One evening last year I was relaxing over a beer after a late dinner at a bar & grill on the riverfront here in Phnom Penh. It was about 10:30 or 11:00PM. At the bar sat a 50-something Western tourist and a Vietnamese taxi girl chatting and laughing together. Four young tourists strolled in and sat at a table near the open front of the restaurant - two couples, 20-somethings I think. I was sitting at the near end of the bar between the two groups and after a short while noticed that the tourists at the table seemed to be grumbling about the guy at the bar. They were leaning in together, speaking in low raspy tones, shooting occasional sharp glances and other pointed little gestures in his direction.
Distracting their attention momentarily, a pair of tiny 'flower girls' wandered in from the street - perhaps 8 or 9 years old, barely tall enough to see over the tables, ragged but clean and laden with doughnut-shaped flower rings and broad Cambodian smiles. They approached the tourists and began their sales chant, pleading "flower, 1500 riel, 1500 riel, flower, OK?, mam, OK?" The tourist women were immediately captivated by the little girls. "They're so cute," one of the women commented, stroking the girl's cheek. "How old are you?...What's your name?" they queried in cutsy sing-song tones. The girls leaned into the women, giggled, batted their eyes and repeated their sales chant. The couples inspected the flowers and gently bargained them down to 1000 riel each (25 cents), eventually buying a couple of the flower rings.
After admiring their purchase, the tourist women quickly fell back to talking about the guy at the bar, now a bit louder but still difficult to understand over the usual pub din, "blah, blah, sex...blah, blah, older than ...blah, blah, disgusting..." Meanwhile, the males at the table had begun bargaining with a Vietnamese shoeshine boy who was about 12 years old. The boy wanted $1 to shine their shoes. They were only willing to pay 50 cents (the 'right price' is 12 cents, but I am not saying anything). They struck a deal. The boy took the shoes outside where he squatted next to a puddle in the street for a little water to clean the mud from the soles.
As I was watching the boy work, my attention was jarred back into the bar by a loudly-spoken "CREEPY!" echoing across the room. The guy at the bar had his hand on the taxi girl's knee and one of the tourist women was glaring at him intently, talking loudly to her friend, her face turning red with anger. As she spoke, her volume progressively increased so that everybody in the bar could hear, "...CREEPY ...sick ...HER FATHER ...police ...children ...SEX tourist ...ped..." The guy at the bar ignored them, or didn't hear them, and carried on. Continuing to talk amongst themselves, the people at the table seemed to get more and more agitated. Finally they called over the bartender, pointed at the guy at the bar and made some sort of demand. The only words I heard clearly were, "sick old bastard," "police" and "sex tourist." The bartender shrugged and looked like he was trying to explain something to them. Abruptly, the tourists stood up, threw a twenty on the table and left in a huff, forgetting the flowers in their haste.
These young tourists, particularly the women, were absolutely blinded by disgust for what they saw - an 'old white man' with a 'young Asian girl' in an apparently sexual relationship. They completely missed the plight of the 8 year old flower girls, working 10-hours shifts, late into night, hawking 1000 riel flowers for some unknown flower girl pimp. They did not think to ask why an 8 year old is working at 10:30PM. Or why an 8 year old is working at all. Or who is controlling these children. Or where the money is going. Or whether they were indentured servants or abused or even slaves as they might very well be. In fact, these tourists happily contributed to the plight of these child laborers, buying their trinkets (and bargaining them down 12 cents,) ignoring their situation and sending them on their way into the night.
Nor did they raise any questions about the 12-year-old shoeshine boy, who is probably an illegal immigrant living on the street, not going to school, not getting enough to eat, perhaps sniffing glue to pass the time and assuage his hunger, and certainly paying tribute to a street gang for the privilege of shining shoes in a tourist area. Where will these children be after 5 or 10 years working the street for pennies? These tourists didn't think to ask, let alone do something about it. They were preoccupied with sex. They were blinded by revulsion and rage at the sight of a middle aged man with a much younger woman.
In fact, I've known this particular taxi girl for more than 4 years. I've never used her sexual services but I have played pool with her at the bar dozens of times, we've had drinks together a few times and we occasionally share a plate of noodles on the street at the end of the evening. She is at least 25 years old, divorced and has a three year old daughter. She's not particularly young looking for a Vietnamese girl, but to the unaccustomed eye she may look younger. She works as a prostitute because she needs to support herself and her child, because it's what she knows, and because she has no other options if she wants to make that kind of money. And these tourists preferred to try to 'save' this adult woman from the 'old man,' and perhaps from herself as well, rather than give one thought to the 8 year olds that sold them the pretty flowers or the 12 year old that shined their shoes so well.
One has to wonder about the motivation of many of these westerners who seem so focused on the SEA sex scene. If asked, these people would probably say that they are against the exploitation of women and children, or trafficking, or pedophilia, or slavery, or some such worthy ideal. Yet when confronted with actual cases of child exploitation and even slavery, they ignore it in favor of the 'creepy' sexual practices of consenting adults. Some might say that it can be blamed, at least in part, on their ignorance, though IMO it shouldn't take too much thinking to realize that there is something seriously amiss about 8 year olds hawking flowers in tourist bars in the middle of the night. No, it's not ignorance. It is their fixation on sex and the sexual behavior of others that distracts them from the real problems of real people. Yes, of course there is exploitation and other horrible things going on in the SEA sex business. But the focus on sex is so intense for many (if not most) of these western do-gooders, it is to the exclusion of real abuses and exploitation, and to the reasons that all of these people end up in these difficult and exploitive situations.
(Originally published in 2006. Probably even more relevant now than then.)