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Evangelicals offer redemption at Cambodia's girlie bars

Western men looking for love in Cambodian girlie bars deserve redemption, too, volunteers say.

Women and motorbike taxi drivers wait outside one of Phnom Penh's many hostess bars on Street 136. (Vinh Dao/GlobalPost)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Jesus, who gained notoriety ministering to the poor and wayward in the worst parts of Judea, might feel at home among the brothels and karaoke parlors of Phnom Penh. So say ministry volunteers who have begun reaching out to “wayward” Westerners in the city’s red-light districts.

"[Jesus'] biggest beef was with religious people," said John Yoder, a volunteer with the MST Project, which stands for Men and the Sex Trade. "He never minded people who'd made mistakes."

According to Yoder, the MST Project presents Western men looking for company at hostess bars with the opportunity to avoid falling into the cliched role of aging lecher or sex tourist.

The MST Project was founded several years ago in Bangkok, where a group of preachers took to the city's red-light districts in the hopes of educating male tourists about the dangers faced by working women, and perhaps winning a few converts on the side.

Every other week, Yoder and his team of about 20 volunteers break into three groups. One group sets up a table outside Heart of Darkness, a dance hall popular with prostitutes; another across from Candy Bar, a prominent hostess establishment. The third team stays behind at a church center and prays for the success of the street team and for the men whose names the MST workers text them.

Outside the bars, the MST teams — made up of male and female volunteers — try to engage passing men in conversation. Some of these chats drag on or become confessional while others are extremely short.

"Our ministry is unique because it is not about numbers, but about reaching out to a part of the population that has been rejected by many community organizations," Yoder said.

There are many anti-sex trafficking organizations in Phnom Penh, but few if any reach out to the Western men who are often perceived as fueling the trade in young women. This may not seem like a problem, but Yoder says it shows the persistence of a social stigma.

Experts are quick to point out that the demand driving the most reprehensible sectors of the sex trade in Cambodia is predominantly Asian and domestic patrons, as opposed to Western tourists.

Of the 141 arrests for debauchery and indecent acts made in the last seven years, 26 percent of the suspects were Cambodian and 13 percent were Asian men, according to Joerg Langelotz, project assistant at Action Pour Les Enfants, a nonprofit group that combats the sexual exploitation of children by Westerners. The Christian charity World Vision found in 2001 that nearly 50 percent of foreigners seen taking home young girls in Phnom Penh were of Chinese, Japanese or Korean ethnicity.

The racial profiling of Western men is doing more harm than good, according to Steve Morrish, an Australian detective who runs the anti-trafficking group SISHA.

"I think there are a number of NGOs that see Western men as the main issue, which is tremendously misinformed," Morrish said. "I'd prefer that Khmer women worked at the bars if they have to prostitute themselves because it offers a potentially safer environment. In the worst-case scenario, that is the best case." Most of the brothels catering to pedophiles are far away from the touristy strips, and many of the hostess bars are female-run, he added.

MST targets Western men because its volunteers believe they can make a difference, said Frank, a volunteer who asked that his last name be withheld. "We aim for these [Western] men because they speak English and because we honestly believe we can change their hearts," Frank said. "They may not be the ones getting abused, but they still need love in their lives."