'Professional girlfriends': An ethnography of sexuality, solidarity and subculture in Cambodia

  • Hoefinger H
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Abstract

This paper explores the sexuality, subculture and solidarity of young women who work in the hospitality and entertainment sectors in Cambodia. Specifically, the focus is on women described as 'professional girlfriends' and 'bar girls' employed in the hostess bar scene in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Professional girlfriends are young women who engage in a performance of intimacy within multiple sexual or non-sexual 'transactional' relationships with 'western boyfriends' in order to benefit materially and support their livelihoods. Because of their initial material motivations within the multiple partnerships and the strict cultural taboos surrounding sex and sexuality, professional girlfriends, and most other bar girls, are simultaneously stereotyped as 'prostitutes' and 'broken women' by general society, and as 'victims' by the development community. Despite their simultaneous stigmatization and victimization, however, these young women utilize bar girl subculture, alternative kinship systems, linguistic ability, consumption, intimacy and interpersonal partnerships in order to improve their social status, secure their futures and achieve a sense of enjoyment in their otherwise complicated lives. Homosocial friendship groups that emerge from subcultural networks and communal living work to provide support, social cohesion and care in the face of marginalization, structural constraints and gendered violence. 'Hedonistic' bar girl subculture also provides the space for young women to experiment with their sexualities and explore heteroflexibility. Through the lens of cultural studies, and via the practice of 'intimate ethnography', this paper also pays particular attention to the negotiation of intimacy and friendship between the respondents and researcher.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Alternative kinship
  • Cambodia
  • Professional girlfriends
  • Sexuality
  • Subculture
  • Transactional sex

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Authors

  • Heidi Hoefinger

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