Apsara’s Ordeal of Fire: The Politics of Sense in the Everyday Life of Cambodian Bar Girls

  • Bussabong Wisetpholchai Society and Health Institute Ministry of Public Health
Keywords: Sensory experience, Cambodia, Sex work, Constrained agency


     This article examines the relationship between sensory experience and the everyday life
of Cambodian bar girls, sex workers employed by urban bars and nightclubs. Complicating
previous research that views these women as marginalized or victimized, I introduce novel
ethnographic evidence exploring sex workers’ strategies for harm reduction. I argue that bar girls
develop a sense of hazard, reflecting their agency as individuals and the strong group solidarity
they forge in the peril of everyday life in sex-selling space. Forced to confront the occupational
dangers of sex work behind closed doors, bar girls mitigate risks of violence and disease by
producing a communal space of learning. Yet bar girls’ primary strategy for ascendancy—
marriage to a foreign client—actually magnifies their risk of HIV infection as they perform the
sexual role of wife.


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