Nightclub – Phnom Penh.
Cambodia is a very conservative nation when it comes to teen-sex; and that is quite amazing when you consider the sheer youth of the nation. In the West a series of sexual revolutions took place when the post-war generation hit their teenage years around a time we conveniently refer to as Woodstock. Teen-sex, or extra-marital sex became normalised, and one usually explains that in terms of demographics, the boom in numbers of teenagers, the media and increasing media freedom – as well as a drift away from formal religion. Economic and transport freedom – teenage ownership of cars – further loosened the strict standards that may have been laid down by a previous generation.
In Cambodia the underlying recipe is the same, but on steroids. An exploding population of teenagers, a conspicuous rise in transport freedom and nightclub venues aimed at young singles, the rise of western-styled media – all must be straining the Buddhist standards that remained intact despite the experiment conducted by Pol Pot to shut down the influence of family and of religion.
I first considered this dynamic when I visited, strangely enough, a crematorium in Bakong, back in 2007. The pillars of the main structure were painted by monks who had depicted in their mural the cycle of life: on one pillar, infancy. On the next, childhood and the school years. And so on, until the last pillar which depicted old age. It was a piquant elegy about life and death, as poetic as any scripture.
But what caught my eye was a piece of graffiti, written in English on the pillar depicting a young man and woman in love. “I miss you,” it said. “I miss you so much.”
Who had written this? Surely this was the message from a young person: who else would write in English, a private language in the traditional Bakong village neighbourhood? A boyfriend, perhaps, had died. Or a girlfriend. The ache of that graffiti message was palpable. A last farewell at a crematorium. A plea through the gates to eternity.
Is teenage love common I wondered. Are there millions of Romeo & Juliet stories being played out in towns and villages throughout Cambodia? Does society frown on teenage love?
Recently I saw some figures from the official, Government sanctioned Demographic & Health Survey which is an amazingly comprehensive public health document. In it are the figures for median age for first intercourse – for females and for males.
The median is the age by which 50% have had sex, and for women age 25-29 their median age of first intercourse was 21.4 years. It is almost 21 in the rural areas, and closer to 24 in the big cities.
This age is more or less steady compared to the median age reported by women 30-34 (20.9) or 35-39 (20.3) or 40-44 (19.9) or 45-49 (20.6 years.) It varies slightly with regard to educational attainment or wealth level. Those with a low education for example, report having has first sex around 2.6 years earlier.
For men the figues are more or less the same though generally 6 months later than females. Age 22 is the median age for first sex.
Another measure: at age 19, some 83% of females have never had intercourse and at that age 93% of males have not had sex.
In the USA, by contrast; and here I lift directly from Wikipedia:
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the year 2007, 35% of US high school students were currently sexually active and 47.8% of US high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. This percentage has decreased slightly since 1991.
My country, New Zealand has an unenviable record for teen pregnancy which is regularly cited has the highest incidence in the world. The NZ online Encyclopaedia Te Ara reports figures from 2001 and seems quite pleased that ‘less than 20% of 13-year-olds’ have had sex. That’s a figure that would make Cambodians shake their heads in dismay.
Since the late 1960s most New Zealanders have had their first sexual experience during their teens and outside marriage.
Perceptions that teenagers are having sex earlier and earlier, and that more of them are doing so, are unfounded. In 2001 less than 20% of 13-year-olds reported that they had had sex. The likelihood of sex rose with age, and about 50% of those aged 17 and over reported having sex.
Compared to Western figures, young Cambodians are relatively chaste. However there is concern that this picture is volatile, and with more blatant sexualised media, and more teen freedom (money and motorbikes) not to mention the changing social architecture thanks to mobile phones and social media: these are the seeds of a big change ahead.
These issues are of concern to directors of NGOs that educate and care for students. My friend Savong has recently published an updated ‘rules of behaviour’ for students under the care of his organization. Savong makes it quite clear that students need to refrain from forming girlfriend/boyfriend relationships that derail the students’ progress through to higher education.
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