The Place where Valentine’s Day is the most dangerous day of the year

February 14, 2015 6:25 pm
can’t get enough of ’s Day. There are many reasons
for this, both cultural as well as linguistic. For starters, Cambodians
can be melodramatic when it comes to matters of the heart. Photo ops,
like this one, aren’t uncommon. And then there’s the syntax. Valentine’s
Day hints at a very important Khmer word: songsar.
It’s often
loosely translated as “sweetheart.” Or sometimes “valentine.” But those
don’t really get at the complexities of the word. A better translation
would be something along the lines of “someone I think I’m going to
marry” or “someone I want to marry.” And therein lies the problem.
Because when some Cambodians think of Valentine’s Day, they think of
that songsar, and expect they’re going to have sex with them. Whether
it’s consensual or not, research suggests.
Cambodia already has a
fairly significant problem with rape. According to United Nations
research, one in five Cambodian men admit to raping a woman at least

Half of that number started before the age of 20. And nearly
two-thirds said they had raped their partner, or more explicitly, their

A young couple wait to go to the movies for Valentine’s Day on February 14, 2014 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo / Getty Images
Valentine’s Day only exacerbates that trend, government
officials say. “This year, we are asking teachers to properly advise
their students,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron told the Cambodia
Daily. “Stop thinking anymore about Valentine’s Day. Buying flowers for
each other is fine, but if it is meant to move beyond friendship and
lose one’s virginity – that is not right.”
Teenage sex is nothing
out of the ordinary, to be sure. But Cambodia’s unique confluence of
factors – an already-high rate of rape as well as a bad translation that
implies one is supposed to take the virginity of one’s songsar – has
turned Valentine’s Day into a day of rape, government officials say.
Day is the day that they shall sacrifice their bodies for sweethearts
and cause the loss of personal and family dignity,” the Ministry of
Education, Youth and Sport warned last year, according to the Cambodian
Daily. “Valentine’s Day is Western culture, a foreign culture. Boys can
exploit Valentine’s Day and take advantage of girls, while girls
sometimes are confused about what their role is on Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day exposes the youth to rape.”
Prominent opposition
position Mu Sochua said that reasoning was nonsense. Beer, she said, is
also of a foreign culture. But the government has made no moves to warn
people about beer: “Does more occur as a result of
alcohol or Valentine’s Day?”
While she does have a point – and
Cambodians do drink a lot of beer – she’s missing a troubling pattern
borne out in a recent batch of surveys. Burrowing deeper into this trend
was Tong Soprach. He’s a public health specialist as well as a
columnist for the Phnom Penh Post. He began researching Valentine’s Day
and sex back in 2009, and kept it up through 2014, achieving a
longitudinal data set.
He interviewed 715 Cambodians, aged 15 to
24, and what he found was staggering. In 2009, roughly two-thirds of
young males said they were willing to force their partners to have sex
on Valentine’s Day. That number dropped some by 2014, but was still
alarmingly high: among 376 male respondents, about 47 percent. As Vice
commented, “Obviously, the sample size was pretty small, but that’s
still a lot of guys who are all to happy to admit they’d be up for
topping their Valentine’s off with a night of non-consensual sex.”
respondents had any number of methods, the survey found. “I will say to
her if we don’t have sex we don’t really love each other, to try to get
her to agree.” Or: “I will pressure her by taking her far from town to
try to have sex with her.” More common was this answer: “I will give her
an expensive gift with the aim of having sex with her.”
findings corroborated anecdotes published in some newspapers. In early
2013, the Phnom Penh Post published a story called “What young
Cambodians expect from Valentine’s Day.” It focused on a young female
high school student with a crush on a classmate. So on Valentine’s Day,
she folded a sheet of paper into the shape of a star and gave it to him.
same day, he asked to me to make love with him,” she told the paper.
“Because I loved him, I agreed. Then, within a couple of months, he had
another girlfriend. . . . It was the most terrible experience of my
Many young Cambodians, researcher Tong said, neither
understand the “background of Valentine’s Day,” nor the fact that one
doesn’t need to have sex regardless of a partner’s wishes. “There has
been a shift among Cambodian youth from viewing the day as a celebration
of love to simply being a catalyst for sex,” he told the Phnom Penh

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