Leaning against the bar in Phnom Penh’s hottest night spot for ex-pats, NGO workers and sex-pats alike, I knew paying for my first drink with a $100 bill would attract the eyes of the local women looking to hook the night’s catch. Sure enough, I feel the eyes of the young woman next to me eyeing up the note. She is extraordinarily beautiful. But I’m not even sure she’s a sex worker. Is she? Isn’t she? She must be. She looks the part, dressed in a stylish Moschino skin-tight jumpsuit. High heels. And then she talks to me. With sign language. She’s deaf.
I chat with her for a bit. Her sign language is quite, well, visual, considering what she’s talking about. Usually countries have their own sign language, but the sign for ‘sex’ is clearly universal. My pity for her increases because of her disability yet this young woman, fully aware of the power her looks and body give her, has decided to use her beauty as a means to survive.
Most of the girls here are what the world would describe as visually stunning as this club is where the Western dollar can be earned. The creme de la creme of Phnom Penh as one friend eloquently put it. As soon as my company realises I’m not going to be a customer, she dances off to find someone who is.
I see a girl I haven’t seen for a while – Socheata. I sit next to her. Ask where she’s been. She’d had a boyfriend, she says. An American. But it’s finished. So now she’s back to work. She looks at me, eyes big, wide, filled with truth. “Not one of these girls wants to be here,” she says.
Most of the guys I know who buy sex think the girls enjoy it. Easy money. Get paid for sex. Maybe they can’t see past their own gratification. The old excuse is rampant here: “At home I’d have to take a girl out, buy her drinks, dinner, maybe a movie, and then if I’m lucky have sex at the end of the night. At least here I’m giving her money straight in her pocket. I’m helping her.” And this is how the foreign men see themselves – as saviours.
Once I took Socheata to an NGO that offers girls re-training in beauty therapy and hairdressing at Open Arms. When she was prayed for she broke down in tears.
I’ve seen her go through several boyfriends. They all tell her they love her, promise her the world, then dump her. One of them, a Westerner, when she got pregnant, beat her and forced her to have an abortion. Her current Western boyfriend already has a live-in girlfriend and two kids. But she’s hanging onto the dream that he will one day leave his other girlfriend to be with her forever.
It took two and a half years for Socheata to say: “I used to see you as a [potential] customer but now I see you as a friend.” I try to imagine what Jesus’s friendships were like with the women of the night. I mean, think of the woman of ‘ill repute’ in Luke’s gospel who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, probably, it has been suggested, paid for with her earnings from the ‘night.’
And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; she brought a vial of expensive perfume, and, crying, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. – Luke 7:38
Of course, a pharisee complained:
If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him. – Luke 7:39
This woman ‘who was a sinner’ must really have loved Jesus, and must really have believed He loved her. It’s not easy to love a broken-hearted woman. It takes time to build trust. Jesus must have given her his time. Is time the greatest gift we can give?
Once a friend invited me around to her squalid, sparse, paid-for-by-a-customer room for a meal. It was midday. Her two younger sisters were hanging out there. My friend cooked me the most delicious meal, sitting on the floor, with a one ring stove. I felt like the most privileged man alive. Like my feet were being anointed with expensive oil.
Some say men shouldn’t reach out to women. And, yes, I’ll be the first to agree, it does have it’s complications. Emotions are complex. Friendship is difficult. Love is untameable. Mission is messy. What can be frustrating is the way other Christians misunderstand you. I’m sure I’m not the only man to experience this. Tim Keller, in one of his podcasts, makes a powerful and challenging statement:
Unless you are being misunderstood and making yourself vulnerable, you’re not in mission.
In my mind, Socheata, and other girls here in the expensive ex-pat clubs, are like Cinderella. They emerge from their $2 per night meth-house hovels looking like princesses – flowers emerging from the wastelands. And off they go to the ball – the nightclub – to earn some cash, all the while hoping to meet their white knight, their prince, their saviour, and live happily ever after. They don’t yet know their True Prince – the only Prince who can meet all their needs, their only Saviour – The Prince of Peace.
It’s interesting that the Khmer word for ‘sex worker’ is ‘broken girl’. Broken, as we all are, before Jesus by His grace restores us.
Aren’t we all called, like Jesus, to be a friend of the broken?
*names have been changed.