On Valentine’s Day, a Deep Generational Divide

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.

A man and woman ride past a pop-up store selling bouquets for Valentine's Day on Street 51 in Phnom Penh's Daun Penh district on Friday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
A man and woman ride past a pop-up store selling bouquets for Valentine’s Day on Street 51 in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district on Friday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

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.”

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