‘Virginity Culture’ Weighs Heavily on Women but in Decline, Study Says

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Men in Cambodia are free to choose premarital sex but women are burdened with gossip and disgrace, respondents to a study on the country’s “virginity culture” said, as advocates urged acceptance as well as sensitivity toward existing beliefs in addressing the gender-based shame.

“Virginity Culture in Cambodia,” released Tuesday by feminist NGO Klahaan, compiled the perceptions of youth, advocates and older respondents in 72 interviews and an online survey of 3,700 responses.

It discusses the stigma associated with premarital sex that falls disproportionately on women in Cambodia, alongside some discomfort around changing traditions amid social media influences.

Notions of purity for women remain strong, with most respondents believing that men prefer virgins as brides and that it is difficult for women to have premarital sex due to stigma. But it is easy for men and society does not consider male virginity important, the study’s respondents largely say.

Respondents perceive that there are psychological, physical and marital consequences — whether it is anxiety and anguish; the belief that “people can know,” physically, if a woman is not a virgin; or attachments that form through sex to someone who is not a spouse.

Bunn Rachana, Klahaan’s director, said one difficulty in the study was that interviewees tended to give answers framed as society’s views rather than their own.

“There are a lot of factors: There is still judgment, especially for women or girls if they start to talk about virginity. Both women and men in the survey didn’t really want to talk about their sexuality. Shyness is one thing. But the lack of education in their family, friends and also in school — it is a rare topic,” Rachana said.

The study found there were different attitudes toward virginity between generations as well as an increasing understanding of the different facets to the issue, but stereotypes continued to influence opinions, she added.

“In general, people still think — especially when it comes to women — that once a woman loses her virginity before marriage, [she] is considered an untrustworthy person and [someone who will] easily turn to cheat on her husband,” she said, adding that the study did not have breakdowns for the demographics of the online survey.

Though some perceived the erosion of double standards as progress, others saw a waning of Khmer culture amid social media influences, the study says, noting the country’s traditional norms around female purity.

“It is therefore the task of gender advocates to navigate how best to sensitively and cautiously approach these issues in order to reduce gender-based shame, stigma and judgement of women who choose to exercise their sexual autonomy, while being mindful of the ways in which norms around virginity are still held as valid and valuable by many in contemporary Khmer society,” the study says.

Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona said she was too busy to comment on the study.

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