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
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