Women Activists Advocate for Equality on Valentine’s Day

Safe sex blogger Catherine Harry started her Valentine’s Day by posting a blunt message to her online followers: Only have sex if you’re ready.

But the 22-year-old Cambodian, born Sambath Soksovankessor, simultaneously urged her audience to respect women who choose to have sex before marriage.

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A vendor sells balloons for Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Emil Kastrup/The Cambodia Daily)

Ms. Harry knows her message runs counter to the value traditionally placed on women’s virginity. So while vendors sold flower bouquets and heart-shaped Mylar balloons on Phnom Penh’s streets for the imported celebration—focusing the country’s attention on sex and relationships—she sought to spread a message over social media: Women should not be judged by their willingness to either have sex or to abstain from it.

And she reminded her followers to use condoms.

In contrast, the Women’s Affairs Ministry posted an open letter on Monday, urging women to honor their dignity and families, implying Valentine’s Day was no excuse to have sex. Organizations tend to release Valentine’s Day exhortations because so many young people associate the day with sex, spurred by advertisements pushing the connection between sex and romance.

Ms. Harry said messages that analyze young couples’ relationships in terms of dignity for family and culture are seeking to shame women who want to have sex, and persuade them to abstain.

“Society doesn’t value you as a person; they value your hymen,” she said.

Recognizing the opposite pressure that can also be placed on young women on Valentine’s—to have sex, even if they don’t want to—Safe Cities for Women Cambodia, a campaign against sexual harassment and abuse, promoted the concept of consent on Valentine’s Day in a video, which gained more than 520,000 views on Facebook.

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A man buys balloons for Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Emil Kastrup/The Cambodia Daily)

The organization makes an extra effort to define and explain sexual consent in February, organizer Kate Seewald said.

“When we’ve delivered lectures at universities on sexual consent, for example, the issue of Valentine’s Day as a source of some confusion or concern around consent has come up,” Ms. Seewald said via email.

A study has previously linked Valentine’s Day to frequent reports of rape, including gang rape.

Ros Sopheap, executive director for NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia, said messages directed at women’s virginity were duplicitous when society accepts men who have sex outside of marriage or have multiple partners.

“If you pressure only girls, that is not equality,” she said.

Growing up, Ms. Harry fell into the same traps that she sees among Cambodian men and women today. She is still ashamed about an incident in the sixth grade, when she gossiped with friends about a classmate, saying the girl had sex with a boyfriend.

Ms. Harry is the focus of some of that shame today. Some who read her blogs or watch her videos call her a whore for writing about sex and virginity, but those comments motivate her to educate her peers on the taboo topic.

“Sex is very important. It’s how we got here,” Ms. Harry said.

“I thought I might as well be the one talking about it, because if I don’t, who will?”

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