Photo: © Will Baxter
Dara Keo and her mother, Rotana, were both in tears when it was time for her to leave. A motorized rickshaw had arrived to transport 12-year-old Keo from her one-room shack in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to an unknown location. Keo was crying because she was terrified. Rotana was crying because she knew she had done something unspeakable: She had sold her daughter’s virginity to a rich, powerful man. The rickshaw driver took Keo to an underground medical clinic. A corrupt doctor on the payroll of brokers who arrange the sale of virgins examined her to check that her hymen was intact and gave her a blood test for HIV infection. “He confirmed I was a virgin and disease-free,” says Keo, now 17. “Then I was taken to the man who bought me. I had to stay with him for one week while he raped me many times without a condom.”
Cambodia’s highly secretive upmarket virgin trade is a world apart from the capital’s rowdy, neon-lit bars and karaoke clubs where foreign tourists and locals can buy sex for $10 or $20. Its clients are high-ranking officials from the Cambodian government, military, and police force, as well as other members of Asia’s wealthy elite, who pay between $500 and $5,000 to sleep with a virgin.
Worldwide an estimated 4.5 million people are trafficked for sex or forced into prostitution, and 98 percent of the victims are women and girls, according to the International Labour Organization. In the United States, around 300,000 children are reported to be at risk of sexual exploitation. In Cambodia, an impoverished nation of only 15 million people, “many thousands” of Cambodian girls and women are sold for their virginity every year, says Dr. Chhiv Kek Pung, the president of ‘s leading human rights organization, Licadho. (There are no hard figures due to the trade’s secrecy.)
The virgin trade thrives partly due to a cultural myth. “Many older Asian men believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and prevent illness,” she explains. “There is an endless number of destitute families for the trade to prey on, and the rule of law is very weak.” Human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and the buying and selling of sex are illegal in Cambodia. However, because of official corruption and substandard police resources, no one has ever been convicted of purchasing virgins in Cambodia’s courts.
The belief that sex with virgins can prolong lifespan, originally from Taoist thought, has long been popular with Asian leaders. People’s Republic of China founder Chairman Mao had a well-documented love of virgins. The North Korean regime allegedly keeps elite troops of virgins ages 14 to 20 known as “satisfaction teams,” who are forced to provide sex to senior party officials.
In addition to rich locals, men from neighboring countries such as China, Singapore, and Vietnam are regular customers in Cambodia. “They travel here on business and have everything prearranged by brokers: a five-star hotel, a few rounds of golf, and a night or two with a virgin,” says Eric Meldrum, a former police detective from the United Kingdom who now works as an anti-exploitation consultant in Phnom Penh. “The men know they can get away with it.”
Home to more than 1,000 people, the Phnom Penh riverside slum where I meet Keo and her mother is a splintering jumble of wooden shacks alongside rancid water. Keo says that here, almost every teenage girl is sold for her virginity at some point. “Everyone knows, but nobody talks about it.”
Female chastity in Cambodia is enshrined in a code of obedience known as Chbab Srey (“Women’s Law”), and the girls suffer unjust shame. “There’s a national saying that men are like gold and women are like cloth,” says Tong Soprach, who does independent research on Cambodia’s youth for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government bodies. “If you drop gold in the dirt, it washes clean and still shines. If you drop cloth, the stain never comes out.” As a result, it is often hard for girls to marry or get regular jobs if they admit what happened to them.
Keo and Rotana tell their story inside the tiny room on stilts they rent for $10 a month. Outside, babies wail and hammers bang, and the walls shake as people traverse the slum’s rickety pathways. Quiet-spoken Rotana, 62, says the decision to sell her daughter’s virginity was a “last resort.”
Excerpt, read My Mom Sold My Virginity -Abigail Haworth| Marie Claire