In the years since Valentine’s Day began to gain popularity in Cambodia, it has been said that guest houses or ‘love hotels’ fill up with young couples who want to have sex. Inside, some girls lose their virginity to their boyfriends willingly. Others are pressured to do so. The trend has prompted the country to ask: can we, and should we, stop them?
This expanding sexual freedom is not unique to Cambodia. Nor is it unique to Valentine’s Day: young Cambodians have sex every day, not just on February 14, but also at entertainment clubs which have sprung up in big cities over the years. Check out the beer garden next door and you will see young pretty girls who wait at the door and young men who go there. Are we still going to blame Valentine’s Day for that?
What we, however, should be really worried about during Valentine’s Day is unsafe sex – and this is partly a product of the older generation’s attitude towards sex. Disturbingly, not many parents openly talk to their children and provide sexual advice about the implications of unsafe sex. Parents usually advise children to refrain from sex before marriage, which often doesn’t work.
There is a huge gap in the way older and younger generations perceive love and sex. Just as Valentine’s Day is embraced by the young but largely scowled at by the old, my parents’ generation tends to be more discreet about love while the opposite is true for young Cambodians. More and more young people here are physically expressing love and slowly embracing sex before marriage.
Cambodian parents do not easily show public affection to their children. Those of us who were born and raised in Cambodia would probably cringe at the sight of two people kissing or making out on the streets. A friend told me he hugged his mother for the first time in 24 years, particularly because she was getting older, and it made him very uncomfortable. He said that she had never showed him affection in public or around the house. Stories like this still ring true in many households.
We were taught many things: how to sit, stand, walk, eat, speak, dress and also greet each other. Men should not look women directly in the eyes and should not touch, kiss, or hug the body of a Khmer woman while greeting - she would lose respect and feel embarrassed. All of us have been taught many rules like these, but did we stop and ask how many times our parents stop to hug us?
The opponents of my idea would say that hugging or showing affection in public is not part of our tradition or custom. Not true. Almost every language has the word “hug”, even ours. It is not alien to us. Yet, why do we not do it often with our relatives or friends?
I am not suggesting that Cambodian parents do not love their own children. They do, but how they express it is a completely different story. The Khmer Rouge tried to abolish love, emotions and family for almost four years, and how our parents kept it going until today is a real survival story of human history.
The young generation might be caught in strings of confusion between the past and present. Now, because of globalisation and exposure to more cultures, young Cambodians unavoidably desire to keep up and live their lives differently from their parents. They might not find many things in common with their parents anymore, but the gap can be narrowed through more affection and discussion.
If anyone asks for a tip for Valentine’s Day – forget flowers and gifts, you can still spread the message of Valentine’s Day and “love,” by showing affection to your loved ones and even strangers.
Kounila Keo, 24, is a blogger, writer and new media consultant. To view her blog click on this link.