one lady and only for an hour. He howled up a hell of a storm.  I think we agreed on $80 for one lady for two hours. Then I had to choose.  One lady looked impassive, the other quite sad and prematurely aged. She was also minus a front tooth.  I asked the driver "how old is she?"  "Eighteen!" he shot back. "How young you want?"  Yuck.  I picked her, gave him four $20s and started for a guesthouse down the street where he said I could rent a room for two hours.  But then he beckoned me back. "This note is no good" he said. One of the twenties had a small tear in it.  US dollar notes are legal tender but Cambodians are very picky about their condition.   Stores do not accept worn or torn notes.  He insisted I swap him for another $20.  Something seemed off but I swapped it with him and walked to the hotel with my two hour friend.

I took a room with two beds. My friend sat on one, I the other. She got up to shower but I said no.  Using only hand gestures it took awhile to get her to understand that I didn't want to have sex with her.  I asked her if she'd lost a tooth because someone had hit her.  She shook her head, then held out both fists and made like she was revving a motorbike. But her upper lip showed none of the scarring that often comes with a bike wreck so I was not convinced.  

She was afraid of me but did take a liking to my white sun hat and motioned whether she could put it on.  I smiled and nodded my head.  She put my hat on and gave a small, gap toothed grin.  I gave her new look a thumbs up and motioned her to come sit with me. She was scared but after a short time she came over and sat by me.  I hadn't thought of what to do next so spontaneously, I just hugged her. Then, in a low voice told her that I was very sorry for all the bad things that that men had done to hurt her.  She could not have understood the words but she must have understood something because she began crying and then she hugged me.  I was really moved.  Oddly, though, her tears were coming out of only one eye.  The other eye was dry.  This was worrying. Was it caused by blows to the head, by psychological trauma or both?  If the reader has an insight please let UnspokenVoices know.

We "talked" awhile more with hand gestures.  Then she asked if I would make a baby with her.   I about fell off the bed. "This can't be!" I thought. "She must mean something else."  So I asked if already she had a baby. She said no. Maybe she was the one who was flabbergasted.  Maybe all men she had met before had been buying, renting or selling her as disposable property and I was the first she'd met who wasn't. Maybe she hoped I was her ticket out. I didn't know but I was totally blown away.

At that point, something possessed me to take a good look at the $20 bill that the driver had swapped with me. Sure enough, on Andrew Jackson's shoulder it said "copy" in Khmer and English. Scammed!  I blew a cork, which must have scared her because she took off like a jackrabbit.  "Hey!  My hat!"  It was no use.  It was gone. Getting burned and losing my hat brought to mind the maxim that "no good deed goes unpunished," but soothing that girl is a great memory from the trip.   I sure wish I knew what happened to her.

I saved the funny money as a souvenir. Photocopying US currency is illegal so I was worried that if it was found by US Customs I might have some 'splaining to do.   Luckily the issue never came up.  Here is my souvenir:


Time Off

Years ago I'd asked an activist in Japan what I could do as a volunteer. She replied "you can pretend to be a customer and pay for someone to have the night off." But I didn't have the fortitude to do that until this trip.  

Between my guest house and the nearest minimart was a sidewalk cafe owned by a Turkish couple who made fantastic falafel and kebabs. Sometimes one of the local wildlife would stop by while I was eating and try to get me to buy her food or drink. The proprietors said to ignore them so I did, as best I could, except for one I'd met there before with the friend of a friend. She asked asked if I remembered our meeting a few days before. I did. We started to chat and get to know each other a little. A few days later when I bumped into her she said she needed $20 to pay the rent on her room and asked if she could spend the night with me. By then I was comfortable enough talking with her to spend the time and pay her to take the night off.  And I knew what to do.  She too cried when I held her and spoke soothing, sympathetic words. She was very intelligent and knew some English. But the story she told was contradictory and incoherent. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. She was also very jittery.

She seemed damaged somehow, which reminded me of activist Norma Hoteling's observation that "no one comes out of prostitution a whole person."  Said also had two first names which she insisted I remember, a Cambodian name and one she'd invented that sounded and spelled Italian.  I wondered whether she had a dissociative disorder, which is an adaptation to prolonged trauma.  (The most severe form of dissociation used to be called "multiple personality disorder.")  But I'm not professionally trained; I could not diagnose or help her in any professional kind of way.  The best I could do was listen, ask questions and pretend to understand the answers.  The jitters didn't subside so I couldn't tell if she felt better but she did manage to fall asleep. I know because I was the one who stayed awake.

I saw her a few times around town after that.  She always waved hello and seemed glad to see me. When I go back to PP I hope to bump into her and share a meal and a pint. Well, maybe half a pint.


Hitting a Wall

One night I was lugging two full bags of groceries back to the guest house from the mini mart.  Instead of the usual "tuk tuk?" a man approached me and quietly asked "want boom boom?"  He motioned me over to his tuk tuk and in a low voice confided "I did the K11 run for many years.  I know things."  K11 refers to Svay Pak, a Vietnamese village 11 kilometers from Phnom Penh that in years past was notorious as a pedophile playground.  He said "I can get you young girl, very young, no hair yet.  Three or four hundred dollars."  He must have misread the look was on my face because he followed up with "Oh, you want virgin?  No problem.  $2,000 for one week."  I recoiled in horror.  "You want cheaper??" he asked.  He must have thought it was price that was bothering me.  "I can get you an older girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen, forty or fifty dollars.  I take you.  You no like, no pay."  My head spun in both directions.  I thought it was going to fly off my shoulders and into orbit. I wavered then thought "ok, it's just a ride at no charge and I might learn something new to write about."

We drove to the Central Post Office parking lot.  It was a drizzly, miserable night. The driver made a phone call.  He told me that a car taxi would bring a girl.  We waited maybe ten minutes.  No taxi.   He called again.  Getting impatient, he said "it would be better to start early tomorrow.  Better selection and no waiting.  The taxi take you to a place near a pagoda.  If you no like her you can select another."

Thinking I might give someone the night off, I asked if I could take one out. "No," he said quite seriously.  "That building is locked. Girls cannot take out." I started to get queasy. I was about to agree we should leave when a motorbike pulled into the parking lot with a girl.   She got off the bike and boarded the tuk tuk I was in.  Seeing the fear in her eyes behind a meek smile was sickening. At first I thought "maybe I'll learn something" but as I got out of the tuk tuk to pull $40 out of an ATM I got a really sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn't go through with being in a locked brothel even for only a brief time so I turned on a heel and climbed back into the tuk tuk. I'd read that enslaved girls sometimes catch hell when a prospective customer backs out, which made me feel sicker but I didn't know what else to do.

As the girl got back on the motorbike and was driven away I thought "there but for the grace of whatever, go I." I don't know where the thought came from but it seemed quite real.

The next day I still felt sick. Couldn't get out of bed.  The day after that I didn't get up until dinnertime. My body was telling me I'd hit a wall. There would be no more freelance recon, at least not on this trip. It felt terrible; my stress was a drop in the bucket compared to what trafficked women and children go through with no end in sight, but I couldn't deal with it.  I felt I had let them down.


The Wild Wild East

One day, an expat English teacher friend and I met for dinner away from where the tourists hang out. My friend had invited a former student of his to join us. She very late. When she finally arrived she said her street had been blocked by a mob of people and police. A small child had been kidnapped right in front of his home by an unknown woman and spirited away. The mob had gathered because the neighborhood were up in arms and letting the police know it.   They blocked the street so she could not leave for awhile.

The former student said that child kidnapping is common, that children are taken so their organs can be sold in another country to transplant tourists who don't ask questions. My expat friend added that he'd seen videos of bodies of Cambodian children found cut open with organs missing. His former student added that such kidnappings are also a problem in Vietnam, where she said small children are sometimes yanked right off of their parents' motorbikes by visitors from a certain country to the north whom she described as "cruel and something cold, very cold."

As I wrote about in Hong Kong in Episode II, this scale of barbarism is entirely consistent with technological change and globalization relentlessly driving the value of human labor toward zero. As the value of free labor approaches zero in more and more fields, the supply of human trafficking victims can only increase unless massive measures are taken. The only book I've read that touches on where we might start is Siddartha Kara's Sex Trafficking - Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. It's a hopeful beginning. I recommend it. 

Back to that mob in the street. The kidnapped kid was lucky. Police caught the kidnapper and returned the child to his grateful family. The police then had their hands full protecting the arrested woman from the enraged neighborhood who had poured out of their houses to get some quick justice. I could almost hear the translation:

"Cookie, go get the rope!"

OK, it's a loose translation.  But it supports my sense of Cambodia as the Wild Wild East.


End Bit

When I attended the Freedom Summit in Santa Clara, California in 2015, one of the speakers, herself a survivor, told us that "no trauma is beyond the healing power of love."  I'd been skeptical of that. I still am. But after this trip to Cambodia I wondered if there might be something to it. Even a hug might help.

I certainly hope so.