Connecting Sexuality with Violence and Not with Love

Since some weeks ago, The Cambodia Daily is regularly updating a summary of the number of rapes of young and very young persons. On 7/8 May 2011, one headline said:

16-Year-Old Girl Brutally Attacked in Gang Rape

Five boys, high school students aged 15 to 20, have been arrested, but probably all together 13 males had been involved. They found her while she was looking for firewood, invited her to a house, made her drunk, and then raped her.

The Cambodia Daily reported that this was the 69th reported child rape case since the beginning of this year; there have been other cases where the victims were under 10, or even under 5 years of age. The Cambodia Daily calculates that this means that almost four child rapes happen per week. And some of these cases of rape end with the murder of the victim.

On 17 May 2011, there was another brutality committed in the same province, while the authorities are still looking for eight suspects from the previous case:

Three Students Charged after Kampot Gang Rape

Kampot Provincial Court yesterday charged three high school students… after the alleged gang rape of a 20-year-old woman on Friday…

VarThan, 23, PovTy,18, and Sin Veasna, 18, were arrested on Saturday after allegedly raping the victim at the invitation of her boyfriend…

Police are searching for four other students aged 18 to 20 years old who allegedly raped the woman, as well as a 30-year-old man who accompanied the group and the boyfriend, whom the police identified as a 23 year old man named Rotha…

Mr. Rotha allegedly planned for a group of friends drinking together in Prek Tnort commune to rape his girlfriend one by one. The friends followed Mr. Rotha when he took the woman to have sex in a shelter on a plantation about 2 km away. “The victim’s boy-friend planned to have sex and informed his friends to rape her.”

The victim was allegedly raped repeatedly and left to walk back to her aunt’s house late at night… On Saturday the victim intended to kill herself and wrote a suicide note, which was discovered by her aunt…

In the note “she said goodbye to her aunt… because she was raped by many…” After reading it, the victim’s aunt and neighbors began to search for her. “They found the victim by a stream holding a knife intending to kill herself.”

[They] prevented the girl from committing suicide and took her to the provincial hospital for treatment.

Obviously something is completely wrong

Especially in view of the many cases of child rape, several people – officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, some politicians, and some high ranking police – have expressed concern: “Something has to be done” – but apart from calls for strict punishments instead of out of court financial settlements, there has not much been suggested.

A few years ago, when a sequence of gang rapes were reported – mainly by groups of male university students who had the “clever” idea “to share” one woman for a night and split the cost for one sex worker among themselves to save money – and in relation to the rapes of many girls under the age of 10 which happen also in the countryside, a convenient explanation if often given: The influence of Western culture eroding traditional values inherent in Khmer culture.

There may be some such influence involved – but I am neither aware of similar series of child rapes, nor of such organized gang rapes of a sex worker or even of a girl friend – “friend”? – committed by young males benefiting from the higher level educational facilities available to them. There must be reasons with deeper roots than foreign influence.

I remember discussions around Valentine’s Day – the celebration of this day is surely initiated from the West, but it takes on features in Cambodia not at all related to its modern or ancient origins. I had written about some of these previously in The Mirror, from which I quote some sections here.

Valentine’s Day Troubles – Sunday, 15.2.2009

The Phnom Penh Post reported on Friday, 13 February 2009, the results of a study by the Cambodian sociologist Tong Soprach, including:

“The study questioned youths on two occasions… and found that 61.2 % of respondents considered Valentine’s Day special, but that most knew little about the origins of the day itself. Most youths recognized the day as foreign, with several respondents renaming the occasion ‘loving day.'”

However, Cambodia is one country where the question of a clash between traditional culture and Valentine’s Day became an issue. India is another, especially since there has recently been violence against women – with claims that it is in order to use violence to protect Indian culture…

“New research on young Cambodian attitudes towards Valentine’s Day and sexual relationships has found that more than half the interviewees questioned were happy to engage in sexual intercourse. In fact, the research shows that many middle-class Cambodians are using Valentine’s Day not to celebrate their love, but as a catalyst for sex.

“Disturbingly, however, 66 % of males planned to have sex with their partners regardless of consent…”

One young woman in India wrote about the attacks of those who claim to protect Indian culture, giving her impression that these men – old and also young – have mostly been living without any experience of relating to women in a situation of mutual respect. The traditional culture had assigned a secondary role to women. Most of the young men… have not had the experience to relate to girls in a daily school situation among equals. Once they meet girls, they either claim a social and cultural power superiority – or they can only think of sexual relations.

And one year later I wrote:

Valentin’s Day 2010 – Sunday, 14.2.2010

The original message is that Valentine was opposing the regulations of the authorities to prevent men and women to commit themselves to each other…

Valentine was a Christian monk who defended his belief even when he was made to appear before the emperor Marcus Aurelius Claudius (who ruled in the years 268 to 270). Later reports say that he did not agree with the government’s rule restricting soldiers to get married. The government thought that their romantic relationships would make them not good members of society as assigned by the government to be soldiers. But Valentine secretly organized their marriages, against this rule, breaking the law, as he considered it a basic right not to remain single. A case of an early human rights advocate.

The tradition says that while he was already in prison, he befriended the daughter of the prison guard, and on the day before his execution he is said to have written to her a note “From your Valentine.”

So Valentine Day is not about sex, but about more serious relations, within the law or against the law. But what is it that leads to so much sexual violence today, and is there anything to rectify what is wrong?

As was stated in the note from India quoted above, traditional culture can also prevent to accept equality, resulting in the attitude of males to “either claim a social and cultural power superiority – or they can only think of sexual relations.” Are there patterns in Cambodian traditions which may also prevent equality among men and women – and lead to similar injustice?

The Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct for Cambodian women, says (while there is no similar Chbab Proh, a code of conduct for males): “Don’t speak in a way as if you consider him as equal… My dear, no matter what your husband did wrong, I tell you: to be patient, don’t say anything without the husband being present.”

With such guidance – even if not specifically accepted, but just knowing that this is part of the cultural tradition of Cambodia – it is also not surprising that males can be violent while women will not speak up.

Policing and strict punishments according to the law are important. But law enforcement is, in the long run, only effective and results in social change, if it is supported by broad social agreement.

There is probably still a long way to go, to find new ways how men and women can cooperate, relate, and share their lives – without the shortcuts of males claiming superiority, and women accepting secondary roles, or even slave-like obedience, or being forced into it, suffering dependency, violence, or even death.

But it requires that many more people learn to speak to each other openly, sharing ideas, experiences, hopes, finding maybe also new ways to live in society, and for themselves, alone, or in communities and fellowships and friendships, and also in love, where violence is definitely no option.

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  1. Sam Roberts says:

    Small correction, a Chbab Proh for boys and men does exist and is also taught in schools.

    • Norbert Klein says:

      Thanks for the correction – nobody of my Khmer colleagues and friends with whom I discussed the Chbab Srey since some years seemed to have been aware of this. Can you please provide an address where I can get the text? 

      • Sam Roberts says:

         I only know of its existence but not the full content, a google search reveals a little:
        “The Men’s Code instructs men to behave moderately, to be knowledgeable
        and resourceful, to work hard, and to protect their property. It warns
        against adultery, drunkenness, and gambling.”

  2. Hi Norbert, below are the links on Wikipedia about these 2 conducts.
    * Boys/Men:ច្បាប់ប្រុស
    * Girls/Women:ច្បាប់ស្រី

    This set of poems were composed by Borndith (his title) Moeng Mai.
    During my school years, both were taught and students had to memorize and sing it well.
    Not sure, if this is still part of the curriculum…

  3. Fred says:

    Sex is connected with sex.
    I don’t believe rape is an act of violence, it is an act of sex, the violence simply being a means to an end, possibly exacerbated by male resentment at the restricted access to such a primal need.
    There is nothing western about gang-rape.  Western culture is more permissive sexually, but that comes with the necessary grown-up attitudes, respect, responsibilities, and rule of law.Rather like possession of a Lexus requires road manners and a cooperative attitude, to wield safely, compared to driving a buffalo cart.  I think it takes several generations for the appropriate attitudes to become engrained.  So too, it will take several generations before Cambodians as a society can responsibly handle western-style permissiveness, “sexy women”, short skirts, makeup, and so on.Gang-rape is a primitive act, and seems to be most common in primitive cultures (where I classify Cambodia), but occurs in every culture.

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