Valentine’s Day 2013 again saw debate rage in the media about the negative influence of “Western culture”, the importance of Cambodian women maintaining their virginity and the subsequent actions by local authorities.
In regard to the issue of culture, when asked what their plans were to celebrate the day, young people seemed quick to comment: “It’s not our tradition”; “It’s not related to Cambodian culture at all” (Lift, February 13).
But whether Cambodians like it or not, Valentine’s Day is becoming a part of Cambodian culture, and the way it is currently interpreted – as the day to lose your virginity - is a uniquely Cambodian cultural creation.
A simple internet search will show that the origins of Valentine’s Day, although European, were not specifically related to sex or losing one’s virginity.
In “Western” culture, which is typically blamed for Valentine’s Day’s “scourge” on Cambodian society, the day has largely been taken over by marketing and advertising agencies as a day for sharing “romance” with your loved one(s) through hallmark cards, chocolates, flowers and candle-lit dinners for two that, in turn, may lead to sex, but is not the essence of the day as it seems to be re-interpreted in Cambodia.
While the almost universal disregard for the possibility that Valentine’s Day, as currently celebrated in Cambodia, could be anything but “Cambodian” is frustrating, what is more worrying is the response by local authorities.
Reports of municipal police and local authorities staking out guesthouses and patrolling the streets for “young lovers” is an infringement of individual rights to mobility and sexual autonomy.
As experience with groups such as sex workers in Cambodia has shown, policing and “crackdowns” on perceived anti-social behaviour merely pushes the behaviour underground, creating an environment in which risky sexual behaviour, exposure to sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, abortion and exposure to violence are more likely to occur.
As a result of these lessons learned, the Cambodian Ministry of Health and local authorities have adopted a harm-reduction approach through education and health-care provision, which has been more effective in halting the spread of HIV/AIDS than arrests and harassment.
A similar harm-reduction approach whereby providing young people with access to information, contraception and youth-friendly healthcare services would be far more effective at minimising potentially risky behaviour than stationing commune officials outside guesthouses.
Finally, as Keo Kounila’s excellent article “How the Kingdom could show more love” (Phnom Penh Post 7Days, February 15) accurately pointed out, young people are engaging in sex, not only on Valentine’s Day but on every other day of the year too.
Although the Ministry of Education and others encouraged women to “not give away their virginity”, young men’s involvement was almost completely ignored.
The few times men did appear, it was usually as a warning for young women through simplistic examples such as “Dara”, whose voice alone causes women to give in to his sexual advances (“Dara and his many girlfriends”, Lift, February13) .
While not denying that cases such as these exist, focusing on the worst characters of society denies the existence of more positive role models and examples of loving, healthy sexual relationships.
Although the role of young men in Cambodian society needs to be further highlighted, the role of young women’s agency, rather than vulnerability, also needs to be emphasized.
It needs to be acknowledged that the decision to have sex doesn’t just occur because it’s Valentine’s Day, but is a part of often-complex human relationships.
It’s important that we empower young women and men with the tools and knowledge to protect themselves from both potentially harmful sexually transmitted diseases and the effects of unintended pregnancy, but also with the emotional maturity to know when they’re ready to have sex and be able to refuse sex when they feel they’re not.
It’s also time to acknowledge that young Cambodian men and women are having sex, and that this is a normal, healthy expression of female and male sexuality, not an imposed Western construct.
Instead of encouraging young women to remain chaste, the Ministry of Education would be better off focusing their efforts on developing a curriculum that provides comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and to establish the foundation for building caring sexual relationships.
As for the Phnom Penh municipal police and local authorities, they would be better placed focusing their efforts on patrolling the streets for real acts of crime, not the act of sex.