Valentine’s Day has gained popularity across Cambodia in recent years, but has taken on a sinister twist. Editor Marissa Carruthers looks at how the day has become synonymous with rape, the dating game’s cultural shift and the use of apps to connect with potential partners. Photography by Enric Català.

Clusters of heart-shaped helium balloons float above the mounting crowds as a stream of motorbikes pull over to purchase a last-minute gift for their lovers from the string of sellers gathered near Wat Langka. Koh Pich and the capital’s riverside are cluttered with strolling couples holding hands, stopping to gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes before, possibly, planting a coy peck on the cheek.

This is a typical sight across Phnom Penh, and increasingly the rest of the country, as Valentine’s Day continues to catch on across the Kingdom, especially among the younger generations.

“The idea of love and the joy it brings is deeply ingrained in the psyche of young Cambodians,” says Deependra Gauchan, co-director and co-producer of Cambodian rom-com Love to the Power of 4, which was released in cinemas countrywide last month and follows youngsters search for romance. “Finding love has become a quest that most young Cambodians embark on, and those with successful pairings enjoy admiration and prestige among their peers.”

While Valentine’s Day, which is popular across the West, was relatively unheard of – and rarely celebrated – in the Kingdom little more than a decade ago, in the last five years it has caught on, especially with the younger generation who have embraced it with aplomb.

“Today, Valentine’s Day is huge in Cambodia; everybody takes it really seriously,” says native Phnom Penher, Maggie Run. “It’s become like Christmas now with signs and hearts everywhere. When it hits town, there are promotions, like buy one get one for your partner, and restaurant and guesthouse offers.”

Valentine’s Dark Side

“Valentine’s Day is a foreign event but now it has a mass audience within our country as well. I see it as a day of love; not just for couples but for families and friends,” says Virak Vinick, adding she always buys something special for her parents on this “day of love”.

Unlike the Western way of marking the day, where love is directed towards a significant other, Virak’s family sentiment is echoed by her peers.

“Valentine’s Day doesn’t make sense to our culture,” adds Run. “It’s a day to express love to your loved ones, yet we go to our partners and leave our parents at home. Sharing love should include the family, not leaving them alone.”

Despite these objections, February 14 sees the capital and beyond overrun with all things relating to romance. From stalls selling roses by the dozen to balloon sellers, supermarkets full of chocolate hearts and deals galore on meals and overnight stays advertised in full force.

However, as February 14’s popularity grew, so did misunderstanding surrounding it, with the day dedicated to love taking a sinister turn among some of the country’s youth.

“Valentine’s Day is also known as the day when young girls lose their virginity in the largest numbers,” says Gauchan. “Young people in Cambodia wait for this day to consummate their relationships as a celebration of their love. However, this often comes at the expense of the women who give into their men just to prove their love. So Valentine’s Day, although a day of celebration, has a dark pallor around it due to the pressure on women having to relent to their partner’s sexual insistence perhaps when they themselves are not ready or comfortable.”

In 2014, the majority of guesthouses in Phnom Penh – with many offering Valentine’s Day discounts and special offers – were booked out, with many underage couples checking in. Independent public health researcher Tong Soprach released the results of his study on sexual relations in Cambodia on Valentine’s Day, with shocking results, sparking an immediate reaction from the government.

Having first carried out his study in 2009, in 2014 Tong followed up, asking a sample of wealthier youngsters aged 15 to 24 what plans they had for sexual activity on Valentine’s Day. He discovered 11.3 percent of those quizzed in 2014 thought they would be able to have sex on Feb. 14, with 15.8 percent of those in a couple planning to have sex for the first time. Of those, 30.2 percent said they would not use protection.

Of the young men surveyed, 47.4 percent admitted they planned on having sex with their partners regardless of whether they agreed. In 2009, this stood at 66.6 percent.

“Young men said they would put pressure on their girlfriends,” says Tong. “They would tell her that if they don’t have sex it means we don’t really love each other, or take her far away from town to try and have sex.”

Excessive spending and splurging has become another issue, adds Tong, with men splashing the cash in anticipation of sex. “They will buy an expensive bracelet or some jewellery, and expect something in exchange.”

“There is a lot of misunderstanding what the day is all about,” says health researcher Tong Soprach. “The marketing is all about love and this can lead to some young men taking advantage of the celebrations.”

After Tong released his findings, the government took urgent measures with ministries issuing warnings through schools as well as sending blasts across mobile networks reminding youngsters the day is not synonymous with sex and to resist pressure from partners. Special offers in guesthouses were banned, and couples checking in had to provide proof of age.

Poems have also been penned in Khmer reminding girls not to be persuaded into exchanging love for a few roses, says Sok Arunwattey, 23. “For many elders, it is considered a day when bad teenagers give their girlfriend roses or gifts as a way of asking or persuading her for sex in return to express their love towards each other.”

Tong, who will carry out his research again in 2019, says his 2014 study revealed a slight decrease in the number of men admitting to non-consensual sex, but added much greater efforts need to be put into educating youngsters on the meaning of Valentine’s Day, as well as sex education in schools and from their parents.

“It is worrying that there is a lot of sex without condoms,” he says. “This can lead to sexually transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies. This affects lives and is a big mistake in society. There is a lot of regret in women the next day as well. The local authorities need to play more of an active role, and parents need to be aware of this as well.”

Modern Dating

“Dating is very different today than when I was young,” says mother-of-three Tan Sros, who lives in the capital, but grew up in Takeo province. “There was not really any dating.”

At the age of 16, she was offered a proposal from the family of her husband-to-be, which was accepted by her family. “He was 24 and saw me, fell in love and wanted to marry me straight away. His parents approached mine and that is what happened.”

While arranged marriages are still common across Cambodia, more so in the provinces, times are changing. Young couples are regularly seen in the streets showing public displays of affection, however, unlike previous generations when couples openly flouting their courtship were expected to marry, this is no longer the case.

“There seems to be much more social acceptance for love relationships, which are boldly modelled after the Western brand of dating,” says Gauchan.

“Young couples are seen everywhere, making intimate physical contact short of crossing the boundaries of decency in public. In comparison, older generations held dating to be an initiation of a relationship that culminated in marriage, whereas dating among young Cambodians is more of a social interaction that’s meant for couples to discover and test each other out, often without the compulsion of the relationship ending in marriage.”

Social media has also played a pivotal role in the shift in dating, with various websites and apps presenting new opportunities for Cambodians to meet up with others, both local and foreign.

Hook-up app Tinder is proving increasingly popular with the younger generation, especially men looking for one-night stands. “Me and some of my friends signed up to Tinder because it is a good way to meet foreigners,” says Heng*. “Often you can do more with them than Cambodian women.”

Social Media

While bisexual Run tends to steer clear of Tinder – “the men are just looking for sex and I’m not so we’re not in the same place,” she says – she did strike lucky. Three months ago, she met her current Cambodian girlfriend on the dating app, and things seem to be going strong.

“It’s definitely becoming more popular,” the 23-year-old says. “Lots of people are on their looking for partners, but a lot of the time it shows a lot of desperation.” She adds Facebook is a popular tool for young Cambodians to “hunt” for partners, trawling through friends’ pages to find a possible suitor before getting in touch via Messenger in the hope it will lead to something more.

Cambodian app Matchstix launched in 2015, offering a tamer way to meet than Tinder. Boasting 89,050 users, it works more like WhatsApp, enabling users to chat with those they are interested in before deciding whether to meet in person.

“You tend to meet a different type of person on there,” says Heng. “I would use this if I’m looking for love. I use Tinder for other things.”

Social media and the internet has also filled the sexual education gap, with many youngsters turning to it for advice on sexual health, relationships and love.

“Social media is a very powerful tool,” says Virak. “Many young people go there because it’s open and they can find information they can’t from school or their parents, and that’s important. Some parents and schools will tell them about how to protect themselves but that’s not enough.”

She adds that at high school she was taught sex education that was limited to the study of the human body. “It didn’t stress sexual topics; it was limited to the human body, and this doesn’t help the problem.”

Parental Pressure

As Cambodia develops and continues to welcome different cultures, attitudes and morals are changing – something many parents struggle with.

“It’s not like it used to be,” says Tan, who believes the infiltration of Western culture is partially to blame. “Although I think I am more relaxed than many other parents, I worry about my two daughters. I want to see them with a good man who will look after them, but I have to let them decide.”

The days of arranged marriages are dwindling, especially in urban areas, with youngsters taking it upon themselves to choose their partner, date, ditch, then date again, if they choose.

“Most parents hope to be the ones who decide but it’s about 50-50 nowadays,” says Run, who is apprehensive about telling her parents she is dating a female. “Sex before marriage is also common these days, although many parents would try and force their child to get married to that person if they found out.”

This changing trend comes coupled with a rise in Western-influenced engagements, with an increasing number of Cambodians getting down on one knee to propose with a ring in a romantic setting in the hope their loved one will say I do.

This is often followed by the man bringing gifts to his wife-to-be’s parents.

“Often there will be a year or two of engagement,” says Virak. “The idea is for the parents and relatives to get to know each other.” She adds that elders will still gossip if a couple are dating openly with no signs of commitment whereas if they are engaged, rumours aren’t fuelled.

As Cambodia witnesses change with regard to dating and relationships, and the message about safe and unpressured sex gain momentum, hopes remain high that this Valentine’s Day will pass by with much fewer succumbing to sexual pressures from partners.

“Valentine’s Day is not a bad thing,” says Run. “I hope more young Cambodians realise it doesn’t mean they have to have sex, and if they decide to, they do it safely.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity.