“Professional Girlfriends” in Cambodia

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A review of Negotiating Intimacy: Transactional Sex and Relationships Among Cambodian Professional Girlfriends, by Heidi Hoefinger.

Monetized sexual relationships between foreign men and local women in Asia is a topic which has received considerable attention in both public media and academic print. As such Heidi Hoefinger’s thesis on “professional girlfriends” in Cambodia echoes similar work in the region that emphasise the multifaceted, open-ended and poly-reciprocal nature of sex, materiality and emotion within such relationships. However, Hoefinger provides fresh perspectives as the thesis builds on a heterogeneous body of literature in order to advance her detailed analysis of relationships between young Cambodian women and Western male companions.

The introduction outlines the aim of the book, which is to examine “the transactional nature of sexual and non-sexual relationships between certain young women in Cambodia described as ‘professional girlfriends’, and their ‘western boyfriends’”(p. 12). “Professional girlfriends” constitutes a heterogeneous group of young Cambodian women who engage in intimate relationships with foreign men which straddle material and symbolic dimensions of intimacy where money, gifts, and love blend. As Hoefinger explains, it is by “actively securing multiple transactional partnerships through a performance of intimacy in order to gain material benefits… that they are considered to be acting as professional girlfriends.” (p. 14)

Chapter 1 offers a detailed literature review. Although the broad topic of the blurred boundaries between sex commerce, love, and open-ended relationships between local women and foreign men is not new in the Southeast Asian context, (there is for example an extensive body of literature on Thailand*), Hoefinger’s conceptual frameworks bring fresh insights to this fascinating topic. The thesis draws on various theoretical concepts, ranging from a focus on multiplex identities (the Chicago School of Sociology: Robert Park, Erving Goffman) and theoretical approaches to sexuality and identity (e.g., Alison Murray, Michel Foucault, Annette Hamilton) on the one hand, to analyses of patron-client relationships (e.g., Judy Ledgerwood) and specific literature on gender in Cambodia (e.g., Annuska Derks, Chou Meng Tarr, Trudy Jacobsen) on the other. One of the most interesting parts of the literature review is the ways in which Hoefinger applies a conceptual archaeology where she draws on older sociological literature in order to craft theoretical lenses for her contemporaneous study of Cambodian “professional girlfriends.” In this context, her discussion of Paul Goalby Cressy’s analysis of taxi dancers in 1930s North America is particularly illuminating and it is intriguing how Hoefinger implicitly argues for historical and transcultural continuities by highlighting these similarities (see Paul Goalby Cressy, The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Originally published in 1932).

The second chapter provides a detailed discussion of methodology. There are several important aspects to this research. Not only is it based on longitudinal research spanning seven years, but it also includes an eclectic mixture of methods, ranging from surveys to a film project. Hoefinger’s research also involves feminist action-research which includes an e-literacy project with several of her informants. Theoretical and methodological self-reflexivity dominates the chapter. The discussion of epistemic privilege and subject positionality is particularly welcome in this context. The discussion of methodology is followed by a separate chapter (chapter 3) on ethics. (Note: It is rare to see such a detailed and honest account of ethical dilemmas during field research.)

Chapter 4 provides a discussion of the genealogy of her project. Early stages of the research, which stem from the author’s earlier MA work, had been framed within a sex work paradigm. There is an interesting self-critique permeating this chapter as Hoefinger convincingly takes issue with the shortcoming of a conventional “sex-for-cash prostitution framework,” and explains why it was necessary to re-articulate her analysis “around the exchange of materiality of everyday sex” (p. 129).

Chapter 5 considers historical legacies of sex commerce and intimate relationships between Khmer women and foreign men. The discussion on prostitution in relation to western imposition and military presence mirror similar trajectories in countries such as neighbouring Thailand. Although the thesis’ main focus is not on more sinister aspects of sexual practice, this chapter provides a remarkably detailed discussion of rape, trafficking, and other gender-based forms of violence. The discussion of virginity sale and its sociocultural context is particularly insightful. This chapter also includes a discussion of the “global girls project,” which was an action research component of Hoefinger’s thesis.

In chapter 6 the reader is offered a detailed discussion of Hoefinger’s informants. Here, Cressey’s work on 1930s taxi dancers in the US is revisited in order to illuminate the similarities with present-day Cambodia. Hoefinger provides an excellent analysis of the trajectory of women’s entry into becoming “professional girlfriends.” The chapter argues against one-dimensional feminist critiques of young Cambodian women’s positionality in relation to consumption and their relationships with foreign men. Furthermore, Hoefinger offers useful anecdotes of the ways in which these women resist, strategize and “bite back.”

Chapter 7 brings Hoefinger’s argument most to light through a nuanced discussion of the ways in which meanings of love and intimacy are produced, sustained, and (frequently) fractured. The discussion of how “proving one’s trust” (such as through not using a condom) as well as some couples attempt at “going Dutch” (i.e.  where professional girlfriends attempt to reciprocate materially with her foreign partner, such as sharing bills) are insightful.

The conclusions bring the tremendous diversity of perspectives together and emphasise the heterogeneity of the transactional nature in which professional girlfriends engage. As such, an important point for the thesis is to articulate alternative discourses which ameliorate the possibility of further stereotyping these women.

Overall, Hoefinger’s thesis is an engaging analysis with an important topic, with one of its main strengths being the ways in which it marries older theoretical literature with eclectic methodological approaches.

[* For relevant literature on Thailand, see Eric Cohen. 1968. “Lovelorn Farangs: The Correspondence Between Foreign Men and Thai Girls.” Anthropological Quarterly 59(3): 115-28; M. Askew. Bangkok, Place, Practice and Representation. London: Routledge, 2002; and A. Wilson. The Intimate Economies of Bangkok. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.]

Sverre Molland
School of Archaeology & Anthropology
College of Arts and Social Sciences
Australian National University
Sverre.Molland@anu.edu.au

Primary Sources

Ethnographic participant observation
Interviews with young Khmer women
Government and development reports relating to Cambodia

Dissertation information

Goldsmiths, University of London. 2010. 327pp. Primary Advisor: Angela McRobbie.

 

Image: Photo courtesy of Conor Wall

3 comments

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  1. great review!!! However I feel a more appropriate term would not be “monetized” but “transactional” to start the review… as the main thrust of some of her arguments is to move away from merely financial rewards and to look at the more complex collision of love, money, power and material reward…

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