Senrith Sereyroth remembers with horrifying clarity the day she was gang-raped.
It was in 2005, 10 years after Sereyroth, a transgender woman, began working in the sex trade. Standing near Independence Monument, she was approached by two men with $10. They took her to an unknown location, where 10 men were waiting.
“When they realised that I am not a girl, they hit me and stripped me naked,” she said.
Now a case manager at Men’s Health Cambodia, she said she didn’t report the case to the authorities. The police, especially in Daun Penh district, were often the ones perpetrating violence against her and other so-called “ladyboys”.
“When I stand at Wat Phnom, they round us up. They hit us with the gun, and kick us. They said we make anarchy in public,” she said.
Sereyroth is not alone. Her experience mirrors those of other ladyboys selling sex on the streets of Phnom Penh.
A study newly published in the March issue of Dignity, a journal on sexual exploitation and violence, found that 74 percent of ladyboys – a Southeast Asian concept chosen by the authors because it connotes more gender fluidity than Western conceptions of transgenderism – had suffered sexual harassment in the previous year, and 40 percent had suffered physical assault. Of the 50 ladyboy sex workers surveyed, more than half reported they were forced to have sex against their wishes, while one in five said their first-ever sexual encounter was forced or coerced.
Physical assault often came directly from the hands of the police. “They chase us like dogs,” one respondent said.
“Respondents reported being dehumanized, framed, and raped at gunpoint by law enforcement,” the report reads.
But National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith denied any wrongdoing on behalf of the authorities. “Police never hit or attack the transgender [people] . . . Would they attack them just for being sex workers? It is nonsense to say that,” he said.
“If there are obvious cases, please report them to us and we will punish them by law.”
However, the report’s findings align with research by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which found that transgender sex workers “face shocking levels of abuse”.
“The police, who are responsible for protecting the rights of trans women, are actually among the worst perpetrators,” said CCHR’s Nuon Sidara.
“CCHR has received many complaints of physical and sexual abuse of trans women by police, as well as arbitrary arrests, extortion and cruel and inhuman treatment such as forced bathing in rivers as extra-legal punishment.”
The culmination of stigma and discrimination, according to the report, often cut ladyboys out of jobs, their homes, education and even access to basic health services, which left them feeling like sex work was their only option – a “perceived fatalism” that was frequently mired in self-blame, shame and guilt.
For report co-author Glenn Miles, the report demonstrates “how incredibly vulnerable transgender are in Phnom Penh to violence”.
“It also showed how often they conflate their identity of transgender with also being a sex worker instead of seeing that having a loving caring relationship is possible,” he said.
Co-author Jarrett Davis said the surveys saw them “stumbling across the highest rates of violence we have seen in research we have done”, adding that said violence was sometimes seen as part and parcel with the ladyboy identity – one which is often perceived as hypersexualised. “They weren’t receiving violence because they identified as women, but because they are males that did not fit a narrow definition of what was expected of them as males,” he said.
Davis said one of the most compelling findings was based on a question about reincarnation – while more than half wanted to be reborn as a biological woman, nearly a third didn’t mind, as long as it was a “definite” man or woman.
“It was a really common thread [for them to say]: ‘I just want something definite, I want a place’.”