Bright Lights and Brothels

culture and society

Disclaimer: This post contains adult themes. Please use discretion. Locations and other details have been changed.

I’m walking into a street in SE Asia where girls are sold. It’s late, but everything is lit up and loud and neon. Our group splits up into pairs, and I’m partnered with Andrew, a tall undercover investigator with a Scottish accent, sandy hair, and years of experience. This street is brighter, busier, and certainly more commercial than the rural brothel I had watched him and two other investigators walk into the night before. During that op, I had huddled in the backseat of a dark SUV, engine off, sweating while we watched them talk to some girls that had been hard-trafficked over the border.

This is different. This is a party scene. “Despite what you see, you have to look like you’re having fun.” I nod. I have become many things this week. I’m an American friend who has never experienced the bright lights of Svay Pak. I’m a recent college grad. I’m a girlfriend. I’m a lesbian. I’m on vacation. I’m not a thirty-something writer from the suburbs who’s been invited to fly across the world to play a part in the fight against human trafficking and exploitation.

Bright Lights and Brothels || SEMIPROPER

I walk in and my go-to response is to smile. The big, bright-lipsticked sort of smile that reads a little tipsy and a lot friendly. We stop in front of a dark doorway, and I’m greeted by a young woman with fake eyelashes and a maxi dress. She takes my hand and starts to pull me inside. I look at Andrew for approval. He gives a slight nod, and I follow her.

We’re led to a velvet bench, and I ask her name. It’s May. I repeat it back to make sure I heard her over the noise correctly. She asks mine and I’m wedged between the two of them, looking up at a stage where a dozen girls – half of them topless, some completely nude – are step touching to some Top 40 hit. I don’t know where they all come from, but I can guess. I’ve heard enough stories and met enough people where I can tick off the possibilities on my fingertips.

The girl with the tall white boots may be here because she wants to, I recognize. Because the money’s good. Or maybe because her boyfriend knows he can remain jobless and carefree as long as she’s turning at least a few tricks a night. The bored-looking girl with the heavy bangs may be from a small village where a man promised her parents a good job working at a restaurant, making enough to support herself, her parents, her brothers and sister, but she ends up being enslaved. “Raped and beaten for a week to break her spirit,” Matt had told me. He mentioned the words “professional rapists” and I’ve still not wrapped my head around that concept. After the breaking week she may have been told that she’ll still get to send money to her family, but if she runs? Doesn’t cooperate? They’ll go after her little sister next. Another might have been taken across country borders at the age of 14, passport taken away, now in debt bondage to her pimp. Her virginity’s been auctioned off for $300. They call her a “fresh girl.” She can’t run for help. She can’t speak the language.

I can only guess. I don’t really know. We’ve attracted the attention of the mamasan, a 50 year old with tightly pulled back hair and severe eyeliner. She shakes our hands, tells Andrew how handsome he is, points to me, and does an okay sign with her thumb and index finger. I laugh out loud.

I’m not sure if she thinks I’m here to pick up a girl for my boyfriend or for myself or if we’re here to run up a long bar tab. My first step into a brothel days before was met with a breast grab and an offer for oral sex, so I don’t know what to expect. We order the mamasan and May drinks, and in between conversation and under the dull roar of the music, we share snippets of notes.

“Stage, third girl from the right,” Andrew says quietly. I scan the girls and see her. She isn’t a day over 16.

“On your left.” We see a girl with braces and a butterfly sticker on her face, leaned up against an Australian man with a tight t-shirt and forty years on her. She’s painfully young. I smile like we’re discussing our evening plans.

The drinks arrive as the girls leave the stage and a new batch climbs up. The four of us toast and clink glasses and as I place my glass back on the table, I look up to see a row of girls wearing tiny plaid miniskirts and knee socks and nothing else. A few of them – with not yet fully developed breasts and round, young faces – are still in the throes of puberty. A wave of nausea hits me. I smile at all of them.

May is delightful. These sex workers have not been what I had expected. My brushes with the sex trade were simply limited to the actor portrayal of an angry 50 year old meth addict on NCIS. These girls are sweet. Endearing. Ridiculous. Charming. They’ve all liked guessing my age, examining my makeup, asking me if I have a boyfriend, scrunching up their faces at the taste of cheap tequila.

I ask May about her siblings, about working in Svay Pak. She pushes her sideswept bangs across her eyes and she asks about us, where we’re from and what we do. There’s a language barrier. We both do our best. I tell her I love her dress. I examine her bracelets and she finds a few small braids in my hair – an attempt in taming the havoc wreaked by the heat and humidity. She points back to herself as if to ask for one. I nod and smile and flip a segment of her hair in front of her shoulder and she laughs.

Andrew spots a young girl and we call her over to sit with all of us. Her name is Cam, and she’s 18 (no, she’s not) and the girl with the long curly hair is her older sister (no, she’s not). We ask her if she’s happy working here. She smiles and does a noncommittal shake of the head. No, she’s not.

To Andrew’s left, a man is slouched down in his seat with a plaid miniskirt grinding against his lap. He had – as part of the procedure – slipped some money to a bar maid, identified the dancer by the number pinned to her clothing, and she had pulled a bikini top on as she stepped off the stage to join him. He instructs her to face him. I look away. I look back. His hands are all over her and he’s yanking her top down to put his mouth on her chest. She pulls her top back up. He paws at her again, tugging it down, getting increasingly aggressive. I look at the expression on his face.

Rage fills me. My chest is pounding and my face is getting hot. Every ounce of me wants to stop this from happening. I lean towards Andrew. “Your left.” I don’t finish my sentence, but I could — would — desperately want to leap over the table and physically stop what’s happening.

But instead I smile. Because I’m supposed to smile. Because while I’m having a visceral reaction to what I’m seeing, this is just another Saturday night in Svay Pak.

“Roo. Don’t look at him.” Andrew’s voice is even and calm, like he’s done this a thousand times, because he has. Like he’s wanted to strangle the necks of a thousand men who treat women as property, because he has. Like he’s dreamed about walking into brothels, cowboy-style to rescue every single girl who is here because she’s bound by indentured servitude or threats or hopelessness, because he has.

I’m five days in with an itchy trigger finger. There’s a process that – despite my emotion – I cannot ignore. A process that prosecutes traffickers and pedophiles so they cannot continue to treat humans as commodities.

Bright Lights and Brothels || SEMIPROPER

I feel a hand on my wrist. May has taken her bracelet off hers and is wrapping it around mine. I protest. She shakes her head and fastens it, pointing to a bead. “Blue, Roo.” She winks at the rhyme. I try to protest again, but I also don’t want to offend her. When she insists, I thank her with a hug, and she excuses herself to man the front door.

“She gave it to me,” I say.

“That doesn’t happen. You should feel special,” Andrew responds, eyes scanning the room, constantly observing. I’m not sure if I believe him, but I do anyway.

We sip our drinks and the mamasan hands us cool cloths to combat the heat before ushering a couple of men to another velvet bench. I press the cloth up against my collarbone. Shop talk starts. We find out that Cam charges for short time or long time.

“What’s short time?” I had asked my first day here.

“One hour or one shot.”

“Shot?” I ask. “Wait … alcohol?”

“No,” the investigator laughs a little. “This is Svay Pak. One shot, as in…” Ejaculation. Cam charges $30 for one hour or one shot, whatever happens first. More if you’d like her to stay a few hours. I can’t help but think that she should be spending her time listening to One Direction and using bleach pens to decorate her jeans, but instead she’s adjusting her underwear and negotiating with old men who all look like they could be my dentist.

Andrew takes notes in his phone and asks if I’m ready to go. I nod, but I’m not. We slip money into Cam’s hand to thank her for her time, hug her, and walk towards the door. May spots me, runs over and holds me in a long embrace. I squeeze tight. I want good things for her. I really want good things for her.

The next day I’m in a wretched mood and I can’t shake it.

“What’s the next step for that brothel?” I ask during the debrief, irritated at everything.

“We do some surveillance, gather evidence, and partner with the authorities to prosecute the traffickers.” It’s all matter-of-fact, too matter-of-fact, and my bleeding insides find no comfort in it.

“I want to go back.”


I hold up my wrist as if the bracelet says enough.

“I don’t recommend it,” one investigator says slowly. I blink. “You’re attached. You’re too attached and it’ll just continue to wreck you emotionally if you go see her again.”

Andrew agrees. “I don’t think you should.” The words feel harsh, but they’re not harsh. This is a hard reality for the investigators. There’s a process that makes sense on paper, but they’re human. And this hurts.

I am petulant. I tell them I’m okay. I tell them I’ll be fine. I tell them I’d like to go if only to give her money for the bracelet. “Men come in and out and take from her. I don’t want to be another person that just takes from her.”

“We’ll be in the area tonight anyway. I’ll bring you, and I know you’ll go by yourself if I don’t.”

Night falls and the group of us approach that same strip. We partner up again and Andrew and I are back inside, ordering shitty tequila, scanning girls’ faces for signs of May. I have money folded into my back pocket so I can give it to her and thank her again.

“She might give you her phone number and she could be an unaware informant,” Andrew suggests. I like this idea. I can help in this way. I download an international app that assigns me a throwaway phone number. I crane my neck to see if May is sitting with a customer. The mamasan greets us, remembers us, and seats us at a corner table. Andrew asks where May is. She pauses, looks up at the ceiling and thinks, then calls another mamasan over.

“Do you mean number 26?”

I seethe. They know their girls by their numbers, not their names. The identifying numbers that makes ordering a girl for the evening as casual and aloof as ordering the double cheeseburger meal at a drive-thru.

May’s not here. Neither is Cam. It’s my last night in Svay Pak and my disappointment is palpable.

“I’m sorry,” Andrew says, and I feel a little foolish. He and Matt and all of the other investigators deal with this sort of heartache every day, and I’m flitting in and out of their city, with my questions and emotions and petty demands. But every girl I meet has a story. Every girl takes up space in my heart and my mind. Every girl makes me want to break down doors and give them better.

A bracelet on my wall reminds me we can do better.


[photos by Heather Armstrong]

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  • Reply Sara Record June 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Thank you for taking us on this journey. I’m so very proud of you. Your courage to go through this painful experience and share with us is making a difference. I signed up as a monthly donor and look forward to more updates to see what else I can do to help. Much love to all four of you brave ladies.

    • Reply Roo June 26, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      Sara, thank you so much for signing up. These people do amazing work, and I’m so honored that I get to partner with them. I’m thrilled that you’re joining us. You have a big heart.

  • Reply Kelly {the Centsible Life} June 26, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    I have tears in my eyes. I can’t imagine how you got through your time there. It’s all just so heart breaking. Thank you for sharing your stories.

    • Reply Roo June 26, 2014 at 6:19 pm

      Thank you for reading them, Kelly. Your support means so much to me.

  • Reply Jen Lee Reeves June 26, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Thank you for taking these risks and sharing your heart after such a mind-blowing trip. I only guessed what it was like watching you on Instagram. My heart is with those many girls… And I’m thankful some of them will be able to escape.

  • Reply Jo-Lynne Shane {Musings of a Housewife} June 26, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    I can’t even…. I have no words. All I can picture is my 11-year-old pre-pubescent daughter on that stage and I want to puke. I don’t know how you did it, but thank you for sharing your story and for getting involved.

    • Reply Roo June 26, 2014 at 6:20 pm

      I feel like we’re all still reeling, and we were there for a week. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those girls (and boys) and the investigators to live it every day.

  • Reply Sara F. June 26, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Many prayers to you and the ones you work with and also the girls enslaved.

  • Reply MissCaron June 26, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I feel ya, Roo… I would have wanted to do the same thing. I would have wanted to kidnap her and take her home with me. Take all of them home with me. It is hard to read and I know it was even harder for you to witness first-hand. God bless you for this burden you share. God bless those working with Liberty Alliance.

  • Reply K June 26, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    That was painfully hard to read. But keep them coming. We need to know the injustice that is happening and people need to help.

  • Reply Caitlin @ {walker whimsy} June 26, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    “There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.” – Janis Ian

    Thank you for inspiring people to try to stop it. I am cheering for you and for this cause! (No handsprings or cartwheels, though. Sorry. I don’t want to die like that.)

    • Reply Roo June 26, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      Your comment (and your post!) made me smile. Thank you for that, Caitlin. :)

  • Reply Catherine June 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Oh Roo. It’s so sick. Even sicker is that you really don’t have to travel to SE Asia to find exactly the same things. This is happening here at our motels and truck stops. I look forward to reading more from you and hearing more about how we can help.

  • Reply Laura McClellan June 26, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Gah. I just…my heart hurts. It makes me want to vomit. Truly. I would want to rage at that guy, too. It’s just…evil, really. Pure evil. Thank you for telling us May’s story and for your bravery. I know you might brush it off and say you’re not brave, because the investigators are the brave ones, but enduring that emotionally is brave. I truly don’t know if I could handle it. Anyway, thank you for writing and for going and reporting back. Praying for you, the team, and especially May and the other girls.

  • Reply Natasha June 26, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    And….ugly cry :/ Roo, you and everyone involved n fighting this is AMAZING. sending prayers for May, and every girl over there. Heart wrenching.

  • Reply Tracey McCartney June 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, I found every muscle in my body tense up as I read this. I can’t imagine these babies. I have 12 y/o twins, it hits so close. Thanks to all who try to make the world right! So brave, so courageous! Please keep the story going.

  • Reply Holly Johnson June 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I can’t even imagine how difficult this was! Wow! I have no words….

  • Reply Emily June 26, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    This was beautiful and horrible and gut wrenchingly painful. I signed up to be a monthly donor before I read this and now I want to sign up all over again. Instead, I’ll just share this far and wide. Thank you, Roo.

    • Reply Roo June 26, 2014 at 6:18 pm

      Thank you so much, Emily! You’re doing incredible work.

  • Reply Krystyn @ Really, Are You Serious? June 26, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    I’m not sure if it’s good or not, but I feel like I’m sitting right there on the couch with you and I’m ready to kick some butt. I don’t understand how this is accepted and so many people do it. And, just watch.

    These men shouldn’t even be called men. They are gross excuses for humans.

    • Reply Roo June 26, 2014 at 4:06 pm

      It was incredibly hard to sit there and watch him. Worse for her by a long shot. Still unreal for me, though.

  • Reply Vanessa Wittmer June 26, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing. You brought back so many memories to surface for me as I remember my time in SE Asia last year. May will never forget you, or the kindness you showed her that night. She will never forget. I pray that more people like you come into her life and sow seeds of hope, value, and worth that can eventually lead to her being free from this bondage! When I was doing the same thing in Thailand last year, on Valentines day I went to one of the Brothels to give a bracelet and card I made to a girl that I connected with. I went early, about 6pm, so that I could be sure to catch her before there was the possibility of her being taken for the night. To my dismay, she was already bought by the time I got there :( The things that you went through and experienced and saw are indescribable, and the emotions you go through just in those short times are ALL over the place. A total roller coaster. I pray that the Lord comforts you and gives you peace as you try to transition back into “normal” life back home. I know its hard. Thank you for going, for being brave, and for touching those girls lives. Thank you for sharing, and taking us on this journey with you.

  • Reply Aya June 26, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Dear Roo,
    I feel so small and stupid for even attempting to comment on this I don’t know where to begin. I want you to know that while you wete there, I read every single fb post, tweet, ig post you and the other girls shared. I am stunned at the resevoir of courage you summoned to make this trip. You are such a caring and sensitive person, and you put yourself through hell in order to report back to us on the things you witnessed. I read this post on the bus on the way home from work, and I cried. You are making your readers “see” things that we will never be able to forget, that will haunt us and torment us until we take action to help. Thank you for all the sacrifices you made to bring us the truth. I expected nothing less from you but I am stunned and amazed at what you have accomplished. Your truth compass is flawless and the world is a richer place because of your blogging. You are an extraordinary human being and I’m proud to “know” you. Waiting for your next post…….

  • Reply Jill @BabyRabies June 26, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    This post was heartbreaking in the most important way. Thank you for detailing your experience in such a vulnerable way, Roo.

    • Reply Roo June 27, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thanks for reading, my friend.

  • Reply Rachel McCoy June 26, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    Roo, this was incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing your experience. It had to be so hard to write and re-live. Talking to my husband tonight about becoming a monthly donor. I cannot believe places like this exist in the world and yet, they do. Thank you for shining a light on a dark place. Looking forward to more recaps of your experiences.

  • Reply Laura June 26, 2014 at 9:49 pm


    What a beautiful depiction of this experience. You were honest and real and inspiring. Thanks for being so vulnerable and human in this — I think you really brought people along with you. LOVED it. Thanks for giving honoring to every person here — the girls, the investigators . . . Grateful for your storytelling!

  • Reply Irma June 26, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Thank you for this article. My heart bleeds for all these children. Living away, of relatively away from all that horror, makes us forget that such realities exist, yet they do. Today’s slavery is worse than any kind of slavery in history before and it’s happening on such a large scale that it seems unreal. But it’s real, and happening to many. I am just going to go and cry a little bit more now, and than go and try to help a little. Thank you again

  • Reply Jenn June 26, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    I really have no words…I can’t even begin to imagine what you’ve seen and felt. And to have to smile through it all to play the part. I just wanted to say thank you for doing something to stop this and for inspiring others to do the same. Praying lots of grace and peace for your mind and your spirit.

  • Reply Tammy June 26, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for the article, as an Australian just seeing the word Australian man on there made my stomach lurch, such depravity, I hope all of them are found and prosecuted for adding to the misery that these poor girls ( and they are girls!) are enduring. Evil trade, evil people perpetuating it!!

  • Reply Katie June 26, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing. This world-wide problem just feel so huge and unapproachable for so many people… thank you for sharing your little story about a few littles girl on a little corner to remind us we’re all a part of the same fight, whether we’re in the US or across the globe. Keep pushing for more awareness and again, thank you for sharing this.

  • Reply Lori June 27, 2014 at 12:31 am

    This makes me angry on so many levels. A member of my church went on a mission trip a few years ago to SE Asia and saw these same situations. He came back a changed man with a new vision. He met one girl. Every year our church has a “garage sale”, the proceeds go to a fund to get these girls out of the sex trade. A few years ago, he brought one of the girls back with him. There are no words….

  • Reply Leticia- TechSavvyMama.com June 27, 2014 at 12:42 am

    What an amazing, life changing, and heartbreaking experience. I commend your ability to share your story to bring light to this very important problem and can only imagine how difficult your week must have been. Thank you for your posts and for sharing what Exodus Road is doing.

  • Reply Kat June 27, 2014 at 1:21 am

    I am so glad you were picked for this journey, you have such a way with words Roo. I’m sick to stomach. I can’t believe these guys do this day in and day out. Modern day heros.

  • Reply Alena@TheHomemadeCreative June 27, 2014 at 1:35 am

    I feel sick and proud of you and angry… Thank you for going, and for writing.

  • Reply Tatiana June 27, 2014 at 6:31 am

    I admire you for doing this… My heart breaks just reading this. It makes me sick that there’s people that are so sick but glad that there are other working hard to help those girls.

  • Reply Joy@Joy in This Journey June 27, 2014 at 9:14 am

    I finished reading this and heaved the heaviest sigh. I hate processes on paper when human lives are at stake.

  • Reply Meghan June 27, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Thank you so much for writing this Roo! Reading it was really hard; I kept thinking of the girls I visit with a local anti-trafficking organization and my heart broke for them all over again. But, at the same time, it is comforting to know that there are organizations all over the world working to put an end to this evil.

  • Reply Jessica June 27, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Thank you for this. Thank you for sharing these stories. I’ll keep you in my prayers, and the investigators, and the girls. I’ll share your blog.

  • Reply Kristan June 27, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Damn. I’m here via Heather’s blog. Your writing is so palpable. Painfully so. Importantly so. Thank you.

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  • Reply Cathie June 27, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I read every word.
    The pain is real.
    These tears are real too.
    And as I said to you earlier today, you have done your part and it is our turn to do ours.
    And I will.
    (and I have to say I cried harder when May wasn’t there)
    May gave you a gift. A gift much bigger then the trinket of a bracelet. She gave you something worth fighting for. And hopefully she felt your love.

    Be Blessed <3

  • Reply Christa Sterken June 27, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    My heart just crashed reading this. I am deeply grateful for you to share so candidly, what was clearly an impossibly hard trip. Stories like this are so important to raise awareness. I have long felt God preparing my heart to be more involved in this issue, and honestly? It scares the heck out of me…but yet, I am willing

  • Reply Alex @ Kenzie Life June 27, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Roo, this is honestly so hard to read and yet I couldn’t look away from the words, because it hurts to think that our sisters all over the world (and in the US) are treated like this. You are such a strong and beautiful soul for going and sharing these stories. I’m now seriously considering spending the months between my post-bacc and doctorate helping in whatever way I can over there. It’s really hard to think about the things that I complain about when I’m a free woman with every option open to her. As a survivor of rape in college, hearing about what happens to other women *daily* is just too much to not do something.

    • Reply Roo June 29, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      Alex, I’m so sorry about what happened to you.

      And I totally understand about the complaining thing. It’s hard not to be angry with myself (and even the people around me, if I’m honest) knowing the kind of injustice that is happening all over the world.

      • Reply Alex @ Kenzie Life June 29, 2014 at 10:33 pm

        Thank you, Roo. I just hope to be able to help other women because I’m so grateful for all the women who helped me. Best <3

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  • Reply Christine June 30, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Oh, I read this subject always with a heavy and shocked heart. I first heard of human trafficking about three years ago when Christine Caine spoke about http://www.thea21campaign.org/index.php#.U7F0SyiGNds and I’m so thankful for people like you with a tender and brave heart and the committed warriors at Exodus Road fighting this battle that needs to be abolished immediately. Thank you.

  • Reply Anna July 2, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    I have a five year old daughter. I wake up every day feeling lucky to have been born in the USA.

  • Reply Tammy Soong July 3, 2014 at 3:24 am

    I couldn’t do this. I don’t think I’d be able to compartmentalize enough to stay sane.

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  • Reply paul Williamsgilmore April 28, 2019 at 10:17 am

    i was in phome penh last year and 15 year olds where asking 15 dollers what can we do to stop it

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