Evangelicals offer redemption at Cambodia's girlie bars

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."

Steve Nyirady, who used to work in the nonprofit sector and now owns a number of Phnom Penh bars and restaurants, said that many people have the wrong idea about how sex work functions in Cambodia. "When I first got here, I was told the girls in the bars were indentured servants, chained to beds," he said. "It's really not like that. ... The work helps them support their families."

According to Nyirady, bar work might not be ideal, but it helps some women — many of whom are divorced or separated and thus perceived as tainted — support themselves and their families.

Heidi Hoefinger, a social researcher who studied Phnom Penh's prostitutes, said that such moralizing does more harm than good. "Moralism is dangerous — particularly when one group or another is pathologized as 'good' or 'bad,'" Hoefinger said.

The alliance of Christian abolitionist groups has created an atmosphere where advocating for sex workers' rights sounds like heresy, according to Hoefinger. "Save us from our saviors" is a common slogan among sex workers, she said.

MST volunteers stress the satisfaction of not only a relationship with Christ, but also long-term partnerships with a significant other. Yoder himself recently married a younger Khmer woman, a fact he jokes about uneasily.

"I think it was an arranged marriage, but not by me," he laughed. "When I arrived in Cambodia my wife was working in the house where I was staying. I guess they'd told her I was coming and she moved in."

Having predictable urges can be embarrassing, which Yoder says might account for the negative reactions MST volunteers sometimes receive on the street: a man insisting on taking the volunteers' photographs, another defiantly laughing at them, his arm around a girl in a tight black dress.

"People assume we are like the street preachers who berate people. But believe me, I used to do it — that isn't us," Yoder said.

The other volunteers follow Yoder's lead and make their appeals to passersby low-key, though Yoder admits that the occasional overzealous newbie may step out of line and threaten damnation.

Surrounded by the flirtatious shouting, giggling and bawdy dancing of the girlie bars, MST volunteers were almost shockingly well-mannered on one recent Friday night. With their uniformly inviting body language, slacks and purposefully casual smiles, the MST volunteers almost seem like the staff of an upmarket retail chain. But they don’t practice the hard sell.

"Excuse me," the volunteers say to the next passerby. "Would you like to take a survey?"

When they approach locals or tourists out on the town for an edgy evening, the volunteers are honest about their purpose, but quick to change the topic. Many of the conversations end up being about mutual longings for home, something easy to share.

One man who spent the better part of two hours talking to the group, seemed to savor the opportunity to talk to a group of young English speakers but declined to delve beyond cocktail chatter.

With a wave and a smile, the MST worker's new friend left them to wonder whether he was heading in sin's direction