At the behest of the US government, policy and legislation were introduced in Cambodia in 2008–9 that made virtually all activities associated with commercial sex illegal. The law confirmed the illegality of human trafficking and procuring for prostitution through the use of force or coercion and extended it to criminalising all third party involvement in sex work. This is defined as sexual exploitation and it includes supplying accommodation, transport, employment, advertising or any other services to sex workers regardless of consent. Freelance prostitution is criminalised through soliciting laws and by a government policy on ‘safer communities’. Women who sell sexual services were thus recognised in law only as victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation or as criminals.

In the wake of this new law, most brothels were closed, street prostitution was dramatically reduced and commercial sex shifted to restaurants, entertainment and massage venues where sex must be negotiated without the official knowledge of the venue operator before being carried out in nearby guesthouses. The law and its enforcement was criticised by sex workers’ networks, human rights organisations and health agencies who said it violated human rights, would fail to capture perpetrators of abuse and contribute to the spread of HIV and STIs. The HIV programme which had been designed to reach sex workers in brothels and on the street collapsed.


This case study was a product of collaboration between IDS and Cheryl Overs of Monash University, Australia

Case study

This case study described and examined the impact of the changes brought about by the law focusing particularly on conditions in the entertainment venues; the role of the many national and international policies and institutions that aim to help sex workers and the opportunities for sex workers to develop, articulate and advance demands.

It concluded with ideas about ways in which sex workers might participate in and influence process in which specific, self-identified outcomes can be attained. It argued that re-configuration of the institutions and networks that represent sex workers and victims of trafficking in Cambodia was needed; that grants from international donors should be made to local, member-driven organisations; and recommended that the government revise its definition of trafficking and sexual exploitation


A literature search was conducted of peer-reviewed articles, published grey literature and unpublished primary documents supplied by the WNU. Nine in-depth interviews were conducted with key informants in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep representing the CFSWF; IDEA; CBCA; GFATM CCM; FHI; SiRCHESI; HACC; and KHANA. Interviewees were asked about the mission and current work of their organisation and its future directions; the impact of law and policy on sex/entertainment workers; the impact of law and policy on their work with sex/entertainment workers; and overall observations about the way in which services and advocacy are conducted in respect of sex/entertainment work. Two interviews were conducted in English and the others with simultaneous interpretation. Three of the interviews were conducted once accompanying researchers and outreach workers had completed their interviews, in order to observe key informants’ work in entertainment venues in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep at their request.

Sexuality and the Law: Case Studies from Cambodia, Egypt, Nepal and South Africa

  • Engaging with the law and seeking policy reform is potentially a dangerous activity especially in countries which do uphold the rule of law or where laws are in rapid flux and have little correspondence to lived social realities.
  • Sexuality is significant in relation to law and development
  • Sexuality should be explored as a broad concept and not to be confined by specific forms of categorisation of sexualities but identities and constructs can also provide entry points and modalities for legal recognition, funding for essential services and other advantages.
  • Even when the rule of law is strong, this does not ensure that the law and legal processes are appropriate or accessible.

From Sex Work to Entertainment and Trafficking: Implications of a Paradigm Shift for Sexuality, Law and Activism in Cambodia

  • Under Cambodian Law sexual exploitation refers only to women
  • Because of the 'Palermo Protocol', Cambodia lacks the autonomy to make its own law/policy decisions about responses to sex work.