I foolishly thought that deviant men with perverted fantasies about children have to play a dodging game of cat and mouse in order to bargain for their next victim. I imagined their quest would be disturbed by at least some vibe of guilt and humiliation as they searched for pimps and mama sans down seedy streets of Southeast Asia with an evasive ball cap on. I was so wrong.
"Joe", a retired marine who joined our mission as an undercover agent, fit the pedophile profile perfectly. I'm sorry but if you're white, old, and wander the streets of countries like Vietnam and Cambodia alone, you will be stereotyped as a pedophile or at least a sex tourist. Even more so if you sport velcro sandals, khaki shorts, and a loose button-up shirt that offensively showcases your patch of salt and pepper chest hair. Once Joe was separated from the group, it took no time at all for tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia to target him with promises of a "sexy girls", "boom boom", and "yum yum". He didn't even have to ask! "Young girls? We have those too!" On one night, Joe was approached three times for sex with underage girls within a three block radius. This game is made too easy for pedophiles. It is effortless and unashamed, but it does not take away from the fact that it is despicable and morally repugnant.
Joe was delivered a 14 year old girl to a designated hotel on his first night in Phnom Penh. As a White male, Joe had her at his disposal all night for a mere $80 USD. Pimps did not guard the door. She was at his mercy. He described her as an "automated robot" dressed in high heels and a black one-piece dress. She wore heavy makeup and jewelry to make her appear more mature to fool police and passersby. She was programmed to perform what she called, "boom boom" (sexual intercourse) as she did not speak English. With a crack in his voice, he described her lifeless body and withdrawn face void of any emotion or fear. She obeyed his every commend - sit, stand, stay. As this was his first undercover mission, Joe did not know how to handle the situation. He also did not want to get arrested if police were to find him in a hotel room with a minor! He called Father Martino and they agreed to "let her go". She was safe this night, but what about every other night? I imagined the painful abuse and torment that she had and will experience with men who would actually treat her like an animal or toy. They would have her as many times as they wanted and in any sick and twisted positions. I imagined her chained, choked, slapped, kicked. My stomach turned as I imagined the physical pain she must endure from every bruise, rip, and tear. I then imagined her mental anguish knowing that every day is a living nightmare with no hope of escape. I will never know such suffering.
The following night in Phnom Penh, Joe was accompanied by two "helpers" to venture deeper into the world of child sex trafficking. His mission was to identify networks of pimps and traffickers instead of rescuing children vigilante style (even though his heart wanted to). Joe demanded tuk tuk drivers to lead him to a brothel where he could choose what child he wanted instead of having one delivered to a hotel. He said that as long as he gives the impression that he is in fact in control of the situation, he could demand anything. A night of chasing tails finally led him to identify two brothels with many children from even the tender age of three (yes, three!). OBV Cambodia is now working hard to save these children and bring these brothels to justice.
In Southeast Asia, there is a distorted notion among local men that having sex with a virgin will rid them of their business woes and bring prosperity. The average age for child sex trafficking victims range from 12 to 14 years old. In Ho Chi Minh City, Joe's role was to find child sex slaves for his high ranking "boss." With surprisingly minimal hesitation and skepticism, a mama san and prostitute arranged to have seven children escorted to a famous five star hotel in District 1 for the "boss" (aka Father Martino) to choose from. Their ages ranged from three to fourteen. No sex was allowed with the three year old, only touching - as if that was any less sinful. The children were lined up like products on a shelf for sale.
The most frightening thing I learned this trip was the extreme ease of purchasing children. I finally accepted that these crimes against children proliferate because of the disgraceful collaboration between government, police, corporations, and businessmen. Poverty, corruption, greed, and complacency are to blame. I can't help but feel defeated learning that instead of serving and protecting their citizens, police and government in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia often own and operate brothels! My favorite hotels in Vietnam are now tainted because I have learned which ones affiliate with traffickers to exploit women and children. Sometimes I think that I bit off more than I can chew, but then I remember all of the children that One Body Village has saved. I think of their spirits, their smiles, and the unforgettable twinkle in their eyes. I also think of their successes. For example, two of our children, D. and N., will receive university education in Australia by a generous sponsor in the next two years. Sweet T. will start nursing school next year. Most of our children excel in school or at least put their best foot forward. They are happy and most importantly, they are free. This fight is worth it.
Our children in Vietnam love to play for hours on end. Every child should be free and happy like this.