Review: Cambodia: The Virginity Trade

stacks_image_538-300x168Cambodia: The Virginity Trade. Director Matthew Watson


“I sold my virginity to an old man. I sold it for $500 to help my family… it was the only thing of value we had,” says Da-Lin, a young Cambodian woman in Matthew Watson’s heartbreaking documentary, Cambodia: The Virginity Trade.

Throughout Asia there is a belief that having sex with a virgin is some miraculous boon that can bring health, vitality and luck. As virginity cannot be faked, there is also the added benefit of protection from HIV and this all creates a supply and demand for virgins that poor families fall victim to. Customers aren’t just the rich westerners that are coming in search of a sex holiday–it’s often locals, married or not, that perpetuate the sex industry and the horrors within it.

Against this backdrop Watson follows the story of  everal young girls from the Cambodian countryside who have been sold on the sex market for anywhere up to US $1,200. They narrate their tales and the common threads between them – the patriarchal oppression that demands girls be virgins as they enter into arranged marriages, the social pressure enforced on a cultural level for women to be subordinate to men. Watson does a commendable job of pulling on the heartstrings whilst also backing up the situation with interviews with NGOs advocating change and experts commenting on the issues.

The situation is, frankly, horrifying. The poverty in Cambodia is so crushing that it is often family members from the impoverished countryside that sell the virginity of their girls to middlemen, who sell on to the cities. Once their virginity is gone, many end up in brothels as virtual slaves, and eventually many become HIV-positive. Those who flee home to their villages are shunned and treated as pariahs because of the “shame” they bring home with them.

What’s worse, once their virginity is gone these girls are sold on to brothels across Cambodia or over the border in Thailand. In these brothels the young girls are at risk of disease, and if by chance they manage to escape they are subject to social scorn, rejection from her family, and in some cases, imprisonment. Through intimate and revealing interviews, men explain why sex with virgins is so important to them. We hear the stories of those whose lives have been ruined by the virginity trade, and speak to politicians, the police and representatives from NGOs. Can anything be done to end the plight of these girls?

Watson scores some incredible confessions from the men who buy virgins, as well as mothers who have sold their daughters due to their desperation. He also exposes the cultural hypocrisy of the value of women as commodities and the way that value is also embedded in marriage itself.

How are things going to change? How can the culture change with all it’s built-in hypocrisies and assumptions? These are some of the most valuable questions Watson asks of the people on the ground and the NGOs fighting to facilitate change. Unfortunately there are no easy answers, but education seems to be at the heart of it, and changing the thinking that men hold around sex, power and culture.

***** Stars

Rak Razam

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