Thanks to Leo Igwe, many skeptics have heard of the strong belief in witchcraft in Africa, leading to torture, beatings and burnings of innocent people. Fewer of us have heard about the belief in some Asian countries that sex with a virgin will afford magical powers to men, leading to sex exploitation.
Skeptics dismiss “women’s magazines” as filled with frivolous fashion and gossip. Undoubtedly, many of them still publish horoscopes and articles that promote alternative therapies, although occasionally they feature an important piece. I came across such an article in the April 2014 issue of Marie Claire in which Abigail Haworth writes about Cambodia’s underground virgin trade. Haworth reveals a dangerous superstition; many older Asian men believe that having sex with virgins will prevent or cure disease and help them stay youthful.
These men pay anything from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars to have sex with underage girls. Clients come from within Cambodia, and also China, Singapore, and Vietnam. The practice is illegal, although the laws are not enforced. This is partly because the trade has gone underground and offenders are difficult to trace. These are intricate networks and the girls are often sold through brokers who deliver the girls to discreet locations. Furthermore, the perpetrators are in a position to protect themselves as many clients are rich and powerful high-ranking officials from the Cambodian government, the military, and the police force.
Thousands of young girls are sold every year and unfortunately, their parents are complicit in these activities. In the Cambodian culture, children have a strong loyalty to their elders, and a sense of duty to pay back their parents for raising them. Cambodia is riddled with poverty, and many families are financially desperate, some living on less than $1 a day. Some parents hope to pay back gambling debts with their ill-gotten gains, while others use the money to fund drug and alcohol addictions. Virginity can be faked, so the demand is for very young girls, usually 12 and 13-year-olds while girls as young as 8 are “reserved” by clients for the future when they hit puberty. When they are “used”, the girls are often then sold on to brothels to suffer a lifetime of abuse. Haworth tells the following story.
Dara Keo and her mother, Rotana, were both in tears when it was time for her to leave. A motorized rickshaw had arrived to transport 12-year-old Keo from her one-room shack in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, to an unknown location. Keo was crying because she was terrified. Rotana was crying because she knew she had done something unspeakable: She had sold her daughter's virginity to a rich, powerful man. The rickshaw driver took Keo to an underground medical clinic. A corrupt doctor on the payroll of brokers who arrange the sale of virgins examined her to check that her hymen was intact and gave her a blood test for HIV infection. “He confirmed I was a virgin and disease-free,” says Keo, now 17. “Then I was taken to the man who bought me. I had to stay with him for one week while he raped me many times without a condom.”
The superstition that having sex with virgins will restore health, bring good luck, and a longer life is not new. The belief that the touch of a virgin could cure disease goes back hundreds of years and can be found across cultures, including Taoist legend. In Victorian England, virgins were highly sought after in prostitution, as they would be free of diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea that were rampant at the time. This practice metamorphosed into the belief that having sex with a virgin would “cure” venereal diseases. Similarly, there is a modern myth across Africa that if a man is infected with HIV, AIDS, or other venereal diseases that having sex with a virgin will cure him of the disease. Sadly, there are many cases of men testing out this theory, and infecting young children with life-threatening diseases.
That these beliefs are still prevalent is a depressing sign of the lack of education and critical thinking in many societies. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that have formed to help prevent the sale and exploitation of children in Cambodia, and which we can support. Riverkids ( http://www.riverkidsproject.org), She Rescue Home ( http://sherescuehome.org) and Bloom ( http://www.bloomasia.org) are just a few existing groups that offer refuge, education, and training for women in Cambodia, to save them from a life of exploitation.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.
Haworth, Abigail. 2014. My Mom Sold My Virginity. Marie Claire Magazine.
Mikkelson, Barbara. 2007. Snopes. Rape of Innocents. http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/petition/babyrape.asp Accessed 04/26/2014
Knox, Claire. Virgin’s trade keeps plaguing Cambodia. Phnom Penh Post. http://www.asafeworldforwomen.org/children/c-asia-pacific/ch-cambodia/3051-virgins-trade.html Accessed 04/25/2014
Watson, Matthew. 2009. Movie - Cambodia: The Virginity Trade.