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 in popcorn. However, at the end of that relatively normal course of events, may have waited something much darker. If a study released a couple of weeks ago is to be believed, a worrying proportion of Cambodian men think it's OK 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 they would be willing to engage in sexual intercourse without their partner’s consent on the 14th of February. The report, authored by Tong Soprach – an independent public health specialist – drew upon 715 interviews with males and females, aged between 15 and 24, in Phnom Penh. Obviously the sample size was 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. And it actually represents a 15 percent decrease compared to studies carried out in previous years.
Despite this drop, according to Soprach, "There has been a shift among Cambodian youth from viewing Valentine's 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 guest houses across the capital would be bursting with young couples trying to get a room.
Kanika‘s parents own a guest house 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 guest house. He said that he would first take her to a bar "for some dancing, and later to a guest house for sex". Continuing, he added that his friends – just like last year – would also be hunting for vacancies at any of the capital's many hostels.
A young couple stare at the Mekong River.
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 instead concentrate on changing the sexual behaviour 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 realise 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 isn't only endemic in the southeast Asian country, but is 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 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.
But 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 behaviour 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. But what's clear is that, when rape is viewed as a likely eventuality of a Valentine's Day date, something big needs to be done.