The real lives of child sex slaves

A must-read Marie Claire article gives a close-up view of a Cambodian girl sold into prostitution at 7

Topics: Sex, Sex Work, Broadsheet,

It’s always a nice surprise, while paging through a mainstream ladymag, to find a story that goes deeper than skin-care tips, fashion trends and “How to Please Your Man, Part 837.” But a new Marie Claire article profiling a former sex slave goes far beyond “pretty decent for a women’s glossy” to the realm of first-rate journalism. In a piece that is well worth reading from start to finish, Abigail Pesta travels to Cambodia to tell the story of Sreypov Chan, a 20-year-old woman whose widowed mother sold her into sex slavery at age 7. Until she escaped, at 10, her captors forced her to have sex with as many as 20 men a day. And when they weren’t satisfied with her performance, they would torture her.

The tale of how Sreypov lost her virginity is especially harrowing: When she refused to sleep with her first “client,” her “pimp took his abuse to a new level, crushing up a handful of hot chili peppers with his foot and stuffing them in her vagina. Then he took a hot metal rod and jammed it inside her as well.” Later, the customer — who likely paid a very high price for her virginity — raped her. After her brutal initiation, Sreypov remained locked in a room, growing distant and desensitized. “On some days, I was so tired, I couldn’t get out of bed. The men would just come to my bed, one after another, like a gang rape,” she tells Pesta. “I became numb. My life grew dark. I thought everything was finished for me.”

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Pesta notes that stories like Sreypov’s are common in Cambodia, since the Khmer Rouge regime ripped the nation apart in the ’70s. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, which the author cites, over 12 million people are victims of the $32 billion global slavery (that is, “forced prostitution and labor”) industry.

In the past decade, Sreypov has grown into what Pesta describes as “a sparkly young woman.” She lives on her own in a modest room and is a beloved fixture at the center for former child sex slaves that took her in after she escaped. Run by Somaly Mam, Sreypov’s mentor and another survivor of sex slavery, the center both houses and educates the girls, in both traditional academic subjects and “job skills like sewing and hairstyling” — which are especially important, given the trouble they may have reintegrating into society. Perhaps the most depressing detail in Pesta’s entire piece is a short paragraph about Sreymach, a “tiny girl” who was sold into slavery at age 5. “She is traveling to the city to visit a health clinic,” the author tells us. “She has HIV.” 

Sreypov also visits older  prostitutes (“in their teens and 20s”) who have been kicked out of child brothels but continue to live semi-enslaved lives in an enormous, bleak structure called the White Building. When guards let her in to distribute free soap and condoms, she listens to the women’s problems and tries to help those who want to leave the sex industry. “Sitting there, with her perfect posture, she looks like hope personified,” Pesta writes, to the assembled group of gaunt, bruised and beaten sex workers.

On the surface, Sreypov’s story may sound like the kind of triumph over adversity that would make for a great, serious, Oscar-courting film: the tale of a young woman who withstood rape and torture, only to escape, make a life for herself and help others in similar predicaments. And Sreypov really is remarkable. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the lasting effects sex slavery has had on her or to claim that all of her wounds could ever truly heal. Ten years after getting out, Sreypov still shrinks at the thought of sex and love: ”As for marriage and children? ‘I don’t want that,’ she says, shaking her head. She can’t imagine herself ever being with men.” Sreypov’s real life doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. She may be doing far better than most child sex slaves can ever hope to do. But her history of sex slavery is still impeding her ability to live a full life. She may never enjoy something most of us take for granted: romantic love.

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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