Kak Vey wants a girlfriend one day. But for now, the eighth grader doesn’t even speak to girls in his class.
“I am scared,” the 15-year-old Vey admitted on Thursday afternoon while relaxing along the riverfront with two friends on Koh Pich.
Vey’s teenage fears and dreams —and the internal conflicts they caused—were common to the 120 participants in a new study of 16- to 19-year-old young men living in Kompong Cham City and Kompong Speu province’s Odong district. The research, conducted by public health researchers from New York’s Columbia University, was published online last week in the journal Culture, Health, and Sexuality.
The study found that many of the young men were grappling not just with changing identities, but also with evolving cultural expectations around drinking, violence and gender equality.
In small group sessions and writing activities, the teenagers said cultural norms made it difficult to find help wading through the confusions of adolescence. Sex was particularly problematic.
“It is Cambodian custom not to talk about this,” according to a teacher in Kompong Cham City—one of 10 adults who were also interviewed. “Some boys just know through mass media such as radio or television.”
The cultural stigma attached to discussing sex was contrasted by the teenagers’ easy access to the sex industry at guesthouses, beer gardens, massage parlors and KTVs—past studies have shown the stigma may be linked with lack of condom use.
The silence also spurred shame among some of the participants.
“Everyone tells us we should feel guilty for thinking about sex—teachers, parents, sisters, brothers and grandparents,” one teenager said.
Becoming a man meant independence, responsibility and sometimes, emotional suppression. As one participant put it, “I need to earn money and be tough.”
Many said they’d seen the ugly side of that toughness demonstrated at home, with half of all Cambodians under the age of 18 saying they have experienced physical violence firsthand, according to a 2014 study by Unicef. Women and mothers were also common victims.
In rural areas, men “think it is not an embarrassing thing to hit their wives,” one participant from Kompong Speu said. “They think that hitting their wives shows strength.”
But participants said that gender norms appeared to be changing in cities, where wives were reported to be “treated more as equals” and “valued by husbands,” according to the study.
Alcohol was a changing phenomenon, with adults reporting younger people drinking more regularly than they might have dared in the past.
The researchers say their findings are not necessarily representative, and call for more studies on Cambodian masculinity.
Kak Vey said that he, for one, plans on avoiding drinking and smoking. For now, he says he is more interested in watching Barcelona crush its football rivals than chatting up female classmates.
“In the future, I want to be a police officer, because my father is one,” he said.