Stephanie Wheeler loves spending time with her friends. She often sits in circles with them exchanging stories and making buttons, usually while drinking sweetened soymilk. While these hangouts look unexciting from a distance, the reality is far from typical. Her friends are lady boys—former male prostitutes who have escaped the Cambodian sex industry in hopes of a better future. Although Wheeler’s time with her friends appears casual, she is actually fighting for their lives.
The sex industry in Cambodia follows a vicious cycle. Many children are raped, defiled or simply born into impoverished families that cannot provide for them, making prostitution a common means of survival. Although this may not make sense by Western standards, in Cambodian culture, if a girl is raped she is viewed as worthless and has little hope of finding a husband to provide for her. Additionally, children have a cultural obligation to support their parents, which results in many being sold into the sex industry to pay off debts or fund addictions. In the case of Wheeler’s clients, homosexuals and effeminate boys are seen as unclean, leading to lives of social rejection, shame and unemployment. Many Cambodians therefore believe prostitution is their only option for income, but this is exactly the lie Wheeler is working to destroy.
Wheeler, 25, has had a passion for working against prostitution for eight years, but she once had no idea what that would look like. After taking a few short-term trips to Cambodia, she spent eight months praying in her hometown of Byron Bay, Australia, and then she decided it was time to go. She moved to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, at the age of 24 and noticed a high number cross-dressing male prostitutes in the streets. “I knew God was calling me to them.”
Soon after Wheeler started working for Daughters of Cambodia, an anti-trafficking organization, she began meeting with a group of the lady boys, as they are called. At one of their meetings, she recalls five teenage boys walking in wearing smeared make-up, sequin shirts and rainbow belts. “They looked so sparkly,” Wheeler says, “but my heart instantly went out to them.” They sat and talked about their lives, their hopes and the love of God. The boys expressed how they felt trapped in their lifestyles and wanted to change but didn’t know how. Wheeler told them she believed in them and that God would never give up on them.
“It’s all about restoring identity,” Wheeler says. “Many organizations focus on who ex-prostitutes used to be, but I want to see them as Jesus sees them—perfect.” Wheeler believes the key to stopping prostitution lies in empowerment and independence. The organization she works for, Daughters, runs a café and a job center in Phnom Penh, where ex-prostitutes work as baristas and seamstresses while receiving medical care and counseling. “It may not be your typical café, but it’s changing lives and offering hope to those who haven’t had it for a while,” she says. One ex-male prostitute, Kimsua, expressed his dreams of opening his own restaurant one day, so Wheeler got him a job working the espresso bar and serving customers. “He’s learning and growing so much. Now he can really chase his dream,” Wheeler says.
Given that about 100,000 prostitutes work in Cambodia, 35 percent of whom are under 18, the sex industry can at times seem like an unconquerable monster, Wheeler admits. She explains that many pimps twist the minds of their workers into thinking they won’t be safe if they quit prostitution. Daughters seeks to reverse this deceit by showing ex-sex workers how they can become self-sufficient while living in healthy community. Aside from teaching ex-prostitutes how to pour espresso shots, the organization offers creative classes, social work and prayer ministry to inspire men and women to find their identities in God, not in their past lives. Out of the 300 clients to enroll in Daughters in the past four years, only six have returned to the sex industry. “This shows how much God is at work in their hearts,” Wheeler says.
She recalls one case that particularly inspired her. Sokym, an ex-sex worker in his 30s, enrolled in Daughters and seemed to fit right in, but Wheeler soon noticed he never made eye contact during conversation. “He walked everywhere with his eyes to the ground, like an outcast,” she says. Eventually, Sokym shared that he was ostracized as a child because of his effeminate persona, and wherever he went, people would mock him or spit at his feet. Wheeler explains that in Cambodia, men come first and women second, so a man acting like a woman is seen as unacceptable. “I began to tell him that Jesus has covered all his shame and that he is a new creation, a son of God.” Upon hearing this, Sokym lit up with a bright smile, looked Wheeler right in the eyes and said: “I feel good. Thank you.” Wheeler says that moments like these remind her why she came to Cambodia in the first place.
“It’s really quite amazing when God makes your dreams a reality,” she says.
Curt Devine is traveling on The World Race, a missions trip to 11 different countries in 11 months. For blog updates or to donate support, go to curtdevine.theworldrace.org.