Focus on Porn Obscures Complex Causes of Rape

STUNG SEN CITY, Kompong Thom province – Saroeun found her granddaughter in the shed behind their stilt house just before midday on Friday last week. The 8-year-old was frantically trying to clean her legs, which were covered in blood.

Terrified, the 60-year-old woman wrapped the unspeaking child in a sarong, put her on the back of a bicycle and pedaled about 2 km to the local clinic, where a doctor euphemistically concluded that the girl had “been injured, but not with a weapon” and advised the family to go to the police.

Srayov commune police chief Kang Sorn attempted to question the girl—who remained silent and continued bleeding—for nearly half an hour before she fainted and was taken to the provincial referral hospital. When she regained consciousness, she told her mother that she had been raped by her 14-year-old neighbor. The boy was arrested and confessed to the crime.

What induced a young teenager to commit a rape so violent that the victim was hospitalized for six days? For authorities, the answer was simple: pornography watched on a friend’s smartphone.

“Pornography makes them have these feelings,” said Chea Poeun, head of the provincial police’s serious crimes bureau. “And then, they want to try.”

Mr. Sorn, the commune police chief, concurred.

“I think pornography and pornographic photographs are the reason people commit crimes against children,” he said. “It’s only smartphones that make them dare to rape someone.”

However, Mr. Sorn admitted the boy only told police that pornography led him to commit the rape after they specifically asked him if it was a motivating factor.

Pornography and its perceived power to cause sexual assault has a strong hold on the minds of police and rights workers in Cambodia, where a child abuse case is reported every other day on average.

It’s an appealing explanation, in part because it provides a simple answer to the complex question of why such brutal attacks persist and allows sex crimes to be blamed on foreign influences.

However, there is no independent academic research to show that pornography has a causal effect on rape in Cambodia, or anywhere else in the world. And some experts say that singling out pornography allows authorities to avoid addressing the deeper causes of rape and sexual violence, including a patriarchal society, impunity for offenders, and migration out of villages that often leaves children and teenagers without parental supervision.

Ros Sopheap, founder of the NGO Gender and Development Cambodia, said she was “frustrated” that pornography continued to be cited by police and others as a leading cause of rape.

“It’s an excuse and it’s a thing they can blame,” Ms. Sopheap said. “The problem of rape is about power relations.”

A report released in August by local rights group Adhoc cited pornography as one of the main causes of an increase in reported rape.

“[The] root cause for the increase in rape cases was the influence by ‘uncontrolled foreign cultures’ (i.e. uncontrolled access to pornography available on the Internet, social media or sold on markets),” Adhoc said in a statement accompanying the report.

Chhan Sokunthea, women’s and children’s rights coordinator for Adhoc, said this week that this conclusion was based on interviews with perpetrators and the fact that many rapes involved actions commonly associated with hardcore pornography, such as choking, spitting and a large group of men having sex with one woman.

Ms. Sokunthea conceded, however, that the results of the study might have been biased, as it only surveyed confessed rapists.

“We know only from the people who have raped,” she said. “After, they say they watched the porn video [and] want to practice.”

While the subject of pornography’s effects on sexual behavior has been the subject of academic research for decades, the past 15 years has seen a resurgence of interest in the topic due to broader access to pornography via the Internet.

Though the results of these studies have been mixed, the majority have not found a meaningful causal relationship between the use of pornography and the commission of nonconsensual sexual violence. Some have found that sexually violent urges actually decrease when sexual offenders have access to pornography.

In 2014, a study conducted in India—which, like Cambodia, has experienced rapid growth of Internet use among rural populations—concluded that “easy access to pornography did not have a significant impact on rape rates and crime rate against women.”

Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said blaming pornography for rape could inadvertently serve to excuse perpetrators and obscure other causes of high rates of sexual violence against women and children.

“Rape has happened even before pornography could be accessible to [the] Cambodian public,” she said, adding that blaming pornography for rape was similar to “when we say women are not supposed to wear short skirts because it causes the male to rape her.”

“It can influence on our judgement and affect that way we address the core issue. It leads to impunity,” Ms. Sopheap said. “If we’re talking about rape, it involves a lot of issues.”

One of these issues is migration out of rural areas. With men and women of working age moving to Thailand or Phnom Penh to work as laborers and vendors, provincial villages are increasingly populated by children and the elderly.

Seng Luch, chief of the serious crimes police bureau in Battambang province, where more crimes against children were reported than in any other province last year, said this was a common factor in many child rapes.

“Most of the incidents happen when parents keep children at home alone,” he said. “You know why? Because they are poor, so their livelihoods come at the expense of the safety of their children,” he said.

In Stung Sen City, the 14-year-old boy accused of raping his 8-year-old neighbor spent much of his time without adult supervision, shuttled between family members in different provinces, according to his father, Thy, who works on construction sites in Phnom Penh.

Wearing a somber expression as he stood in the space beneath his house where the alleged rape took place—next to a cooking stove and a television playing soap operas—the 44-year-old said he hadn’t had much contact with his son in recent years. The boy dropped out of school in second grade, he said.

“We are workers, so we rarely come here, except for holidays like Pchum Ben or Khmer New Year. When I have something to talk to him about, I call his grandfather and speak with him.”

The suspect’s 63-year-old grandfather, Mal, works nights as a guard for the local primary school and during the day as a guard for a warehouse that contains rice milling machinery. He said his grandson was obedient but solitary.

“He listens to me when I order him to guard the house, but he is the kind of person who doesn’t talk much.”

The victim too, was often left alone. Her parents work in Phnom Penh—her father as a moto-taxi driver and her mother selling fish—while her grandparents sell groceries and cakes around the village.

The girl’s grandfather, Voeung, said she would often play at the suspect’s house, but that he thought nothing of it. Perched on a wooden bed under his house, the 58-year-old said the suspect had begun to behave strangely about a week before the alleged attack.

“He has a motorbike and he rode it around my house, looking around,” he said. “I was concerned about her safety, but she often played there, and the suspect had sisters, so I thought she was safe.”

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