July 11, 2019
We Need to Change the Way We Think about Virginity

In Cambodia – like in many other Asian countries – women who have had premarital sex are considered worthless and often compared to fermented fish.

by Sovanvotey Hok
Issues // Politics and Society
Virginity Perawan 51 Thumbnail, Magdalene
Share:

There’s a desire shared by most men in my country – and in many others, I suspect – and that is to marry a virgin. To them, having a “pure”, innocent woman who is still a virgin in their wedding bed is a way to be perceived by society as proper and high class. A prize.

How do I know this? Well, I dated a guy who thought exactly like this. In the beginning of our relationship, like many couples, we were open about our future hopes, dreams and what we wanted in a marriage. He would often bring-up how he wanted his future wife to be “pure”. When I heard these comments, I would feel disappointed. I would wonder what would have happened had his dad not told him stories about “pure” princesses and encouraged him to find his virgin prize. At the same time, I realized how toxic this mindset was and that I needed to voice it.

Women are not prizes to be won! We need to work on changing social norms in our homes, among men and boys, and across society.

In Khmer culture, there’s an old saying, “having a daughter is like having a big jar of fermented fish.” A staple in Cambodian kitchens, fermented fish is often put in Khmer dishes. It smells really bad. What the saying implies is that the action of a daughter within one family can quickly spread across the entire village like the smell of fermented fish. It’s a smell that you can’t hide; it permeates a place. This phrase is often used when women or girls do things that go against social norms, like having sex outside marriage that can bring shame to the family.

These old ideas and beliefs can be very dangerous.

Across Asia, people continue to adhere to outdated social norms to restrict women’s rights and choices. Some believe that if their daughter does not come home for a night, she has lost her virginity, regardless of the reality of the situation. There have been documented cases where women have been forced to marry their rapists to avoid the shame that comes with having a daughter who is no longer “pure.”

Let me be really clear, my sisters and I are not jars of fermented fish to be shamed or some virgin fantasy to be desired. We are neither a smelly ingredient nor a lucky prize for your home.  

Now, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to not have sex before marriage. That’s a choice that a woman makes and we must all respect that choice. My problem is with men who only respect and seek women who are virgins for their partners. These same men are often fine sleeping around, but when it comes to settling down, the only proper partners for them are those who have never had sex before, not one of the “sluts” they used to date.

The word “virgin” scares women. It holds us to near impossible standards that men do not have to share. We know we will be asked about our virginity, and that we will judged by our partners for our answers. Women often feel like they have to say they are virgins to feel safe, to be wanted, to be counted in society.

We have the right to choose whether or not we want to share our past sexual experiences. We have the right to reject questions that will automatically reveal our virginity status. And, really, it’s just simply none of anyone’s business.

So what needs to be done? It starts with conversations. Society needs to stop projecting the expectation for all unmarried women to be virgins, because that’s when it becomes harmful.

For men, when you’re together and talk about “men stuff” or “men business”, be considerate. Your words have power and can reinforce outdated stereotypes. Think twice before you talk bad about a woman’s sexuality, understand the societal pressure on women, be critical and vocal by calling-out old perceptions about virgin fantasies among your male friends and relatives.

We are all one community, no matter your gender. We must be open to talk about sexuality. I know it is awkward, but if the time is right, grab it and talk about it.

Sovanvotey Hok, sometimes referred to as the “Green Lady,” is a feminist, entrepreneur, and social advocate based in Cambodia. As a passionate champion for social justice, Votey can be found enthusiastically supporting projects and startups to empower women and girls.