Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
Somaly Mam

The Road of Lost Innocence:
The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine

Place: Spiegel & Grau, 2009,
ISBN: 978-0-385-52622-7 (pbk); 205 pp. $US15.00

reviewed by Yasuko Sato

  1. Somaly Mam is an extraordinary Cambodian activist who has gained international recognition and fame in her heroic crusade against sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. The Road of Lost Innocence is a heartrending narrative that recounts her life as a nameless orphan, a domestic slave, a sex slave, a French man's wife, and a liberator of trafficked girls. It is an essential text for anyone concerned with human trafficking, as it provides a compelling firsthand account of the hidden world of the sex trade. The author provides the reader with vivid images of the insanity she went through. Instead of losing her mind, she has risen as a resolute fighter for freedom, rectitude, and dignity. Her triumph is an awesome example of Mahatma Gandhi's dictum 'Be the change you want to see in the world.'The book, however, alerts us to the complexities and frustrations of anti-sex-trade activities. Quiet desperation, despite all appearances to the contrary, is what I identify as the most striking feature of this work.
  2. Mam is certainly a global voice by obtaining the support of American celebrities, including Susan Sarandon, Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, and Angelina Jolie. She has been awarded internationally prestigious awards and honored as a 2006 'Woman of the Year' by Glamour magazine and as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine. Nevertheless, this memoir reveals a deep sense of alienation. The text is hopeful and inspiring, but there is also an overwhelming feeling of sadness at our troubled world. For example, while financial aids are indispensable to her endeavors, the 'human presence and moral support' of the donors are not readily available to the prostituted girls 'who need to be recognised as full fellow human beings' (p. 165). Likewise, 'some of the volunteers feel a sense of superiority toward prostituted women' (p. 186). Thus, to praise her leadership is not entirely synonymous with having respect for the enslaved girls she struggles to save. After all, prostitution is a crime 'hidden in plain sight,' to borrow Judith Lewis Herman's phrase.[1] In the face of such a cunning evil, the glamorisation of this woman could be a pitfall if it serves only to satisfy our liberal humanism.
  3. As Nicholas D. Kristof commented in his forward to her book, Mam epitomises 'the resilience, courage, and nobility of the human spirit' (p. xii), but she is not merely an admirable 'heroine.' She is defiantly critical, for example, of the world's tolerance of international sex trafficking with exoticism as its main appeal. 'It's a global industry,' she contended, 'and for some reason the world puts up with it' (p. 163). Wresting with sex slavery, she directly challenges the meaning of civilisation in a manner reminiscent of Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), an African-American runaway who attained freedom by fighting against enormous odds. She authored a harrowing slave narrative entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.[2] The fact that civilisation accommodates slavery makes no sense at all to either of these former slaves. Unfortunately, slavery is far from being abolished in our uneasy contemporary world. Kristof observes that 'more women and girls are now trafficked into slavery annually than slaves were transported to the New World at the peak of the transatlantic slave trade' (p. x).
  4. The British actor Emma Thompson points out that 'sexual slavery is prevalent in most Western countries, including the United States and the very section of London where she was raised' (p. 204).[3] If the global sex trade involves the totality of the world, barbarism cannot be ascribed solely to the misery of developing countries. Human trafficking is as lucrative as drug and arms trafficking. In Cambodia, the prostitution industry is 'worth $500 million a year, almost as much as the annual budget of the government' (p. 184). Sex industry profiteers may claim that they are simply engaged in 'business' enterprise. Globalised prostitution is driven by free profit-making, just as global capitalism is profit-oriented rather than life-nurturing. Ironically, economic incentives are privileged even in Kristof's and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.[4] Deploring a senseless waste of women's labour force under patriarchy, those authors identify economic prosperity as a potential reward for societies that work toward gender equality. Undoubtedly, economic profitability is the major scheme that governs our thinking, both positively and negatively. In such a world, it is sad, but not surprising that civilisation goes hand in hand with slavery.
  5. In the twenty-first century when sex slavery prevails more than ever, Kristof aptly compares Mam to 'the Harriet Tubman of Southeast Asia's brothels' (p. xi). Indeed, Mam's daring rescue missions greatly resemble Tubman's Underground Railroad. It is worthy of note, though, that the Underground Railroad was a secretive means of helping escapees, while the abolition of slavery involved a significant reorganisation of American life. Without radical political, economic and social reconfiguration, the United States could not extricate itself from slavery. In the same way, an overemphasis on assisting victims and survivors is as limited as the Underground Railroad. Such an approach runs the risk of leaving intact the material as well as psychological conditions that perpetuate the need for commercial sexual exploitation. If they are not called into question, rescued girls may easily be replaced by new victims. Mam is overwhelmed by how formidable her enemy is, and that is absolutely an accurate perception of reality.
  6. Mam is attentive to physical and mental care for immediate practical utility, but she lacks long-term strategies for the prevention and eradication of sexual slavery. In part, this is due to her fundamental distrust in officials and intellectuals. To the EU representative in Phnom Penh who was ignorant of prostitution in Cambodia, Mam retorted: 'Madam, you're living in a world of air-conditioned hotels and offices. This isn't an air-conditioned country. Go outdoors and take a look around' (p. 127). In my view, if Mam is serious about creating 'a world where women and children are safe from slavery' (the vision pursued by the Somaly Mam Foundation), she could learn to collaborate with researchers, even if they work in 'air-conditioned' rooms. Comparative historical studies of societies burdened and unburdened by prostitution and of increases and decreases in trafficking, for instance, must be enlightening. Something like the Somaly Mam Award should be given to anyone who develops a useful knowledge of how to end the trafficking of women and children. In 2009, an event was held for Mam to speak at UCLA, and I believe it is time for social change activists and serious scholars to join forces against the injustices of sex slavery.
  7. Fortunately, The Road of Lost Innocence provides fresh insights into the inner workings of sex slavery. First, it stems from abject poverty, as poverty-stricken families sell their daughters into prostitution. Numerous girls are forced into prostitution by their own parents, siblings and relatives for economic survival. It is imperative to establish and maintain a government capable of promoting economic stability among the general populace.
  8. Secondly, the sale of sex hinges on a culture that valorises female obedience, ignorance and silence, as women remain too passive for their husbands to experience sexual pleasure. Mam observes that sex education is virtually nonexistent in Cambodia. According to the inquiry conducted by her education team, 'a lot of Cambodian men say they go to brothels because their wives don't like making love' (p. 152). Much the same is true of other sexually conservative nations, where men's sexual dissatisfaction with their wives creates a huge demand for forced prostitution. Seen in this stark light, a simple condemnation of prostitution customers is totally ineffectual. Notably, the men who listened to talks by girls from Mam's shelter 'would often break down and cry' (p. 153). In Cambodia, women are helplessly vulnerable to male control, as their survival is at stake. They even agree to enter loveless marriages, 'because that is what good girls do' (p. 39). The absolute control exercised over wives in the home is inseparable from the unspeakable violence inflicted on prostitutes outside the home. It would be immensely helpful, therefore, to propagate the benefits of the healthy husband-wife relationship.
  9. Thirdly, traffickers are often downtrodden outlaws, both male and female. Normally, gangs who organise criminal networks in the underworld are those at odds with mainstream society. Not surprisingly, former prostitutes become women pimps, and they are as brutal as their male counterparts. Aunty Nop, to whom Mam was sold in Phnom Penh, 'looked hideous, like a demon or some kind of evil spirit' (p. 42). Mam 'never saw her smile,' and the 'expressionless' face of this brother owner is suggestive of how she was battered and anguished. As the husband of Aunt Peuve, the woman in charge of Mam's brothel, Li was a soldier whose 'foot had been blown off, so he walked with a crutch' (p. 43). The man, along with his two guards, assaulted Mam with this crutch and raped her. Taking note of the extreme savagery of soldiers and former soldiers, she wrote: 'They had a special kind of anger and ferocity. You felt it was uncontrollable, and they might kill you at any time' (p. 47). She still has nightmares about a soldier 'whose legs had both been blown off to two short stumps' (p. 47). Such soldiers were perhaps land mine victims and physically and mentally traumatised. Mam's list of brothel clients includes policemen, soldiers, construction workers, truck drivers, and long-distance taxi drivers. A detailed analysis of stressful jobs may help explain why they avidly seek prostitutes.
  10. Fourthly, militarism aggravates but never diminishes prostitution. During the Vietnam War, for example, Bangkok served as a center for sexual services for American GIs. Since then, Thailand has become a major destination for sex tourism and attracts travellers from around the world. The Vietnam War severely affected Cambodia, too, under President Nixon. As Mam notes: 'The country had been carpet-bombed by the Americans. Then it was seized by the murderous regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge' (p. 3). The rise of Pol Pot (1928–1998) is historically associated with the massive destabilisation of Cambodia in Ben Kiernan's essay in Centuries of Genocide[5] and Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.[6] Mam laments that 'three decades of bombing, genocide, and starvation and now my country is in a state of moral bankruptcy' (p. 184). Those tumultuous years have led Cambodia to hideous treachery, betrayal, and mistrust among people. In Khmer society, the breakdown of communal relations resulted in the worship of money and the spread of corruption in the police and justice system. There is a possibility that the disruption of fragile states might give rise to thriving sex industry businesses.
  11. As a loving mother for rescued girls, Mam's dream is 'to have a quiet life, in a garden, living with all my children and with the girls from Thlok Chhrov,' the village where her adoptive parents lived (p. 189). She embodies the spirit of communal living and the deep maternal love that transcends abusive homes. While the ethnicity of her father was the ruling lowland Khmer, her mother was a minority derogatorily called Phnong ('savage'). She belonged to an old highland tribe in Mondulkiri Province whose underlying principles are matrilineal, including collective childcare. Mam was entrusted to her maternal grandmother's care, when her parents left the forest. Mam surmises that her mother did not worry, since 'the Phnong people are good to children—not like the Khmer' (p. 6). In her mountain village, she grew up speaking to trees, true friends who would understand her pain and sorrow. The smells of plants are enough for her to 'instinctively know what's good to eat and what's poisonous' (p. 2). I believe that such natural spontaneity sustains her wholehearted dedication, power of compassion, and genuine aversion to servitude. We tend to tolerate slavery, because domination is a built-in structure supporting power politics. Having a firm root in matrilineal paradigms, Mam's strength and integrity are unmistakably derived from an abhorrence of the 'poisonous' and from the joy of protecting and nurturing life.


    [1] See Judith Lewis Herman, 'Hidden in Plain Sight: Clinical Observations on Prostitution,' Introduction to Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress, ed. Melissa Farley, New York: The Haworth Maltreatment & Traumatic Press, 2003, pp. 1–13.

    [2] Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Boston, 1861.

    [3] This sentence appears in 'Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion' (pp. 201–05) at the end of the volume. It is quoted from Emma Thompson, 'Slavery in our Times,' in Newsweek, 8 March 2008, online:, accessed 2 August 2010.

    [4] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

    [5] See Ben Kiernan, 'The Cambodian Genocide – 1975–1979,' in Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views, ed. Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons and Israel W. Charny, 2nd edition, New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 348–49.

    [6] See Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006, p. 40.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 24 February 2011 1223