Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh sounds like the direct opposite of romantic. Last Friday, young men in Cambodia’s capital showered their dates with flowers and highly flammable teddy bears before taking them to the movies and showering them with popcorn. However, if a study released a couple of weeks ago is to be believed, something much darker may have followed that relatively normal course of events. A worrying proportion of Cambodian men apparently think it’s okay to use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to rape their dates.
In fact, almost half of the young men who responded to the study said that they would be willing to pressure, trick, or force their partner to have sex on February 14. The report, authored by Tong Soprach, an independent public health specialist, drew from 715 interviews in Phnom Penh with males and females between the ages of 15 and 24. The sample size was obviously pretty small, but that’s still a lot of guys who are all too happy to admit that they’d be up for topping their Valentine’s off with a night of non-consensual sex. As it happens, it actually represents a 19 percent decrease compared to a 2009 study.
Despite this drop, according to Soprach, “There has been a shift among Cambodian youth from viewing the day as a celebration of love to simply a catalyst to have sex”—and it seems that, in too many cases, this altered viewpoint is likely to end in someone being raped.
Chari Kanika, a 21-year-old university student, told me that she thinks Valentine’s Day “is about showing the love and affection for your friends and family, and not about having sex.” But she had no illusions that guesthouses across the capital would be bursting with young couples trying to get a room.
Kanika‘s parents own a guesthouse near the infamous street 51, known for its bars, clubs and the tourists blowing their entire holiday budgets on bottles of Angkor beer. She told me that last Valentine’s Day not one room in her family’s hostel was left unoccupied – with most being rented by young Cambodian couples.
“Of course, my parents always check for ID, and we don’t let people in wearing school uniforms. But other than that, there isn’t much we can do to stop people from having sex,” she said.
Before the big night, a 20-year-old engineering student (who we’ll call “Eang”) told me he was planning to take his girlfriend to a guesthouse. He said that he would first take her to a bar “for some dancing, and later to a guest house for sex.” He added that his friends would also be hunting for vacancies at any of the capital’s many hostels—just like last year.
A young couple stare at the Mekong River. © Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom
Last Friday, much like the previous year, authorities in Phnom Penh tried to suppress fears about a spate of St. Valentine’s rapes by monitoring guest houses across the city—a solution about as effective as a punctured condom, according to experts.
Ros Sopheap, executive director at Gender and Development Cambodia, claims that authorities should concentrate on changing the sexual behavior of the youth rather than hanging around their rooms like worried parents. This, she says, can only be achieved if those in power accept that Cambodian culture shouldn’t be at odds with educating young people about sex.
“Culture is good and we should nurture it, but you need to learn about sex and relationships,” she said. “A lot of women don’t know about their rights and feel they have to show their love by having sex, even if they don’t want to do it. They don’t realize they can say no.”
Despite her comments, however, Sopheap does agree that the police rape patrols are currently necessary on Valentine’s Day.
“We need to keep an eye out tonight in order to protect the security of the girls,” she said on Friday morning.
National Police spokesman, Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith, agrees that education is key to putting a halt to this abuse. He pointed out that most of the youth don’t understand the concept of Valentine’s Day, adding that “a lot of boys want to use this day for sex and to exploit girls.”
Two years ago, according to Chantharith, the police noticed a significant increase in sexual violence and rape among the capital’s youth on Valentine’s Day.
“There are many young men going to the guest houses late at night with a girl—sometimes a group of boys with a girl—and they commit sexual violence,” he said. “So when we see a girl alone at night, leaving a bar with a boy or a group, we intervene.”
Rape and sexual violence is not only endemic in Cambodia but treated by many as the norm, meaning perpetrators largely go unpunished. According to a 2013 UN multi-country study, one in five Cambodian men admitted to raping their partner in their lifetime, while 53 percent said they were 19 years old or younger when they were first raped. The problem is further entrenched by the perception of stereotypical gender roles in what remains a very traditional society. Just how culturally accepted it is to engage in non-consensual sex is illustrated by the fact that half of the women interviewed for the UN study believed they couldn’t refuse to have sex with their husband.
People write love notes on a tree in Dreamland, an amusement park in Phnom Penh. © Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom
However, not everyone agrees that Cambodian culture is the problem. The Ministry of Education released a statement on Valentine’s Day last week, denouncing the holiday as an evil foreign import.
“The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport deeply regrets that a small number of youths… follow foreign cultures without consideration and think that the 14th of February, Valentine’s Day, is the day that they shall sacrifice their bodies for sweethearts and cause the loss of personal and family dignity,” the statement read.
Shortly after the announcement, Ros Salin, the chief of cabinet at the Education Ministry,explained that the statement was meant to “remind the youth that sometimes they are confused on Valentine’s Day and do things that conflict with the Cambodian culture.”
Tong Soprach, who has been monitoring the sexual habits of Cambodians on Valentine’s Day since 2009, was quick to point out that rape and aggressive sexual behavior are not a result of “importing Western culture.” Rather, he said, the meaning of the holiday is widely misunderstood by the youth and authorities alike as having sexual connotations.
“Most importantly,” he added, “Cambodians have no idea about sex and their sexual rights because the sexual health education curriculum remains unimplemented.”
It’s hard to say definitively where the blame for the Cambodian youth’s attitude towards sex lies, or how exactly to move towards a healthier sexual culture. What is clear, however, is that something big needs to be done when rape is viewed as a likely eventuality of a Valentine’s Day date.