Cambodia can’t get enough of Valentine’s Day. There are many reasons for this, both cultural as well as linguistic. For starters, Cambodians can be melodramatic when it comes to matters of the heart. Photo ops, like this one, aren’t uncommon. And then there’s the syntax. Valentine’s Day hints at a very important Khmer word: songsar.
It’s often loosely translated as “sweetheart.” Or sometimes “valentine.” But those don’t really get at the complexities of the word. A better translation would be something along the lines of “someone I think I’m going to marry” or “someone I want to marry.” And therein lies the problem. Because when some Cambodians think of Valentine’s Day, they think of that songsar, and expect they’re going to have sex with them. Whether it’s consensual or not, research suggests.
Cambodia already has a fairly significant problem with rape. According to United Nations research, one in five Cambodian men admit to raping a woman at least once. Half of that number started before the age of 20. And nearly two-thirds said they had raped their partner, or more explicitly, their songsar.
Valentine’s Day only exacerbates that trend, government officials say. “This year, we are asking teachers to properly advise their students,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron told the Cambodia Daily. “Stop thinking anymore about Valentine’s Day. Buying flowers for each other is fine, but if it is meant to move beyond friendship and lose one’s virginity — that is not right.”
Teenage sex is nothing out of the ordinary, to be sure. But Cambodia’s unique confluence of factors — an already high rate of rape as well as a bad translation that implies one is supposed to take the virginity of one’s songsar — has turned Valentine’s Day into a day of rape, government officials say.
“Valentine’s Day is the day that they shall sacrifice their bodies for sweethearts and cause the loss of personal and family dignity,” the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport warned last year, according to the Cambodia Daily. “Valentine’s Day is Western culture, a foreign culture. Boys can exploit Valentine’s Day and take advantage of girls, while girls sometimes are confused about what their role is on Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day exposes the youth to rape.”
Prominent opposition position Mu Sochua said that reasoning was nonsense. Beer, she said, is also of a foreign culture. But the government has made no moves to warn people about beer: “Does more sexual assault occur as a result of alcohol or Valentine’s Day?”
While she does have a point — and Cambodians do drink a lot of beer — she’s missing a troubling pattern borne out in a recent batch of surveys. Burrowing deeper into this trend was Tong Soprach. He’s a public health specialist as well as a columnist for the Phnom Penh Post. He began researching Valentine’s Day and sex back in 2009, and kept it up through 2014, achieving a longitudinal data set.
He interviewed 715 Cambodians, aged 15 to 24, and what he found was staggering. In 2009, roughly two-thirds of young males said they were willing to force their partners to have sex on Valentine’s Day. That number dropped some by 2014, but was still alarmingly high: among 376 male respondents, about 47 percent. As Vice commented, “Obviously, the sample size was pretty small, but that’s still a lot of guys who are all too happy to admit they’d be up for topping their Valentine’s off with a night of non-consensual sex.”
The respondents had any number of methods, the survey found. “I will say to her if we don’t have sex we don’t really love each other, to try to get her to agree.” Or: “I will pressure her by taking her far from town to try to have sex with her.” More common was this answer: “I will give her an expensive gift with the aim of having sex with her.”
The findings corroborated anecdotes published in some newspapers. In early 2013, the Phnom Penh Post published a story called “What young Cambodians expect from Valentine’s Day.” It focused on a young female high school student with a crush on a classmate. So on Valentine’s Day, she folded a sheet of paper into the shape of a star and gave it to him.
“That same day, he asked to me to make love with him,” she told the paper. “Because I loved him, I agreed. Then, within a couple of months, he had another girlfriend. … It was the most terrible experience of my life.”
Many young Cambodians, researcher Tong said, neither understand the “background of Valentine’s Day,” nor the fact that one doesn’t need to have sex regardless of a partner’s wishes. “There has been a shift among Cambodian youth from viewing the day as a celebration of love to simply being a catalyst for sex,” he told the Phnom Penh Post.