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Rape, KR and psychobabble

My response is triggered by Mr David Hayter's recent comments regarding Rape, KR

and Psychobabble in the Phnom Phenh Post, August 1-14, 2003.

I want to reinforce that "rape" of any kind is a violation of humanity

and needs to be addressed with the rule of law along with support from other pertinent

sources. This issue should not be taken lightly and ignored, especially if there

is a possible correlation to the KR and the adverse psychological effects it has

on the Khmer youth.

Little is known about the needs and problems of Khmer youth, yet ironically they

make up approximately 26.5% (ages 15-29) of the Cambodian population.

I am making a concerted effort to address the complexity of the "bowk"

phenomenon from a socio-behavioral and psychological point of view. My overarching

objective is to find solutions to bowk in a traditionally conservative environment

that usually does not encourage dialogue and exploration with politically charged

and sexually related topics.

Definitive and simple answers may never be found; however, attempts to find objective

answers free of subjective opinions need to be made so that policies can be developed

to address and solve social problems. Thus, I hope to generate a healthy discussion

and to encourage individuals familiar with the topic to contribute their insights.

What makes the bowk phenomenon fascinating is the connection it has to the sexuality

of why the Khmer youth engage in negative behavior (ie, gang rape).

Adding to this phenomenon is the psychological dimension.... The reaction as I had

expected indicates that most people view psychological studies with a certain amount

of skepticism, and in some cases, such skepticism is warranted only to the extent

that evidence supports it.

The subjective comments provided by Mr Hayter reflect a disturbing reality of the

perceived gap between the theoretical and practical world in addressing and approaching

social issues, as in the case with bowk. The theoretical perspective allows social

scientists to expose the roots of social-psychological behavior through empirical

investigations (quantitative and qualitative)....

By contrast, individuals guided by the practical paradigm are likely to address social

realities using experiential frames of reference to explain social phenomena in which

personal biases can influence objective analyses. Both perspectives share a focus

on the alleviation of human suffering. However, they vary only in terms of the contributions

they make through practical interventions and/or research and policy.

To first understand this phenomenon, we must be clear on what constitutes the concept

of bowk and ask why the prevalence among the Khmer youth in contemporary Cambodia.

Non-native Khmer speakers should note that bowk refers to the mathematical word add

and from there one can figure out how add fits into the gang rape equation in terms

of numbers....

Mr Hayter equates his conceptualization of gang rape behavior among Khmer youth to

Thai boys and men going to commercial sex workers for sex and entertainment purposes

and that they usually do not engage in the sexual transactions simply to relieve


He further states that the Khmer youth "who partake in rape see it as a form

of entertainment, as an equal alternative to playing video games or singing karaoke."

His trivial and unsubstantiated conclusions should be taken with extreme caution,

given no cultural idiom indicators were used to measure these socio-behavioral outcomes

as he indicated. Furthermore, Mr Hayter's use of adjectives (eg, "arrogant,

insensitive, mindless Neanderthals who have no positive role models since unfortunately

there are none around") to define the sexually violent behavioral tendencies

among the Khmer youth sheds little insight on the subject of bowk and creates a false

impression of the seriousness of the problem. Moreover, it is insulting to those

who perhaps have tried to be good role models to the youth.

If we want to critically understand this phenomenon more fully in all its complexity,

a broader way of thinking needs to take place by including scientific ways to measure

it in order to provide rational explanations.

Mental health scholars concurred and asserted that virtually every member in Cambodian

society suffers from collective post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Secondary

symptoms (eg, anxiety and depression) were also reported as being prevalent among

Cambodian refugees and most college students in Cambodia (eg, Peterson, Prout, and

Schwarz, 1991). Given the uncertainties surrounding Cambodia's circumstances, the

Khmer youth are forced to live with the harsh realities of both micro and macro-level

stressors...Thus, they become vulnerable and reactive (at times volatile) to these

uncontrollable stressors that exceed beyond personal coping strategies...

The bowk phenomenon could be the youth's reaction to uncontrollable agents in Cambodian

psychological, socio-economic, political, environmental, and cultural milieu. Thus,

these agents contribute to the stress-health/mental-health relationship in the lives

of Khmer citizens, particularly among the youth who are concerned about their fragile


In my attempt to explain the bowk phenomenon I had suggested that high-level exposures

to negative stressors (ie, negative life events and "daily hassles") compounded

by the unresolved history of the KR could be predictive factors causing the Khmer

youth to engage in destructive behaviors (ie, gang rape).

Stress can essentially be viewed in relation to the inseparability between the circumstances

of social life (how Cambodia's tragic KR past connects to its current evolving state

and population) and individual functioning (mental health status and life satisfaction

among the Khmer youth.

The thrust of my stress research findings showed that high exposure to stressors

results in high levels of overall negative mental distress (psychological and somatic

symptoms) and low life satisfaction among a large sample of students in modern day


When asked to rate their distress in terms of commonly endorsed mental health symptoms,

the total respondents reported the top-ranked three as: "Feeling hopeless about

the future," "Feeling very self-conscious with others," and "Feeling

that most people cannot be trusted."

Based on some of my major findings I believe that there is a correlation between

stressors and the bowk phenomenon. Sufficient evidence warrants conclusion that the

Khmer youth are having difficulty dealing with stressors, which can cause some to

engage in gang rape.

In sum, the ascribed "powerlessness" Khmer youth experience in today's

Cambodia prevents them from pursuing both personal and professional goals because

of inadequate resources (eg, job training), opportunities (eg, employment), and restricted

alternatives, thereby influencing their psychological and emotional responses (ie,


- Leakhena Nou, PhD, - University of Cambodia

* This letter reflects Dr Nou's personal opinion, and not that of the University

of Cambodia.



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