Sex Work in ASEAN: Cambodia

Sex Work in ASEAN: Cambodia


Sex Work in ASEAN: Cambodia

Sex Work in ASEAN: Cambodia



As part of our series ‘Sex Work in ASEAN Countries’, this article will explicate the sex work industry and the rights of sex workers in Cambodia. It will also touch on the history and economic impact of sex work, sex work statistics, sex work in Cambodia’s cultural context, and finally, the future of the industry in Cambodia. 

A Brief History of Sex Work in Cambodia


Law, Policy, and Policing

In the late 1990s to early 2000s, Cambodia passed two laws, namely the 1996 Human Trafficking Laws (Sandy 2014), and the 2001 100% Condom Use Program (CUP) (Sopheab, et al, 2008). The former was mostly ineffective, due in part to a loophole in the law passed– it essentially “outlawed brothels”, while allowing the continued operation of independent sex workers to work from the premises they owned (Sandy, 2014, p. 52; Keo, et al., 2014). The CUP, however, seemed like a de-facto legalisation of sex work, as it was passed in an attempt to control and monitor condom usage in brothels, which were still technically, illegal. Brothels were granted immunity from the law as long as they adhered to municipal regulations on condom use.

Things took a turn for the worse when the 2008 law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation was passed. Instead of addressing the inadequacies of the 1996 statute, which essentially classified all forms of commercial sex work, regardless of consent, as trafficking, the new law effectively implied that the “‘prostitution institution’ was intrinsic to human trafficking” (Keo, et. al, 2014). Without explicitly forbidding it, the 2008 law created an environment in which lawful sex work was made virtually impossible (Keo 2009). Its interpretation and by extension, execution, now lie at the discretion of law enforcement (Keo, et. al, 2014).  

Currently, sex work is not illegal per se, but is treated as such– many activities surrounding it are criminalised, namely the recruitment of people to engage in ‘prostitution’, pimping, living off the earnings of ‘prostitutes’, and the coercion of others into ‘prostitution’ (Women’s Network for Unity, n.d.; ). 


Sex Worker Statistics and their Economic Impact 

Women who entered the sex work industry in Cambodia primarily did so because of financial reasons, familial obligations, or an amalgamation of the two (Ditmore, 2006). Statistics about the impact of the sex industry on the national economy are not readily available, though it has been thought that macroeconomic policies, such as the lack of alternative employment opportunities for the “poorly educated or unskilled”, and the exponential growth of income inequality, has resulted in the indirect proliferation of the sex industry (Lim, 1998, p. 10). While there is little literature with reliable statistics, regarding the number of sex workers in Cambodia, a recent survey conducted in 2021 by The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) puts the population estimate at 52, 000.

While general media covering sex work and trafficking portray the industry as a lucrative one, the truth is that earnings vary drastically. Depending on a plethora of factors, including but not exclusive to, age, beauty, type and location of sex work, sex workers in Cambodia can earn anywhere from 2000 riels (US $0.49), to 400, 000 riels (approximately US $100) a day. While the former seems incredibly infinitesimal, many are made to live on less than a dollar a day, with three-quarters of the population living on less than US $3 a day (Habitat for Humanity, 2023). As mentioned, earnings are directly related to a vast number of factors; one’s earnings can be expected to decrease with age (Ditmore, 2006). Although street-based or independent sex workers reported having lower rates, they can keep all money earned from transactions, while those working in brothels or specified venues are expected to pay part of their earnings to their employers (Maher et al, 2011). However, policing practices are volatile, posing a sizable threat, especially to independent sex workers– brothel owners often pay off the police for immunity against raids (Maher et al, 2011). 

An article by Brody et al (2023) explicated the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of female entertainment workers (FEWs). Of a sample of 369 FEWs, 16.8% reported the loss of all income, and 83.2% reported losing partial income. Such economic and social disruptions have also led to increasing occurrences of gender-based violence against FEWs and food insecurity (Brody et al, 2023).  

Culture, Religion, and Social Norms 

The cultural values that shape notions of masculinity, femininity and respectability in the situated context of Cambodia are often conflicting. On one hand, female sex workers seem to defy “‘traditionally’ constructed” ideas of womanhood and respectability in their pursuit of sexual independence for monetary gain (Hoefinger, 2013, p. 109). On the other hand, they uphold cultural values of filial piety and obligation to their families by providing materially– as Hoefinger (2013) asserts, “they simultaneously experience social stigma and praise while embodying a ‘double’ value system” (p. 109). Parallel to this is the notion that urban masculinity in Cambodia is demonstrated through their participation in commercial sex (Vickery, 1999; Hoefinger, 2013). While the copious demand for such services is normalised for men, women who engage in sex work face overwhelming social stigma.  

This stigmatisation, however, is not exclusively enforced by the police and general society but also perpetuated by structural and political violence. Ditmore (2006) highlights how US funding and politics have historically served to influence perceptions on the matter of sex work. In her extensive dissertation, she outlines how USAID threatened to withdraw funding for NGOs that did not explicitly denounce sex work as illegitimate and harmful in 2002. This affected local support towards the Women’s Network Unity (WNU) and their operations in attempting to create a safe and inclusive environment for sex workers to conduct their labour (Ditmore, 2006). Such systemic stigmatisation has resulted in an enduring belief that sex work is ultimately exploitative, and violent and the women who partake in it, are either victims or of loose moral character. 

The Hope for Law Reform 

While enforcement abuses are not uncommon, it has become increasingly occasional, with efforts made on the part of both the government as well as other NGOs, to reduce HIV transmissions. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2012), governmental agencies (such as the National AIDS Authority, Provincial AIDS Committees, Ministry of Interior, Local Authorities, and National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs) have been actively implementing the policy that police cannot “obstruct HIV prevention or treatment interventions and must not confiscate condoms as evidence of sex work” (p. 124). Other policies, such as the Continuum of Prevention to Care and Treatment for Female Entertainment Workers (2009) and the Most at Risk Population Community Partnership Initiative (MCPI), which aim at a rights-based approach towards HIV prevention and testing. 

Of note is the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), an organisation that advocates for the rights and protection of sex workers in Cambodia. The WNU conducts outreach to sex workers, providing them with information regarding sexual health, HIV prevention, and access to health and legal services (UNDP, 2012). There are other community-based organisations, such as the Cambodian Men Women Development Agency (CNMWD), which focuses on transgender sex workers, and the Cambodian Prostitutes Union (CPU), which was established by a collective of peer educators. 

While sex work has yet to be decriminalised in Cambodia, we remain hopeful. When asked what she envisions for sex work in Cambodia, a community member of the WNU, Seng Simouy, said:

“Sex workers deserve justice and changes will have to be made. Sex workers deserve access to fully free public services, justice and freedom from discrimination and exploitation….More importantly, I do believe that people in sex work have the right to be involved in formulating policies affecting their lives. Laws and policies need to change to address the impacts of sex work on women’s daily lives. Sex workers are human so don’t forget that they exist.”


1.Sandy, L. (2017). Women and sex work in Cambodia: Blood, sweat and tears. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 

2. Monto, M. A. (2014). Prostitution, sex work, and violence: Lessons from the Cambodian context. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 15(1), 73–84. https://doi.org/10.1080/15240657.2014.877733 

3. Bouhours, T., Broadhurst, R., Keo, C., & Bouhours, B. (2012). Human trafficking and moral panic in Cambodia: The unintended consequences of good intentions. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2190704 

4. Women Network for unity. Women Network for Unity. (n.d.). https://www.wnu.unitedsisterhood.org/history.php 

5. Lim, L. L. (1998). The sex sector: The economic and social bases of prostitution in Southeast Asia. International Labour Office. 

6. Cambodia. Habitat for Humanity. (n.d.). https://www.habitat.org/where-we-build/cambodia 

7. Maher, L., Mooney-Somers, J., Phlong, P., Couture, M.-C., Stein, E., Evans, J., Cockroft, M., Sansothy, N., Nemoto, T., & Page, K. (2011). Selling sex in unsafe spaces: Sex work risk environments in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Harm Reduction Journal, 8(1), 30. https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7517-8-30 

8. Brody, C., Harrison, N., & Yi, S. (2023). Income loss and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic among female entertainment workers in Cambodia: A cross-sectional phone survey. BMC Public Health, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-15044-9 

9.  Sex work and the law – HIV/AIDS data hub for the Asia Pacific. (n.d.). https://www.aidsdatahub.org/sites/default/files/resource/sex-work-and-law-asia-pacific.pdf 

10. The struggle for sex worker rights. Cambodianess. (n.d.). https://cambodianess.com/article/the-struggle-for-sex-worker-rights 

You May Also Like

More To Explore

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus.



Are you in a crisis & need immediate assistance? Do you need someone to talk to? Project X is here & we can help.
Call our Helpline at +65 9060 9906

Visit Get Help page to learn more

Vanessa Ho

Executive Director | [email protected]

Executive Director
[email protected]

Vanessa has been full-time with Project X since 2011, and as a result, has had many opportunities to meet and connect with sex workers in Singapore and around the world. Under her leadership, the organisation has grown from a small group of volunteers to one where there are three paid staff and a team of over 60 volunteers. Correspondingly, she has increased the annual operating budget of the organization five times, and is now recognized as the leading organization that empowers and assists women in the sex industry.

Vanessa has written and spoken extensively about sex work, human trafficking, rape culture, and LGBTQ rights in Singapore. She believes that if people can speak about sex, gender and sexuality in open and in non-judgmental ways, society will become a safer place for everyone.

Vanessa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Warwick, and a Masters Degree in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London.