Six Thousand Pedophiles and Counting
Poster in a Siem Reap hotel in 2013
This little essay about 6,000 pedophiles and counting is the result of one of those little surprises that come in the course of what appears to be a rather ordinary conversation, in this particular instance with two women from that land of riches and hidden bank accounts, and the latter day home of Vladimir Nabokov, the famous author of what has become one of the most notable books of the twentieth century, Lolita. As is well known, Lolita is the story of one Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged professor of literature who can’t stay away from a twelve year-old nymphet by the name of Dolores Haze (who he calls Lolita). Now just because Nabokov wrote a book about an unreliable narrator who’s a pedophile does not mean that Nabokov should be seen as one. Fiction is fiction, after all. And yet, posthumously, a very partial manuscript of his—notes and not too much more–was published, and because of the same preoccupation that one finds in Lolita it does raise the question of whether or not he was…well, perhaps a closet pedophile?
I took them to be somewhere between their mid-twenties and early thirties. At this point I knew only what my eyes told me. Both were fairly big, not fat just big. Both smoked. One had a small tattoo on her shoulder, and the other one had two silver rings in her right eyebrow. The one with eyebrow rings was drinking beer, the other one…I couldn’t tell what she was drinking.
Before being invited to sit at their table, they informed me that they were from Zurich, Switzerland, and had just arrived three hours before and were positively taken by the beach because it was undeveloped and there were so few tourists, exactly what is so hard to find in Europe. They had been in Saigon for four days and now were here for three more—on the west coast of Phu Quoc Island, and then they would be traveling straight to Siem Reap. They were in a hurry and would not get to see any other parts of Cambodia, because they had to return to their jobs.
By the time I was another Heineken into the conversation, I had told them about the great Night Market a couple of kilometers away and what a feast they could have with all the fresh fish and crustaceans available, and for very little, and to boot a chance to eat among the locals—as I had the night before. Then at one point one of them revealed that they were both accountants, one—the bigger one of the two with the tattoo, and the person who provoked this essay, said she was in the business of preparing payroll tax returns, while the somewhat younger one with the eyebrow earrings worked on a contract basis preparing tax returns for the same well known international accounting firm. Both of them were fascinated by my tales of my young life as an accountant, and confessed that they aspired to the kind of credentials that I had at one time.
The Swiss woman who prepares tax returns
Before we turned away from their jobs and what we had in common, I asked the one with the two eyebrow rings (I never got their names) if she could wear them on the job. She said she could not, and the one male accountant in the office who had some tattoos on one of his arms always wore long-sleeve shirts. No surprises here, I thought: most businesses are invariably sensitive to the tastes of their most conservative clientele.
Then we turned to Cambodia, and after I said I had just been there for a couple of weeks, and had, for the second time, gone to Siem Reap—not one of my favorite places in Cambodia or even Southeast Asia for that matter, we got to talking about their perceptions of the country. They didn’t seem to know much at all about Cambodia, or even Siem Reap. But the one woman, who worked in the payroll tax department, brought up the topic of Cambodia’s image as a place frequented by pedophiles. An image that in the public imagination and because of some overzealous NGOs place it at or near the top of countries anywhere in the world in this regard.
It was not long before I began telling one of my favorite stories about Cambodia, and one based on a small amount of research that I did to get the answer I got, and what might be called the startling bottom line to the story I told these two women, as I have others in my travels. It’s a story that clearly demonstrates, I believe, just how utterly mistaken almost everyone is about the issue of western pedophiles in Cambodia.
Since the long version of the story is included below, I won’t go over the details here, or exactly how I tell it when talking to people like these two Swiss women. Suffice it to say that at some point in my telling I ask those in my presence to guess just how many foreigners are included in the 2,000 child abusers claimed on the billboards and travel brochures that have circulated in Cambodia (and that I saw on a hotel wall in Siem Reap within the last month—see the photo that opens this essay).
Typically what happens when I tell this story to people is that if I ask them early on how many of the 2,000 child abusers are foreigners, the guess will range between fifty and eighty percent—1,000 to 1,600 of the child abusers claimed to have been caught in five years are foreigners, meaning white men from the West. If I wait until I have told most of the story, in a sense hinting that the figure is going to be on the low side, the estimates will drop down to ten to twenty percent. About the strongest reaction I have gotten before meeting these two Swiss women is the remark, always from a woman from the West and invariably middle-aged, that surely there are pedophiles that are not caught. Yes, I say, no doubt there are, and for all I know we could be dealing with a couple of hundred pedophiles a year in Cambodia who never get caught or who find a way to buy their way out of the mess when they get caught. Whatever, I insist, since I did the research, that the principal point remains: the general public and those who visit Cambodia have been given a very misleading story about western pedophiles.
And just how misleading is it? Well, as the narrative below reveals, the figure is fifty, or less than three percent of the 2,000 men apprehended over the unspecified (as to which years) five-year period, were foreigners. The remaining 97% or thereabouts of the child abusers (and pedophiles) were/are Cambodians.
When the Swiss woman who prepares payroll returns heard the figure of three percent, she turned to me with a look of utter incredulity, and she said, I do not believe it! It is not true what you are saying. I am positive it is not true. She raised her voice, and suddenly it struck me that she was not the person I had been talking to for the previous half hour or so. That figure of 2,000 is also wrong she insisted. I know it is! It is 6,000. It is more! Men have money and they buy anything they want. They buy young children all the time.
I looked at her and thought: this is some off-scale reaction, unlike anything I have heard in the twenty or so times—more perhaps—that I have told this story while traveling. I said, Look, I have already said that I have no doubt that there are pedophiles in Cambodia and elsewhere who never get caught. How many? No one knows. But let’s say, for arguments sake, the number is 200, or even 500 over a period of five years. This is a fairly large number to go undetected or unreported, given that I know for a fact that there are NGO women in Cambodia who are eager to catch men from the West. I have heard from more than one source that now and again they walk around with camcorders on the streets of Phnom Penh trying to catch men in the company of underage girls. And I have also heard credible stories of “bait” that have been put on the streets of Cambodian cities to catch men. Underage girls who approach men and try to get the men to take them to a hotel room.
She continued with her tirade, repeating herself, and the number 6,000. At this point, I didn’t know if she thought I was one of them, though I had told her earlier that I detest, as do virtually all men I have ever known, pedophiles; and that had one ever tried anything with my son before he became eighteen I would have killed him. Not figuratively, but literally.
I tried one more angle with this woman who knew nothing about Cambodia, but clearly thought that I was lost, and probably made up the story, and didn’t have a remote clue what men are up to all the time. I said, You said you’re an accountant. Well, the one thing you do all the time is pay attention to data, the figures given to you by clients, and if something doesn’t add up, you do your best to find out what the real numbers are. Now you are doing no such thing; you have an opinion about something you know nothing about as far as I know, and you’re telling me that the story I’ve told you, which is not second-hand, is no more than the wildest kind of fairy tale.
She’d had enough of me, and the two of them abruptly rose and left without saying a word. I now had no doubt that at least one of them would have all kinds of choice and unflattering words for me on their way to the Night Market and as they ate.
Pedophilia in Cambodia
On my return trip from Thailand and Cambodia at the end of June of 2009, I was stopped at customs on leaving the Los Angeles airport and asked what I had been doing in Cambodia. There was no doubt in my mind, by the way the question was pursued, and with apparent relish, that the real question was: Were you there to have sex with children? In all of my travels in Southeast Asia, I have never once been approached to have sex with underage boys or girls. From all that I hear and see, pedophilia, where men from the West are the culprits, like trafficking in women for prostitution in Southeast Asia, is so greatly exaggerated as to be laughable.
There are a number of things that make Cambodia distinctive in Southeast Asia, and one of them is the very large number of NGOs, by some accounts the greatest number to be found anywhere in the world on a per capita basis. How good they are at what they are doing I’m not sure. I’ve touched bases with a few of them, and I’ve not been impressed. Another distinctive feature of Cambodia is the obsessive concern with foreign pedophiles, one that has no parallel anywhere in Asia. It makes itself baldly evident within minutes of leaving the airport in Phnom Penh and heading toward the city. There are large billboards declaring that pedophiles will get long prison terms in Cambodia if caught. They can also expect yet more years in prison when they are sent to their home countries.
On one of my first visits to Cambodia, I entered the country though the southern route, via Krong Koh Kong. At the time, I was traveling with a young Dutchman and a small muscular American approaching middle age. At the border crossing, the American, who had struck me as one of those guys you’d want alongside you in a dangerous war zone suddenly got cold feet. As subsequent events unfolded, and he began to leak his story to me, I came to the conclusion that he might’ve had a previous run-in with the Cambodian police over taking an underage girl to his hotel room in Phnom Penh. I surmised that his visa got a nasty stamp put on it, something to the effect that he was no longer welcome in Cambodia. He tried to solve the problem by tearing the large Cambodian visa out of his passport, and this is what, in a proximate sense, got him in trouble when the three of us went to get visas at the Thai border.
On a subsequent trip, a flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, I met a heavy-set and matronly middle-aged woman who was pleasant to a fault. She was working for one of the NGOs in Phnom Penh. I would discover that she was attached to an agency concerned with the country’s young children. During our conversation she rather authoritatively, I thought, informed me that there were literally thousands of foreign pedophiles in Cambodia, a scourge to be sure—if true. I had no way of knowing if there was a good deal of truth or little truth to the woman’s claims, but my long history of looking at questions related to human sexual behavior, and particularly prostitution, made me skeptical of what she said. Among other things, I had read enough to appreciate that women like this (there are always exceptions, of course) carry in their minds the idea that middle-aged foreign men that live in or visit Asia are sexual predators, all of whom–they are certain in their judgmental Christian dogmatism–could not make it in relationships with western women. And thus their flight, for weeks or years at a time, to Asia where there is, particularly in Thailand and the Philippines, no shortage of young women eager, for money, to satisfy the sexual needs of men of any age.
But by this time—long before this time, actually—I’d come to appreciate that all kinds of do-gooder organizations (those concerned with the environment, with poverty, with development issues, with human health) are full of people with strong preconceptions that profoundly bias how they think and what they do. Another feature as prominent as their biases, and often unbridled embrace of locals, is the desire to make their missions important, and to either maintain their existing base, or increase their share of a limited pool of resources. On yet another trip to Cambodia, again a flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, I struck up a conversation with a young German woman who had been working for an NGO for six months in Phnom Penh, one involved in health issues. She was articulate, confident, and just flat out wrong about one of her claims about foreign men in Southeast Asia, a claim that is by no means trivial. In our discussion, I asked her what she knew about HIV infection rates in Cambodia and how prevalent AIDS is. She said that the rates have dropped dramatically in recent years, down from those that were at one point said to be among the highest and most alarming in Southeast Asia. She did not have anything remotely like a good explanation for this dramatic change, and she would have nothing to do with the idea that in all likelihood the infection rates of some years ago were nothing more than wild guesses, and that now there is simply better and more thorough ways of finding out what is going on.
She confessed that various agencies in Cambodia involved in the HIV/AIDS issue do not want the rate to drop too low, and for the simple reason that this would mean fewer funds available to the NGOs.
More startling was the woman’s answer to my not-so-innocent question: why do you think the HIV rates in Cambodia were so high in the past?
Her answer to me was: Because of all the foreign men going with Cambodian prostitutes who were not using condoms.
This claim is just plain wrong. The amount of prostitution directed at foreign men in Cambodia is trivial, and particularly when compared with what is going on in Thailand, and even the Philippines. Furthermore, even today there are at any one time probably hundreds of foreign men (thousands over even short periods of time) in Thailand and the Philippines who are going bareback (not using a condom) with Thai and Filipina prostitutes. The foreign men are not getting infected with HIV, and if they get infected with anything it is usually gonorrhea, or a non-specific bacterial infection easily treated. Nor are the Thai and Filipina prostitutes, hundreds of times greater in number than in Cambodia, getting infected with HIV from foreigners from the West. The foreign men are overwhelmingly free of STDs, and the Thai women who are getting infected are principally getting it from their boyfriends and husbands (most of the Thai hookers have them) who inject drugs and exchange needles. Or who are bisexual and picking up HIV from receptive anal intercourse, and then passing it on to their hooker girlfriends and wives. Prostitution for Thai men, single and married, is far more important than that for foreigners, and for various reasons this prostitution, which long predates the American military presence in Thailand, accounts for a quite large proportion of HIV infections that are sexually transmitted. Thai men in such settings rarely use condoms.
The point is that were there anything at all to the German woman’s claim about foreigner men not using condoms with Cambodian women in the past, and this being the major factor in accounting for the high rate of HIV infection, then the rate of HIV infection in Thailand and the Philippines among hookers that spend all of their time among foreigners would be astronomically high. And it is no such thing. From all that I’ve heard and seen it is miniscule.
From the airport in Phnom Penh into the hotel on the Sisowath Quay (along the Tonle Sap), I was assaulted by large billboards proclaiming that men going with underage Cambodian girls can expect up to twenty years in a Cambodian prison, and then subsequent prison time in their home country. Unlike previous trips to Cambodia, I also saw posters on tuktuks, or the small motorized vehicles that carry up to four passengers. There was not the slightest doubt that these billboards and posters were aimed at foreign men (this was in 2006).
While checking into the Paragon Hotel, I picked up a thick 4 X 6 inch color brochure titled: “Phnom Penh Visitor’s Guide.” The guide is full of information on where to stay, where to eat, and where to be entertained, including on the last several pages a listing of numerous bars, a fair number of which are known to be places to pick up Cambodian hookers, all of legal age. None of these bars and cafes are identified as venues for prostitutes, but anyone who’s been around Asia knows the places by name and can’t miss the veiled ways of indicating what’s going on: “happening night scene…lots and lots of friendly females;” “friendly hostesses to help you pass the time;” “hostess bar with more hostesses per square meter than any three hostess bars put together—literally brimming with attentive, uniformed ladies.”
The back cover for the guide shows a white male (a good six feet tall) with his arm around a short Cambodian girl of uncertain age (as with the white male, no face shot), though meant to be seen as underage; the top of her head is a couple of inches below the male’s shoulder. (This, of course, does not in fact mean that the girl is underage, for all kinds of Asian women of all ages are less than five feet tall.) Above this color photo that takes up more than two-thirds of the back cover are the words: SEX WITH CHILDREN IS A CRIME. Below the photo is a national hotline number to call if “you have information on the sexual exploitation or abuse of children.” And beneath this are two further pieces of information. “Offenders face up to 20 years in prison in Cambodia as well as criminal prosecution in their own countries.”
And then this striking claim: “More than 2,000 offenders arrested for sex crimes during the last five years.”
The figures, it would seem, were not pulled out of a magician’s hat, for at the bottom of this warning is the seal for the country’s National Police and that of the Ministry of Interior; and the well-known name UNICEF, and its seal.
I read the last line—2,000 arrested during the last five years–several times, and I thought: This means the Cambodian police, on average, are arresting more than one foreigner every day of the year for molesting or having sex with a Cambodian girl who is…12, 13, 14, 15….
Then I thought: I just do not believe this figure. I would be greatly surprised if the Cambodian police are arresting 100 foreigners a year on a charge of exploiting a female or male minor in Cambodia, and I’d go to this number or one smaller if only for the reason that the country is so blatantly targeting foreign pedophiles. Sick as pedophiles may be, surely they’re not so dumb as to go to Cambodia in large numbers when there is so much publicity on the issue and there are so many other places to go for children.
I have heard of a few sightings of pedophiles—usually with young boys on the beaches south of Pattaya, Thailand—but I have never seen these criminals with my own eyes. Virtually every man in Southeast Asia with whom I have discussed the issue of pedophilia has had a position very similar to my own. The idea of having sex with an underage girl, or boy, is utterly repulsive. Few things evoke as much disgust in men as the thought of any man going with someone below the legal age of consent. Which does not mean that men who go with hookers on any kind of consistent basis have not gone to bed with an underage girl—one sixteen or seventeen, perhaps even fifteen. The reasons for this are that it is very hard to tell the age of young Asian girls, and more than a few of them have lied about their age or knowingly used faked documents to gain employment. A few unscrupulous bar owners also knowingly employ dancers that are below the legal age. But mongers who have made these mistakes, I dare say, have almost always made them honestly, and most men, as far as I know, will quickly walk away from a girl they suspect of being below the legal age.
The thoughts I have noted above came to mind my second day in Phnom Penh, and I decided to see if I could get some solid facts, and one in particular. I wanted to know what “more than 2,000 offenders arrested for sex crimes during the last five years” really represented.
I spent a good half hour with the Cambodian Yellow Pages, took down some telephone numbers and addresses, and then went looking for a moto driver to take me to people who might know what was up.
It didn’t take long to get more than a first approximation of the Great Lie being laid on every foreign visitor to Phnom Penh and other ports of entry to Cambodia. His name was Chea Pyden, and he is the Executive Director of Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization.
In the course of our conversation, and directly related to this issue of foreign pedophiles in Cambodia, he told me that “no more than a handful” of the 2,000 sex offenders arrested during a five-year period were foreigners. He couldn’t be more precise than that, but I gathered that we were talking about at most 20 or so a year, not 400 a year, giving a total of say 100 foreign pedophiles arrested in five years, rather than 2,000 as so strongly implied in billboards and on the back cover of a widely distributed visitor’s guide.
Who were the other 1900 sex offenders? I asked.
Cambodians, he said. Fathers and step-fathers to be more precise, he added.
Is this a surprise? Not at all. It is just what I found in Nicaragua in the late nineties when I was trying to get a handle on why young boys and girls turned to glue sniffing, prostitution, and became couriers for drug dealers.
Step fathers as pedophiles, to an evolutionary biologist, are what one would predict, and not just in Cambodia and Nicaragua. The wife is out working, the young underage girl or boy is around the house, and the new husband, who is not genetically related, takes sexual advantage as opportunity presents itself. Fathers do it too. But because they are biologically related to their sons and daughters, they are generally more reluctant to do so.
I still wanted to see some actual records. Or get the next best thing: the word from the person who has compiled them. So I headed for the Ministry of Interior, which Chea Pyden told me had the data I was after.
This wasn’t as easy as I thought it might be. I had to go through nine Cambodians on the sprawling grounds of the Ministry of Interior before I found someone who spoke minimal English. After going through a half dozen doors and being questioned by four people about who I was and what I wanted, I finally got to a lawyer for the ministry who arranged for me to get a special police escort to another building a kilometer away. There I could talk to the Director of the Department of Anti-Human Trafficking. He or she supposedly had what I was after.
My escort was a small man with a melon-shaped head and a desire to be an accommodating host. He insisted on taking me to a mid-afternoon lunch where I found myself having coffee followed by hot tea, in a stuffy restaurant without air conditioning. Later, he left me in the sub director’s office. He didn’t speak English and he didn’t have time for me. He was preoccupied with a video game. I waited for the better part of an hour and a half with nothing better to do than admonish myself for not bringing along something to read.
When the director came out, he was accompanied by a woman with short hair and a threatening scowl. Both of them looked like they were headed for battalion headquarters, and before I could get out any questions, the woman wanted to know who I was and why I was after numbers on pedophiles.
The director, I would quickly discover, spoke as much English as I speak Cambodian; and I don’t even know how to say thank you. But I was in luck. His assistant was happy to answer my questions.
I put the back cover of the brochure in front of her and read the line about the 2,000 sex offenders, and I said. Who are they?
They are Cambodians, she said, without hesitation. We arrest less than ten foreigners a year.
Only ten foreigners a year? I said.
Maybe a few more or a few less.
I thanked them for their time, and I headed for the street to find a moto driver to take me to the Foreign Correspondents Club where I could get a couple of cold draught beers. As we sped in and out of traffic and through stop lights, I thought: So less than three percent of the pedophiles arrested in Cambodia in the last five years have been foreigners. Would as many as three percent of foreigners who read the billboards and signs and ads showing a large white male with a small Cambodian girl, and read the words beneath them, believe me if I told them what I had just found?
Then, of course, there are those great truth tellers: the Cambodian National Police who are in the business of protecting their own asses and looking for opportunities to demand a bribe. And then, too, there are all those foreign “native lovers” and male haters at UNICEF and similar self-righteous NGOs with their agendas.
Several years ago, and a couple of days before a final in my evolution class for some 300 undergraduate students from the social sciences, humanities, engineering and business school, I was approached by one of my students, a young female. She said to me: Professor, I will give you the answers you want on the exams, but I do not believe a word you have said in this class. When I was ten years old I saw the face of God, and now I know that everything in the Bible is true and God is real.
In this class on evolution, one of the many points I make is that not only is evolution by natural selection the greatest single idea of all time—because it explains so much, but that it hard to imagine that the idea is wrong (different than saying that there are not corrections and small changes all of the time to the theory because of better information and better techniques, especially those of a molecular kind), and the reason is that there are at least a good 100,000 pieces of empirical evidence and they all point in the same direction. The data cohere, and, to put a slightly different twist on it, the evidence comes to us from several different sources: from anatomy, from embryology, from biogeography, from molecular biology, and from the fossil record—and all this evidence, as I’ve just noted, coheres, or, with minor kinks and turns, points in the same direction.
The world is chockablock with people who ignore data or facts, who have no interest in them, and who are more than content to live a life of half-truths and fairy tales. Prime among such people are those who embrace religious beliefs. But then, to be fair, everyone loves to hold firm to his or her prejudices and opinions, and as often as not will stick with them in the face of what is, “reasonable” people will agree, compelling empirical evidence.
As for Vladimir Nabokov and these two Swiss women that I met one night on a beach on the west coast of Phu Quok, I got to thinking that maybe—just maybe—Nabokov and his interest in very young girls and his enormous influence on the world of literature, and the fact that he spent his latter years in Switzerland, might have had some impact on the mindset of many Swiss women, leading them to believe that contrary to all known facts, most men do not really just like a good down-home fuck with a woman of age who has been around the block at least a couple of times, but much prefer…no, surely, this crazy hypothesis is, well, just as crazy as the idea that there are 6,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 men from the West who are wandering all over Cambodia in search of girls and boys who are 12 and 13 and 14….
I LOVE your comments about how this woman analyses data as part of her job and now that was something she was refusing to do. Brilliant!