Sunday, January 11, 2009
January 10, 2009
By Kassie Bracken
The New York Times
I’d never been to Southeast Asia before, nor had I ever stepped foot in a brothel. I suppose the word summoned up grainy red images of numbered young girls for sale, but I don’t know that I really knew what to expect.
Each brothel we visited had a completely different energy and vibe, but for the most part, all of the girls seemed young - the majority looked to be in their teens. They were all tiny in stature too, which only made them seem even younger. Nick has asked me for my reflections in part to get a female perspective - and this is difficult to put into words when I think about the moments we were in the presence of these girls. I didn’t see sexy or feminine, I saw adolescent energy, and that trumped anything else.
Outside of one brothel a staunch mama-san never made eye contact with Nick and looked past him, calculating the street as they spoke. I was surprised that she continued speaking to us, knowing that it wouldn’t lead to a sale. Behind her, young girls mechanically reapplied lipstick and mascara over and over again under red lights. One woman’s face will stay with me – she kept circling lipstick around her lips with a desperation. She’d put the cap on and then open ten seconds later and do it again.
Later that night we also spoke with a younger mama-san, heavily made up in a strapless cocktail dress with multiple gold rings and bracelets and long pressed-on nails. She and said she could fulfill a request for a virgin girl with a few days’ notice, and never lost her flirty smile when she spoke. When we walked away she kept smiling and as we turned our backs she smashed three full beer bottles into the street behind us.
At both of those brothels, the girls had a deadness in their eyes that I sort of didn’t want to contemplate for fear that I would become completely depressed about the world. But at the karaoke shacks I was struck by the youth and energy in the laughter of some of the girls with whom we spoke. The mood seemed lighter and I generally couldn’t tell who the mama-sans were. For brief moments I would completely forget why we were there, and just see the enthusiasm of
teenage girls talking to what probably appeared to them to be two odd Westerners. Then it would hit me that like all of the other young women we’d met, they would have to offer sex to the next man who wanted to pay two dollars. No matter what he looked like, smelled like, or his physical
manner. It’s difficult to imagine where I would be mentally and emotionally under those conditions.
I think in general, I felt emotionally abstracted from the girls in the brothels, in part because I never directly interacted with them and let Nick handle the conversations. And in a weird way, I think I didn’t feel comfortable speaking. I had this weird feeling that to speak was to somehow expose an inexplicable inequity - namely all of the choices I’ve had in my life in a world where many women by virtue of their gender have close to none. I felt that to speak to them would somehow solidify that they were selling their bodies and I was not.
There was an older – by older I mean, maybe 20? Maybe 30? — woman in a brothel in Poipet where Nick had conducted a sit-down interview with the mama-san. During the course of the hour we were there, the woman had had sex with six men, for a total of perhaps 15 – 18 dollars. She was beautiful – high cheekbones and a slightly square face, thick black hair and dark eyes – but she also looked like a tired woman at work. As we were about to leave she looked me in the eye - we just sort of looked at each other and took one another in – and then she smiled at me. I smiled back, awkwardly. At the moment, I didn’t know why I felt nervous, but I think now it’s because it was one of the only moments of mutual vulnerability - albeit brief and innocuous - I felt on the entire trip.
I’d like to think I am a fairly strong person, but in meeting Long Pross and hearing her tell her story, I wondered if I could ever match her strength. Long Pross was the woman we did a video about who had been abducted in her Cambodian village and sold into forced sexual slavery. She’d been beaten regularly, electrocuted, and had gotten pregnant twice. She kept resisting her customers. When after a painful abortion she’d begged for a week off, the mama-san gouged her eye out with a metal shard. During the interview she sat with Sina Van, who’d also suffered sexual slavery and who seemed like a big sister to Pross – Pross very rarely looked up during the interview, and Sina would hold her and touch her hair as Pross told her story.
It’s been a week since Cambodia, and I am thinking about it every day, and talking to friends willing to listen, just telling them what I saw. I’ve always thought that the concept of selling one’s body is a tricky one – I’ve read a lot of comments on Nick’s blog saying that it’s not the worst thing these women could be doing, given the extreme poverty in Cambodia, and that he is overplaying the abuse angle. Ultimately, I wonder most not about the reality of a young girl in a sexual act with a paying stranger, but I wonder about the impact on that girl’s future – will she be able to be vulnerable to another human - will she be able to experience love?
And I think about the end of Nick’s interview with Pross. Sina was attempting to make Pross smile by saying “when we get your eye fixed up and get you beautiful again, we’re going to find you a husband.” When I watch Pross’s expression in the video footage I see light in her eyes for
the briefest moment - then it’s gone. It’s the moment from the trip that haunts me the most.