Negotiating Intimacy: Transactional Sex and Relationships Among Cambodian Professional Girlfriends

Hoefinger, Heidi. 2010. Negotiating Intimacy: Transactional Sex and Relationships Among Cambodian Professional Girlfriends. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London. [Thesis]

Full thesis available here.

This research focuses on the transactional nature of sexual and non-sexual relationships between certain young women in Cambodia described as ‘professional girlfriends’, and their ‘western boyfriends’. In this case, the term ‘transactional’ refers to the initial material motivation behind their interactions. While the majority of women are employed as bartenders or waitresses in tourist areas of Phnom Penh, outside observers tend to erroneously label them as ‘prostitutes’ or ‘broken women’ because of the gift-based nature of the intimate exchanges. Ethnographic evidence demonstrates, however, that they make up a diverse and nuanced group of individuals who engage in relationships more complex than simply ‘sex-for-cash’ exchanges, and often seek marriage and love in addition to material comforts. Though they do not view themselves as ‘prostitutes’, the distinction of the term ‘professional’ is used to emphasize that 1) they do rely on the formation of these relationships as a means of livelihood and their motivations are initially materially-based; 2) they engage in multiple overlapping transactional relationships, usually unbeknownst to their other partners; 3) there is a performance of intimacy, whereby the professed feelings of love and dedication lie somewhere on a continuum between genuine and feigned, and where the term ‘love’ itself carries multiple meanings.

The research further reveals not only the stereotypes, contradictions, and structural constraints experienced by these young women, but also their entrepreneurialism, determination and creativity. Despite trauma related to recent political past, sexual violence, stigma, depression and self-harming, they use tools of global feminine youth culture, consumption, linguistic ability, ‘bar girl’ subculture, and interpersonal relationships to make socioeconomic advancements and find enjoyment in their lives. The practice of ‘intimate ethnography’ also illuminates the negotiation of intimacy and friendship between the participants and researcher, as well as the general materiality and exchange of everyday sex and relationships around the globe.

Interview on Huffington Post “Everything You Think You Know About Cambodian Sex Workers Is Wrong

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