Human Stories

Reducing someone to facts and figures takes away their real truth. Only by listening can we give them a voice.


“Their story is their story. My story is my story.”
Clichéd and tragic, that she should have to end her interview on this note.
Question after question, probing her for proof of exploitation,
She denied us the right to reduce her life to one of victimisation,
She denied us a tear-jerking tragedy, how dare she?

Hers was one of the ninety-eight Phnom Penh masseurs who offered up
Their stories – lives etched out onto photocopied surveys
Smudged ink and multiple answer questions –
God forbid her answers should not fall into a pre-determined category.
That would ruin our data entry process. Our precious graphs.

We had never meant to strip the dignity of these women.
Overshadowing their voices with our expectations, our preconceptions,
This was not the intention of our research. We were here to listen,
To understand and represent their situation – to give them a voice.
“Assessing the vulnerability of massage parlour workers in Cambodia.”

Massage parlours are built on the complex foundation of dependencies.
A home, food, salaries, friends and family – havens from
Poverty and homelessness and broken family relationships.
Parents, children, cousins, grandparents – so many to send money home to,
To be depended on can be the most vulnerable position for a lone person.

The most surprising finding: masseurs are not sex workers.
Equating the two, as too many people tend to do, makes masseurs vulnerable
To stigma associated with sex work, to clients expecting sexual services,
To being ostracised by communities, families, neighbours, friends.
A film of opaque philanthropic goodwill glazed our vision like cataracts.

Number 83 refused to give advice to women about to enter the massage industry
Saying only, “I have never met them.” Number 76, echoed,
“I am one who minds my own business, they will make up their own minds.”
Would you recommend this job to a friend? “No”, they both replied.
(Finally – they might admit that their work is mired with strife and hardship!)
“Because I cannot decide for them. They need to decide for themselves.”

To question the ability of someone else to make their own decisions,
To negate the possibility that they may be winning that hand they were dealt,
To reduce a person to the label from which they came,
This is a rejection of the possibility that ‘they’ are also


Zoe Miles is a second-year student at SOAS studying Politics. She has completed several research internships in Cambodia for an anti-human trafficking organisation, Love146, this summer.