Just as the smartphone dating app Tinder is being heralded as the death of romance in the West, a Khmer-language clone has been launched in Cambodia. But how much will cultural differences determine how it’s used?
Sophea* – a sassy 19-year-old who dresses and talks like a New York law student – is one of the few Cambodians who have taken to using Tinder, the infamous smartphone app which, according to a recent article in the US magazine Vanity Fair, has caused a “dating apocalypse” in the West.
Using the app, she’s made some friends, both male and female, had a few flings and even met someone with who she’s now been dating for a few months.
“I’ve seen a few Khmer people on there, but none of my Khmer friends know about it,” the university student said, between forkfuls of hollandaise covered egg at a Phnom Penh cafe this week. “It’s not just because it’s in English.
They just don’t really get the concept [of hooking up online].
“The only Cambodians who use it have really been influenced by Westerners like me.”
Tinder – the first smartphone dating app to use a “swipe” gesture to accept or reject potential matches based on little more than a photograph – was first launched in 2014.
A user can potentially flag interest in hundreds or even thousands of profiles in a short span of time. It’s been compared to online shopping.
Once two users are matched, they can then chat to share information about each other or arrange a meeting.
The New York Times last year reported that Tinder was processing more than a billion left and right swipes and matching more than 12 million people per day.
A feature in Vanity Fair last week made the case that Tinder had made the process of finding willing sexual partners so efficient that it had caused a “dating apocalypse”.
People – primarily men – were able to find someone to “hook up” with at a moment’s notice and were no longer willing to invest in relationships.
“It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually,” Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, told Vanity Fair.
“It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint.”
The magazine also quoted Christopher Ryan, one of the co-authors of Sex at Dawn, a book about human beings being naturally polyamorous, who said that he was troubled by behaviour caused by dating apps like Tinder.
“It’s the same pattern manifested in porn use,” he said.
“The appetite has always been there, but it had restricted availability; with new technologies, the restrictions are being stripped away and we see people sort of going crazy with it.
I think the same thing is happening with this unlimited access to sex partners. People are gorging.
That’s why it’s not intimate. You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity.”
While Tinder might not yet have started a fire among Cambodians, a localised version of the app, Matchstix, which has a Khmer interface instead of English, seems to be creating some sparks, though it’s early days yet.
An Android version of the new app was released on August 1 and, according to the the Google Play store, it has already been installed on between 5,000 and 10,000 phones. An iPhone version was released on Wednesday this week.
The app’s creators, Mobimedia, say that while the functionality of Matchstix is almost identical to Tinder – matching users who “swipe right” on each other – a key difference is that it’s not being marketed as a way to “hook up” or even primarily to find romance.
“Matchstix’s position in the market is about meeting new friends and perhaps groups of new friends, etc,” said Matchstix general manager Keeyan Admana via email.
“Cambodians are very social and outgoing, especially those in their early- to mid-20s. Matchstix helps connect these active personalities and lifestyles.
“Until now there’s been no dedicated Cambodian app for people to find one another easily, safely and comfortably with such ease.
This is a Cambodian-for-Cambodian app. And it’s such a simple method for connecting, as long as they have a smartphone, a Facebook account and internet access.”
Admana said that safety was a “huge part” of the development of the app and it met “all global industry standards for social and chatting platforms” including those required for the app to be available in the Apple and Google app stores.
Safety measures included: no under-18s, no contact between users unless both consent, easy unmatching, a three complaints banning protocol, no full names, no exact locations and protocols to ensure all users were real humans, not “bots”.
“We really puts the users in control of their own situations,” he said.
Admana declined to reveal the precise numbers of how many males and females had downloaded Matchstix, but said it was approximiately “50/50”.
A counter on the app’s website tallied up live how many “matches” Matchstix had made, he added.
“We have this installed on a big screen in our offices, it’s actually quite interesting to watch.”
Trude Jacobsen, a history professor at Northern Illinois University who researches Cambodian gender and sexuality, said she wasn’t surprised that Tinder hadn’t taken off amongst Cambodians.
Sex outside of wedlock tended to be something that men engaged in with sex workers at specific times in their lives, she said. Usually, these activities were undertaken with a friend or group.
“So it’s not really the notion of an app for sex that is problematic, it’s the notion of hooking up for sex that is not a commercial transaction.”
Unmarried young women, in contrast, were supposed to be asexual.
“They are not supposed to have sexual needs at all until they get married, at which time their husband is supposed to ignite passion in her and then be the focus of all her desire.
“A young woman who attends classes at university with a young man would not be viewed as a legitimate sexual object by him, as she is his peer.”
However, outward “coupling up” displays such as buying stuffed animals for each other or making collages on Facebook and Instagram of a boyfriend or girlfriend were common among Cambodian youth.
“The public performance of affection, validation, being ‘in love’ are all culturally acceptable and, in fact, apps like Facebook and Instagram provide a space in which ‘love’ can be observed with relatively little danger of any physical interaction,” Jacobsen said.
“An app like Tinder would be handy for young people looking to meet someone special that they can then identify as their boyfriend or girlfriend, in that sense; but it would not be used for sex.
“In fact, I can see a lot of cultural confusion occurring as Westerners used to the overt hookup culture of Tinder get on it in Cambodia and are dismayed to find their ‘acceptable swipes’ suddenly sending them emojis of teddy bears and hearts!”
Ros Sopheap, executive director of local rights group Gender and Development for Cambodia, said Jacobsen’s analysis was generally spot on, however, she said men would not only have sex with sex workers but anyone who was willing.
“Why do they do this? Because they have their male friends who always say: ‘
How can you have sex with your wife when you don’t know anything about sex?
You have to try it.’ And this is a cause of gang rape in town as well.
Then they want to find a virginal wife when they’re not virgin, this is not equal.”
The introduction of apps like Matchstix is a good thing, Sopheap said.
“Everyone should be able to express themselves and meet up with new people so they can understand society more clearly,” she said.
Meas Saim, deputy director of women and children’s rights at Adhoc – which recently suggested that pornography was contributing to Cambodia’s rising problem with rape and called for it to be censored – said she had never heard of Tinder or Matchstix.
“If they used it in the way that Western people do, it wouldn’t be a good thing,” she said. “Yet, I don’t have much comments as I don’t know about that app clearly.”
Sophea, the Tinder-using teen, said her female friends did want to “hook up” with people, but they didn’t talk about it openly.
“Some go out and meet guys,” she said. “They do all the things Western people do, they’re just not as open about it as foreigners.”
At first, Cambodians would probably just use Matchstix just to meet, talk and get to know one another, but that could change down the track.
“I don’t think they will use it to hook up yet,” she said.
“But it depends on the user. People are all looking for different things.”
* Not her real name.
Matchstix is the most interesting new app to come out with Khmer script, and I thought I might be able to meet some new friends to have fun or something.
I would probably use it to meet guys if I didn’t already have a boyfriend. I’ve had a few matches already.
A few guys who message me just to say hello, but I haven’t met up with anyone yet.
I’ve heard about Tinder, but it’s a bit different here.
Westerners seem to fall in love and have sex really quickly.
I don’t know if it will be the same with this app.
I found out about it through my friends on Facebook, so I was interested and wondered what it was about, but when I tried to log in with my Facebook account, it didn’t work.
I don’t know why. It’s nice to see a new app in Khmer but, from what I was able to see, I noticed that some of the translation is a bit off.
There are also a lot of other apps that do the same thing – chatting, flirting, making friends or partners.
The only difference is this one is in Khmer. It’s also too targeted – the only people on there are Cambodians nearby.
It would be better if it was more international, with a greater diversity of people.
I wanted to try Matchstix out because it’s something new that’s Cambodian. It’s no different to Tinder.
But it’s bringing a new way of dating that’s outside the traditional ways of meeting people.
Will people just use it to hook up? It really depends on the individual.
Some people will want to use it to just hook up. Cambodians are different to Westerners, but you can’t generalise. I didn’t really like Matchstix.
I’m not a fan. The range of people age-wise is really limited.
If I was going to use one, I’d rather just use Tinder, which has a wider range of ages and nationalities.
But I think Matchstix will work for most people, it works well just to connect people to be friends.
I just downloaded Matchstix because it was something new, a new type of social media.
And I wanted to find some new friends and maybe find new dates. I’ve had it for two weeks now, but I’ve been too busy to use it very much.
I haven’t really chatted with anyone new yet.
I’ll probably keep using it, and hopefully I’ll chat with some people and meet up with them.
Some people might use it just to hook up with people. I guess it depends on the person.