PHNOM PENH – After listening to diners at the table next to hers speculate about how her father had found “such a young prostitute,” Anya Minko snapped. “He’s my dad, you perverts!” she yelled.
Anya is half-Thai. Her father, Chris Minko, is white.
In Phnom Penh, a city renowned for sex tourism and almost weekly pedophilia scandals, many people are swift to connect the dots when they see a middle-aged white man with a young girl of Asian descent. Sex tourists are so common that the term “sexpat” is commonly used throughout Southeast Asia, the Khmer Times reports.
“We’re victims of this sexpat cliché,” Ms. Minko told the Khmer Times. “You can tell from the way people look at you. You’re eating peacefully with your dad, and you see people whispering and staring at you.”
Sometimes the criticism is subtle – like customers who fall silent and stare at fathers and daughters when they walk into restaurants. But often it is more overt, with vigilantes who photograph them while they walk along the Riverside threatening to report them to the police, or accusing the father point-blank of pedophilia.
Sometimes, NGOs who fight child prostitution even have informants stalk them.
“The western press’s manic fixation on abusive sex in Cambodia has made the country’s name synonymous with pedophilia, unfairly and inaccurately so,” wrote long-time Cambodia resident Casey Nelson in a blog post in 2011. While the Cambodian sexpat stereotype is often accurate, it also affects innocent fathers and daughters, forcing them to change their lifestyles to avoid harassment.
According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Asian sex tourists outnumber Western sex tourists in Cambodia. But white men continue to be the main targets of suspicion.
Alan Parkhouse is Australian and is the chief sub-editor of the Sunday Bangkok Post, as well as the former editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post. He said he had given little thought to the sex-tourist stereotype until arriving in Phnom Penh on a visit with his teenaged Thai step-daughter.
“We were standing on the Riverside. My step-daughter hadn’t been outside Thailand before, so she was shy and holding my hand. Western people walked by and kept whispering or giving me or her dirty looks. We didn’t understand why. Then it dawned on me – I’m a western man with a 14-year-old girl hanging on him.”
The harassment is not always so subtle. Casey Nelson has lived in Phnom Penh for more than 20 years, and in a 2011 blog post, he wrote about walking on the riverfront with his daughters, aged seven and nine at the time.
According to Mr. Nelson’s account, a female Italian tourist started snapping photos of him and his daughters. “Photo you, Internet, you pedo…for police,” she said. Mr. Nelson confronted her and demanded that she delete her photos, but the woman refused. “I was accused of being a pedophile,” he wrote, “for absolutely no other reason than being a white male in the company of brown children – my son and daughter.”
Mr. Minko, who has raised Anya alone after the death of his wife, faces this sort of harassment regularly.
“This whole fucking pedophilia industry gets on my nerves,” he said. “When I’m walking around with my daughter, wherever we go, people make the assumption that I’m an old sexpat and she’s a hooker.”
Do No Harm?
The tourists accusing these fathers and daughters of sex crimes usually have good intentions – they see themselves as crusaders against child prostitution. When they arrive in the country, they are greeted with billboards and ads on tuk-tuks that urge “responsible tourists” to report possible human trafficking, and they oblige.
These publicity campaigns are usually funded by the country’s legion of anti-sex trafficking NGOs. As part of its 2014 “Child Safe Tourism” campaign, World Vision distributed 120,000 stickers with a hotline to call if tourists see “a child who you believe is at risk of abuse.”
These programs cause some tourists to jump to conclusions about who is a sex predator and who is not. International media coverage of pedophiles in Cambodia feeds into the perception of rampant sexual abuse of minors.
“From their exposure to the press, tourists… think that pedophiles are as common as cockroaches,” Mr. Nelson wrote in his blog post. “Any white man with an Asian-looking child must be a pedo who can simply waltz through tourist areas in broad daylight with a prepubescent child on each hand.”
Along with enlisting tourists, NGOs use a network of Cambodian informants – many of them tuk-tuk drivers or scooters – to get information about child prostitution rings. Some expats who have lived in the country for more than a decade have been tailed by these informants as they drive through the city with their daughters.
Stories abound on popular expat forum Khmer440.com about motodops who followed fathers home, snapped photos of them walking into their apartment, and questioned their gatekeepers or neighbors.
“We train tuk-tuk drivers as informants, and in addition, we have established a larger network of people at restaurants for the same purpose, to report suspicion of child abuse,” said Seila Samleang, executive director of anti-human trafficking NGO APLE. In 2014 alone, APLE trained 109 tuk-tuk drivers and 61 informants to report suspicious men.
Mr. Samleang denied allegations that his organization trained informants to photograph or follow suspected pedophile sex tourists. He did confirm, however, that other NGOs have trained informants to photograph white men with girls suspected of being underage prostitutes.
Sometimes the investigations uncover child prostitution. But other times, the truth is more innocuous – the suspected sex predator and child prostitute are just a father and daughter, taking a walk to buy ice cream along the Riverside. For these families, the surveillance is taxing. “I get really paranoid, because people take random photos of me walking with [my dad],” Ms. Minko said.
On the Defensive
When she and her father were eating at a Riverside restaurant, they heard German tourists at the neighboring table claiming that Anya was a prostitute. She was 14 at the time. Her father could not tolerate it. “I finally answered the guy in German. I said, ‘Stop making assumptions,’ and slammed his head into the table,” Mr. Minko recalled.
Fathers and daughters who face this sort of daily harassment develop ways to deal with it. Sometimes they confront their accusers directly. “But we can’t walk along the street being aggressive every day,” Mr. Minko said.
The constant judgment has forced them, they say, to behave like they are, in fact, guilty of a crime. They eat only at certain restaurants where the staff and patrons all know them well. They have stopped taking walks on the Riverside. They shop at only certain markets, and rarely go out together. Ms. Minko said she no longer rides on the back of her dad’s motorcycle.
“We tend to stick to a Khmer circle of friends, at one restaurant and at the market,” Mr. Minko said.
Mr. Parkhouse said his daughters figured out from a young age how to avoid harassment. “I would make sure people heard me call him ‘Dad’ so they would realize I was his daughter,” said Michelle Parkhouse, Alan’s half-Thai daughter who currently lives in Sydney.
“It’s so sad that Anya can’t go with her father to certain places,” Mr. Minko said. “It’s sad the way it’s impacted our family.”
Prejudice Without Borders
Ms. Minko wrote a post about this problem on Facebook, and it was immediately flooded with comments by others – mainly Eurasian girls – who have faced the same stereotype in Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. “It’s really getting on my nerves that they are looking down on you and your family without knowing you at all,” wrote one commenter.
Mr. Parkhouse said Phnom Penh is not the only city with a “sexpat” stereotype. When he was in Bangkok, a city notorious for its red light district, he got into a taxi with his daughter Michelle, who was 14 at the time. “The taxi driver asked us if we’d like to go to a short-time hotel,” he said, referring to the hotels where rooms can be rented by the hour for sex.
“Michelle went ballistic on him in two languages. But [the cab driver] was unrepentant – he just said it’s a common sight, an Asian girl with a western man,” Mr. Parkhouse said.
Despite the complex mix of races and ethnicities in Southeast Asia, the simplistic assumption persists that a white man and a Eurasian girl cannot be related, leading tourists to assume the worst. “Things are such a melting pot here,” Ms. Minko said, “but still there are these racist assumptions.”
Jonathan Cox is presently a reporter at the Phnom Penh daily Khmer Times. Formerly a staff writer at hyperlocal news sites DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net, and a contributing editor at Charlotte Magazine. I have bylines in the New York Times India Ink Blog and WFAE.org.