In recent weeks, our country seems to have been shaken by an abundance of sensationalised sexual scandals in local media. There was of course the story of an ex-monk allegedly raping a young woman and former lover; an expat involved in an extramarital affair; a man with multiple sexual partners while married; a young couple having consensual pre-marital sex. The list goes on and on. Much of the commentary seemed to reflect shock, shame and even rage, with most harshly scrutinising and judging women for having had consensual sex.
Some of us seem to act as some sort of devoted guardian of pure tradition and culture. Just following the discussion on social media can be frustrating at times. Some of us seem to throw “punches” and “profanity” around to any dissenting views/groups – it is getting more difficult to have genuine and nuanced conversations on such sensitive topics. Consequently, we tend to end up with more questions in our head than answers.
For example: Why do some people think that sex is “a man’s thing” without questioning the origin of this assumption? Why do some people support the restriction on women’s sexual autonomy but not support similar restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour?
We need to talk about consensual sex, and women’s sexual autonomy. Sexual autonomy is not just about the right to be free from sexual violence – it’s about the right to choose when, how often and with whom we have sex. It’s also built around the “radical” idea that – get this – it’s OK for women to want and enjoy sex!
We can never create an egalitarian and harmonious society in our country as long as we still consciously or unconsciously think that sex is a man’s thing and agree to allow men to have dominant power in the bedroom.
This attitude serves to keep women in the passive role and undermine equal sexual freedom of men and women. First of all, we need to respect every woman’s right to be free to choose. If a woman wants to have consensual sex with her partner, be it a man or a woman, it’s her decision to make – it is not yours.
Our Cambodian Constitution guarantees and protects the equal rights of every citizen – meaning women have the same rights and obligations as men do before the law. Thus, there is no reason to not have equality between man and woman inside the the bedroom.
Secondly, we need to eliminate all forms of inequality and unfair judgment against women if we want to make gender equality a real thing. We are fortunate that our sisters from earlier generations fought hard for the rights and freedoms that we now enjoy, including to equal access to education and public services – but the job is not yet finished. We need to make it our mission to widen this space for the next generation – they deserve better, more honest and accurate information about contraceptive options and sexual autonomy.
We have to inform young people of the tools they need to protect themselves and to make the choices they find most self-fulfilling and empowering. It is wrong to try and control a woman’s body and sexual autonomy. It is irresponsible as a society to prevent her from accessing sex education and quality information about how to safeguard sexual and reproductive health, or to teach “abstinence-only-until-marriage” type of sex education.
These abstinence-only programs are notorious for giving false information, like exaggerating condom failure rates, shaming women for their active sexual autonomy and teaching stereotyped gender roles and intolerance for gay or lesbian youth.
While some members of the media and women’s rights activists work hard on the issues surrounding women’s sexual autonomy (our right to choose when and with whom to have sex), it’s time for the rest of the country to step up to the plate.
My friends, we need to talk about consensual sex, protected sex and women’s sexual autonomy so that both women and men know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and to prevent domestic-partner violence. Sexual autonomy of women involves deconstructing masculinity and patriarchal power in the bedroom and throughout society.
We want to end this with a call for understanding and action. If you are not ready to talk about women’s sexual autonomy, it is fine, but don’t stigmatise others who do, because let’s face the facts: the abstinence-only-until-marriage type of education does not work in this modern era. It’s time that young women get real sex education and for us all to let women live their lives and enjoy their bodies. Sex is not a man’s thing; it’s for all of us to enjoy.
Rachana Bunn is an independent women’s rights advocate and researcher. Khourn Chantevy is a women’s rights advocate and team leader at ActionAid Cambodia.