Sex and the single colonial

ConseilsHyginene.JPGIn 1923 Dr. C. Spire published a little booklet of thirty pages with advice for Frenchmen – planters, administrators, itinerant adventurers – bound for Indochina. The tropics, he told them, were no more dangerous to the health than Bordeaux or Marseilles (a revolutionary idea at the time). Good health required regular doses of quinine, a solar topee, some walking, riding and hunting, and strict avoidance of camping out in swamps and casual liaisons with the local women:

 Venereal diseases are extremely widespread in the colony. The young European, if he is unmarried, must therefore remain absolutely pure.

Dr Spire then faces up to reality:

But with the excitation and the irritation of the tropical climate, and the laxity of Annamite morals, it is quite difficult to ask him to remain continent for many years. I therefore continue to favour, in Africa as in Asia, the contraction of local marriage in the native fashion, a temporary union with a selected Annamite girl who is still, as much as possible, within her family. This has its inconveniences, I do not ignore the fact, but it remains the method that allows the greatest possible reduction in the risk of contagion.


Annamite morals, colonial fantasies: “The Siesta of a Young Favourite”

In the kiosk of a hotel in Ratanakiri I have seen, and deeply regret not buying, an antiquarian postcard showing a goggle-eyed Frenchman in a solar topee leering at a bare-breasted Cambodian damsel at her bath. Beneath was the legend: LES FEMMES! You see them everywhere, but take a grip on yourself, think of home and sweet Marianne to whom you would not wish to return with that which is unspeakable! (I made that bit up, but the general thrust, so to speak, is accurate: health was the concern, not morality or miscegenation).

Assuming that your young Frenchman did not stay pure, what did he do? In Saigon there was a modest red light district, but not in Phnom Penh – it was scarcely more than a village, with a population of 77 thousand in 1924 of whom around a thousand were French. There was no red light district. There was, however, sex:

Local residents served as intermediaries, bringing clients and women together in private homes. For those interested in Khmer women, in particular, a group of European merchants, Cambodian dignitaries, lesser princes, and palace employees served as go-betweens and occasional pimps.

So resident Europeans were all very discreet and well-behaved. The problem arose when the soldiery came visiting:

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 11.38.03 PM.png

French soldiers in Phnom Penh. The little boy holds a sign that reads: “A group of 8 friends, 8 November, 1908”

Accustomed to the more straight-forward practices of Saigon, their behaviour gave often rise to scandal. In 1881, for instance, French administrators faced daily complaints against soldiers who were “chasing women at nighttime.” Hordes of rowdy soldiers regularly accosted women in the streets, trying to grab and kiss them…”


“Phnom Penh – young Cambodian girl” Jeune fille meant a respectable girl; fille meant a prostitute.

Thus were the modest beginnings of Phnom Penh’s  lurid modern reputation. The women were mostly Vietnamese, with only a few Khmers and Sino-Khmers drawn from the lower-ranking fringes of the palace world. There is, indeed, a book to be written about the royal palace and its inhabitants. Perhaps when I have the time.


C. Spire, Conseils d’hygiene aux coloniaux en partance pour l’indochine

Gregor Muller, Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen

Tinder is the night: the sex lives of young Cambodians


Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post, 21 August 2015

Fascinating article in the Phnom Penh Post about the impact of dating apps on Cambodian boy-meets girl. Every kid in PP has a smart-phone, social death not to have one. So what impact is Tinder having? (“Tinder is how people meet, it’s like real life, but better. Get it for free on iPhone and Android” – so says their google lead).

Short answer: not much. It’s in English, which sort of limits the market penetration. But now someone’s brought out a Khmer version. It’s called Matchstix, it was launched 1 August, and already it has maybe 10,000 users.

In the West, Tinder is being blamed for the death of romance – any boy wanting a girl for consensual nooky can forget chocolates and movies and just open his phone. Girls too, presumably. But in Cambodia?

Cambodia is different. Boy is it different. Not that I’m into Tinder, or even into dating Cambodian girls, but I do know, for example, that Khmer girls have the mentality of 12 year olds even when their 20. Fluffy bunnies and romance is where it’s at for them.

Trude Jacobsen, a history professor at Northern Illinois University who researches Cambodian gender and sexuality, said she wasn’t surprised that Tinder hadn’t taken off amongst Cambodians.

Sex outside of wedlock tended to be something that men engaged in with sex workers at specific times in their lives, she said. Usually, these activities were undertaken with a friend or group.

“So it’s not really the notion of an app for sex that is problematic, it’s the notion of hooking up for sex that is not a commercial transaction.”

Unmarried young women, in contrast, were supposed to be asexual.

Cambodian kids use Facebook and other social media in a Cambodian way – making friends, swapping stuffed animals, getting highly emotional. But no sex.

“An app like Tinder would be handy for young people looking to meet someone special that they can then identify as their boyfriend or girlfriend, in that sense; but it would not be used for sex.

“In fact, I can see a lot of cultural confusion occurring as Westerners used to the overt hookup culture of Tinder get on it in Cambodia and are dismayed to find their ‘acceptable swipes’ suddenly sending them emojis of teddy bears and hearts!”

The girls, presumably, live lives of Victorian rectitude. But what about the boys?

“…men would not only have sex with sex workers but anyone who was willing. “Why do they do this? Because they have their male friends who always say: ‘How can you have sex with your wife when you don’t know anything about sex? You have to try it.’ And this is a cause of gang rape in town as well. Then they want to find a virginal wife…”

Samsara: love and marriage

In the late 19th century an anonymous French army surgeon spent a few months in Cambodia investigating the sex lives of the inhabitants. His freedom of movement was hampered by war in the countryside, but nevertheless he managed to fit in a great deal of highly relevant observation. He was much struck by the chastity of Cambodian girls, especially compared to their Vietnamese sisters. Pre-marital sex was unknown, as was prostitution, and marriage, if not perhaps love, was the sole arena for sex. (I’m not entirely convinced he was right, but that is what he said).

The leisurely process of marriage began with the betrothal. A female go-between would informally sound out the family of the girl on behalf of the boy’s family. If the response were positive, a formal delegation from the boy’s family would bring presents to the girl’s parents. If the presents were accepted – no doubt there was informal negotiation beforehand – the couple would be considered betrothed. The boy would then move into the girl’s house as a kind of domestic servant. This was necessary because the couple would not previously have met (in theory anyway), and this period was for the young man to pay court to the girl. He would sleep in the kitchen, because the girl was, of course, a virgin, although ‘leaving a boy with a girl is like putting an elephant in charge of the sugar-cane’, says the Khmer proverb.

The Frenchman doesn’t describe the wedding, but an Englishman named Christopher Pym, writing a century later, does. In the 1950s, while still in his twenties, he crossed on foot from the coast of Vietnam to Angkor in search of a road built by Jayavarman VII, the great king of Angkor who brought the Khmer Empire to its widest extent in the 12th century (I’m writing from memory, so don’t quote me on the history). He spent a year in Phnom Penh beforehand brushing up his Khmer.


Symbolic items from a Cambodian wedding – betel box, comb and scissors, etc. Copyright Kate McElwee.

From a Khmer wedding that took place in California. Beautiful photos, and much useful information.

Marriage, Pym says, was not between two individuals but between two families. The marathon wedding took place over three days, and its main elements were a hair-cutting ceremony (symbolic rather than literal, and an occasion for bawdy jokes and songs), a meal offered to the ancestors, and the cotton ceremony, in which the girl’s wrists were bound with a white cotton thread. After the thread was tied the girl began to cry, and when Pym asked why he was told it was because she was afraid of her husband. Pym offers no further explanation. At dawn on the last day the achar (specialist in ritual) placed a coconut flower divided into three parts on an outside altar, the three sections being called the mother, father and child. The groom bowed to each flower section in turn and entered the house, where the bride was concealed behind a curtain. The achar brought the flower sections inside and the groom bowed again to them, and at the same time a musician began a bawdy song entreating the hidden girl to allow the groom to “open the curtain” (a double-entendre?) The curtain was drawn aside revealing the bride, and although Pym doesn’t mention it, she was dressed as Neang Neak, the naga-princess who met Preah Thong, the ancestor of the Khmer race, on their mythical beach at the beginning of time.


Khmer wedding dress – the costume of Neang Naga the naga-princess, mother of the Khmer race.

The girl knelt beside the boy and bowed to the three flower sections, the guests seated themselves around them and circulated popil and candles. When the candles had gone round three times the achar blew them out and wafted the smoke towards the couple. The boy and girl were now wed. The boy took the bride’s scarf and allowed himself to be led to the marriage bed like Prince Thong being led to the underwater naga kingdom, while the guests dismantled the mother and daughter flowers and threw them over the couple like confetti. Later in the morning the newlyweds would take the father flower to the village monastery, where the head monk would scatter its grain over them.

We move now to the late 1950s, when the pioneering anthropologist May Ebihara lived in a Cambodian village for a year. She found the girls in the village were afraid of sex and of being raped or abducted, which were apparently real dangers. Both Buddhism and the spirits disapproved of fornication, and chastity continued to be the overwhelming rule. Yet there were a few cases of a lack of chastity, including a girl four months pregnant at her wedding and another who was the mistress of a high official from Phnom Penh – the second girl faced considerable disapproval, as did her parents for having allowed this to happen.


From the website of the Khmer-Canadian Youth Association of Alberta – Their caption describes the role and significance of this section of the wedding ceremony, a recapitulation of the origin of the Khmer people.

In modern villages marriage is still the result of betrothal organised at family level, and young people con only hope to influence the schemes of their parents. Birth control is not much practiced, although STDs are well understood and condoms are used for health reasons. As a result families tend to be large. Infertility is regarded as the woman’s fault, and the kru (traditional healers and shamans) are consulted for causes and cure. Male impotence is also regarded as a supernatural problem rather than a medical one, although in fact there are several quite serious conditions that can cause it. Abortion is very rare, since taking life is the most serious of all sins.

All this is for the village, and my sources have been second-hand and unreliable. Perhaps I need to do like May Ebihara and live for a year in a village – I have one in mind, and the headman has invited me to stay, but I can’t help wondering whether my bowels could take it. And what about the cities? Cambodia is still overwhelmingly a village-based society (maybe 80% of people live in villages), but cities are growing rapidly. The village has a thousand eyes, but the facts of modern urban life have produced a new social and moral world.


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

This post is adapted from my book Spirit Worlds, due out in October. This section of the book was one of the hardest to write, due to the subject matter – how do you ask young people about their sex lives? Margaret Mead had that problem in Samoa. I was struck by how little is available on the sex lives of young people in the cities. I did ask, though I doubt the answers are authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I was told that pre-marital sex is increasingly common among teens – maybe quite common. And I know for a fact that Valentine’s Day is a major event in the calendar of every hormonally-supercharged high-school boy. Someone really has to study this.

Phallic symbols at Yeay Mao’s shrine

_DSF5967Yeay Mao (“Black Lady”) has shrines from southern Vietnam to the edge of Thailand, but the most important is at Pich Nil, in the hills behind Sihanoukville.  In the days of Angkor she was the Hindu goddess Kali, associated with fertility cults – you can read about her on Wikipedia. She’s black because Kali was black. Her consort was the god Shiva, hence the Shiva-lingas and the phalluses.Shiva has become Preah Eisey, the name taken from one of his attributes.

_DSF5945(Apologies for the poor photo, but I don’t have a better one). Her offerings are bananas, roast piglet or roast chicken, and carved phalluses. As the phallic offerings suggest, her main business is control of fertility. Women come to pray for a baby, men come for problems with sex drive or erectile dysfunction.

_DSF5960She also has a very important role as a goddess of roads – motorbikes and cars and trucks and buses always stop here to offer bananas, pray for protection, and bless their vehicles with holy water. The holy water is taken from a spring by the roadside, and this was the original place of her shrine (it’s now been moved to the far side of the road).

_DSF5965The phalluses are getting to be a problem. There used to be hundreds of them, stuffed into the secondary shrines next to the main one, but now there are none. The attendant showed me a cardboard box full of them behind the shrine. The one in the photo above I took from the box just for the picture. They’re all about to be burnt, like the thousands before them. The explanation I was given was that they clutter up the shrines, that more room is needed for offerings of bananas and roast piglets. I don’t think so. I think the authorities are just embarrassed. (Interestingly, the authority in charge of the shrine isn’t a ministry in Phnom Penh, as I’d expected, but the local army unit).


These haven’t been removed – there are just a few giant stone phalluses in the form of Shiva-lingas. Like all the rest, they’re donated by the devotees of the goddess, but these are extremely expensive and must come from very important people – cart these away and there’ll be questions.

Eyso lingaQuite a different question is raised by the face on this one. There’s an inscription underneath identifying the figure as  Eisoh in mediation. The guardian told me that some people have objected strongly. The correct god to accompany Yeay Mao is Preah  Eisey, who appears dressed as a hermit with a kettle and naga-staff.


Eisoh is a problem – who is he? There’s a Ream Eisoh who appears in legend as a stupid and wicked giant who attacks the beautiful Lady Mekhala (“Cloud”) with his magic axe, their eternal battle causing thunder and lightning. His title there is not Preah (“Sacred”), and he has no evident connection with phallic imagery – except perhaps that the rain that follows the battle with Lady Cloud connects the pair of them with fertility. Or perhaps the donor had private reasons for promoting the giant to godly status. Or perhaps he/she just got it wrong.

moni_reamMoni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, by Sojourn Foto – from the ballet by Toni Shapiro

The origin-myth for Yeay Mao as told to me by the guardian is that her husband, named Ta Kry (not Eisey) was a general who fought the Thais. Yeay Mao missed her husband (it was explained to me that “missed” means missed sexual relations with him) and took a boat to go look fort him. (Note the maritime connection). A storm arose, and the captain wondered aloud what he’d done to offend the gods. Yeay Mao admitted that she “had four eyes” – meaning she was pregnant. It’s strictly taboo to have a pregnant woman on a ship. Yeay Mao apologised to everyone and cast herself into the sea, at which the storm ceased. End of story. Except there seems to be a couple of non-Kali threads lurking here. Kali isn’t associated with the sea, for example. More, there’s a hint of human sacrifice, although no more than a hint. But the connection with sexuality (Yeay Mao “misses” her husband sexually) and fertility is totally in keeping with tantric thinking (Wikipedia‘s article is as prissy as the attendant’s burning of the phalluses – tantra was totally about using sex as a means of union with the god).


Tantric carving from India – Khmer art is never so explicit

Two minor points that are only notions of my own: first, it seems the “high” gods, meaning Buddha and the tevodas and such – any beings that are from the heavens – are worshiped with flowers and fruits, while “lower” divinites such as the neak ta (all the gods here are neak ta) have these plus meat offerings. Second, it seems that an awful lot of neak ta have self-sacrifice in their origin myths.

The Road of Lost Innocence

Somaly MamThe Road of Lost Innocence (link to Amazon here) is “a riveting and beautiful memoir of tragedy and hope,” says the publisher’s blurb. And, of course, a true story.

Except all the evidence suggests it’s not.

“Road” was published as the life-story of Cambodian anti-trafficking campaigner Somaly Mam. Kirkus Review gives this summary:

“Born in 1970 or 1971 and torn from her ethnic Phnong family during Cambodia’s genocidal civil war, Mam suffered as a child in a Khmer village whose people saw her as “fatherless, black, and ugly,” possibly even a cannibal. Her pederast grandfather sold her virginity to a Chinese merchant to whom he owed money, a prize in a culture where raping a virgin was believed to cure AIDS. He then sold her to a soldier who “beat me often, sometimes with the butt of his rifle on my back and sometimes with his hands.” From there it was a short path to what Mam calls “ordinary prostitution,” working for a madam who was quick to hit and slow to feed. In time, after a series of indignities that she recounts in painful detail, Mam extricated herself to live with a French humanitarian-aid worker.”

So there you have it: oppressed minority, pederast grandfather, sold for her virginity, physically and sexually abused, underage prostitute.

The book goes on to tell how she overcame this horrific history to become a leading fighter in the anti-child sex trafficking fight, first in her native Cambodia, and later, following a documentary aired on French television, the world.

And little if any of it is true.

somaly_mamThe real story begins with that 1998 French documentary. Prior to that,  Somaly was just the head of one of many tiny anti-trafficking organisations in Cambodia. The documentary featured a dramatic interview with a 14 year old called Ratha, rescued from a brothel by Somaly’s NGO, AFESIP. Six months later Somaly was on stage at Spain’s Campoamor Theater alongside Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian-born doctor who had campaigned for decades against the circumcision of women, receiving the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Somaly was telegenic, she spoke French, and she had a host of harrowing tales.

By 2008, the date this book was published, Somaly Mam was a jet-setting ambassador for the global campaign against the trafficking of children and women, president of her own Somaly Mam Foundation which raises millions each year, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. In 2009, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Then around 2012 the Cambodia Daily started doing some investigative reporting, and the wheels started to fall off for Somaly Mam. They fell slowly, but they fell surely. That heart-wrenching interview on French television with Ratha? “The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story,” Ratha told the Daily. Mam’s NGO, she said, had provided an education for her, and she was grateful, but that she could no longer continue a lie that had followed her for half her life. “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.” In other words, the interview was faked by Somaly.

somaly+mamThe Cambodia Daily also discovered that one of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s most highly-publicized sex trafficking victims had fabricated her harrowing story of gruesome mutilation at the hands of a brothel owner. In numerous interviews and in a prime-time television documentary, Long Pros said that as a young girl she was held as a sex slave at a brothel in Phnom Penh where she had her eye gouged out with a knife for refusing to have sex with customers. However, medical records and interviews with Ms. Pros’ parents and her eye surgeon showed she had her eye removed in a hospital because of a tumor that developed in her childhood. Ms. Pros’ parents said she was sent directly from their home to Ms. Mam’s organization in Phnom Penh simply to get an education and she had never spent any time in a brothel.

In 2013 Somaly Mam finally admitted that claims she had made in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in which she said that eight girls she rescued from the sex industry had been killed by the Cambodian army after they raided her organization’s shelter, were false, as were long-standing and highly publicized claims that her 14 years old daughter was kidnapped by human traffickers in 2006. (Somaly had claimed that the traffickers had videotaped her daughter being gang-raped in retaliation for her work with victims of the sex trade; police said they were baffled by the claims, while Ms. Mam’s former partner said the story was a publicity stunt to raise funds for her organization).

All of this related to stories told by Somaly Mam in relation to her work post-1998; now it seems that the entire story of her life before then, the story which begins Road of Lost Innocence, is equally unreliable. ( Newsweek, 21 May, 2014, “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint And Sinner Of Sex Trafficking,” Simon Marks).

Buy a $25 Empowerment necklace...

Buy a $25 Empowerment necklace…

Newsweek’s interviews with Somaly’s childhood acquaintances, former teachers, and local officials in Thloc Chhroy, the village where she grew up, contradict important, lurid details in the autobiography. Many of the villagers report they never met or even saw Mam’s cruel “pederastic grandfather,” nor the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her, nor the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.

Orn Hok, a former commune (village district) chief, remembers the day she arrived in the village, noting, “Somaly came here with her parents. She is a daughter of Mam Khon and Pen Navy.”

Pen Chhun Heng, now in her 70s, says she is a cousin of Mam’s mother and rejects the notion that Mam was adopted or that she was raised (or kept) by “Grandfather.”

Sam Nareth, a childhood friend of Mam’s, says Mam first attended school in the village in 1981 and remained there until she got her high school diploma. “She finished secondary school in 1987, and Somaly and I went to sit the teachers exam in Kompong Cham together.”

Thou Soy, director of Khchao High School in Thloc Chhroy, distinctly remembers Mam attending classes between 1981 and 1987, as does the current commune chief, Thorng Ruon, and his two predecessors. Mam was well-known and popular in their small village, “a happy, pretty girl with pigtails.”

"Many of these children are sold into sexual slavery..." True or false?

“Many of these children are sold into sexual slavery…” True or false?

What led Somaly Mam to create such a complicated web of falsehoods? (As Marks points out, the stories have become so complicated that she has trouble keeping the details straight). Possibly she’s what the French call a fabuliste, a compulsive maker-up of alternative realities. This is not the same thing as a deliberate liar or confidence trickster – the fabuliste has no more control over the stories than a kleptomaniac has over shoplifting. When the she was so abruptly rocketed into the international jet-set, it must have seemed that the unreal was real after all.

There also seems to be an element of something darker in her makeup, though equally pathological. On the international stage Somaly is charming, but in private, according to Marks’ investigations, she’s tyrannical and self-centred, and AFESIP operates in an atmosphere not of dedication but of fear. “She used to talk to me (reports an ex-employee) about wanting to put things in people’s food and how easy it would be to poison someone.”

Let’s return to the question Marks raises: even if Somaly Mam lies about practically everything, does it matter? After all, the sex industry is evil, sex trafficking (especially of children) is especially evil, and if Mam raises consciousness and money in the West, is this an adequate excuse?

The core problem is that Somaly Mam is a public figure, the public face of the anti-trafficking campaign in Cambodia. And she’s poisoning the well. In her highly emotional speeches and presentations she claims there “at least” 40,000 trafficked women in Cambodia, many of them under-age. This seems highly unlikely. A well-conducted 2008 study by a professor of statistics from the University of Miami found there were barely a thousand trafficked women, and only 127 children (defined as aged under age 18); only eleven of these were aged 15 or less. In short, Somaly Mam has created a grave misapprehension in the West over trafficking in Cambodia.

Somaly Mam at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.

Somaly Mam at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.

Which brings us to the question of cash. If the anti-trafficking organisations are spending millions on the cause, yet there are still 40,000-plus trafficked women and children in the brothels of Cambodia, then the money hasn’t been very well spent. If, on the other hand, there are only a thousand trafficked women and just over a hundred children, what’s being done with the money? (Just one million dollars, divided equally between a thousand women and children, would give each of them a thousand dollars, which is a small fortune in Cambodia). Where has the money gone?

Marks spent two years investigating this story, and for most of that time, Somaly, AFESIP and the foundation stonewalled. In April, after repeated requests from Newsweek for an interview with Somaly Mam, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement on the foundation’s website: “Following an internal review, the Foundation has recently launched an independent, third-party investigation to further examine these claims. Somaly Mam is in full support of this review. We can only hope that this does not deter other survivors from sharing their experiences, because it is their courageous voices that bring promise of a world free from trafficking.” The foundation has retained the law firm Goodwin Procter, (which also declined to speak to Newsweek), to carry out the investigation. A further and much briefer statement was issued in May following the appearance of the Newsweek article.