For the past few years, the government has written the preface to Valentine’s Day in Cambodia warning of the moral threat it poses to society. But the holiday’s growing popularity suggests moral values have different meanings on either side of the country’s generational divide.
Around Phnom Penh on Friday, pop-up stalls splashed sidewalks pink and red, markets teemed with plastic roses and teddy bears, while high-end florists exhibited their flashiest arrangements of fresh flowers.
But as young couples come together to celebrate the holiday Saturday evening, with candles flickering around the capital’s eateries, the government says the mood should not carry the country’s youth toward sexual intimacy.
“Buying flowers for each other is fine,” the Education Ministry wrote in a statement earlier this week. “But not if [it] is meant to move beyond friendship and lose one’s virginity—this is not right, and it violates our culture.”
But many of Phnom Penh’s teens and 20-somethings are unlikely to heed the advice.
“I don’t think our view of Valentine’s Day will be changed by telling young people that we are in opposition to our country’s culture,” said Pros Pich, a medical student in his early twenties.
“I know that many young people feel normal about having sex even if they have no condom, but people under 25 years old won’t listen to advice from the government, so teachers need to do a better job” of educating students about safe sex, he said.
The government’s usual rhetoric inveighs against the malignant effect of Western culture on Cambodian values and paints those who indulge foreign influences as a rapscallion minority who bring shame on those around them.
But insisting that Valentine’s Day is incommensurable with Cambodian values risks reinforcing a perception that the voice of authority is coming from an outmoded generation scratching its head, according to Mr. Pich.
“I don’t know what Valentine’s Day means in England or the U.S., but Cambodians should not be made to think something stupid about sex—sex is fun,” said Mr. Pich, who said he always carries a condom in his wallet when he goes out drinking with friends.
Cambodians under the age of 25 who live, study and work in Phnom Penh expressed differing views on sex in interviews on Friday. But they shared a belief that the Valentine’s Day phenomenon is not an anomaly, but rather an expression of today’s youth culture.
With economic growth has come an increased connection to the outside world, accelerated by Internet and smartphone technologies that have acquainted Cambodians with the developed world’s wants and mores. Social networking, disposable incomes, various pop-culture influences and a proliferation of bars and clubs have created a youth experience drastically different from a generation ago.
Reaksmy, a 20-year-old student who declined to give her full name, said she often meets new people through smartphone applications known as “hook-up” apps, which have exploded in popularity around the world and are gaining a foothold here.
“I have gone on dates or just meet people through [smartphone] apps, but a lot of the time a boy would ask me to stay longer with him, or even be touchy-feely as though we had known each other for a long time,” she said.
“Also, boys have tried to convince us into going to parties at midnight, or to a club or to drive around all night but I never did because one of my friends got pregnant and lost out on a nice future.”
But using this tech-savvy new medium to meet people has not encouraged her to have progressive views on sex. Reaksmy said she shares the government’s belief that it is important for a girl to preserve her virginity.
“Young girls, their ideas are immature and they don’t think enough for themselves, they just agree with everything their boyfriend asks them, or ask what boys want,” she said.
“For me, a girl’s virginity is important in Khmer culture—we are the mother of the world, so Cambodian girls should be more careful,” she said. “A boy and girl can express their love for each other on Valentine’s Day without going to a hotel or guesthouse.”
However, the city’s guesthouses will no doubt experience an upsurge in room rentals Saturday, and puritanical-sounding hysteria over adolescents having sex does come from a place of real concern in Cambodia.
Rape of girls and gang rape is shockingly common, and part of the government’s concern over Valentine’s Day is that young women—under pressure or the influence of alcohol—could end up in vulnerable situations.
In 2013, a U.N. study found that one in five men surveyed in Cambodia admitted to having raped a woman. The figure rose to 34 percent when asked if they had committed physical or sexual violence against a woman.
But as thousands of young people gear up for a day of romance Saturday, day will turn to night, and some will end up having sex.
For Setheka, a 23-year-old who is five years into her eight-year medical degree and also declined to give her full name, that is consistent with being a young adult in contemporary Phnom Penh.
“Casual sex is liberating as long as there is no insisting and it is agreed by both partners,” she said in an email, adding that gaining relationship experience is important before settling down into a life-long relationship.
In Setheka’s view, the government should put less emphasis on Valentine’s Day and more emphasis on educating young Cambodians who will have sex regardless of what they say.
“I don’t think that Valentine’s Day MAKES people have sex, it depends on the individual. But we cannot tell them not to have sex—it is in the nature of humans,” she said. “But we can tell them to protect themselves to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies.”