In Cambodia, sexually abused boys struggle to be believed.
The little boy didn’t have proof the first time. That he told about the experience in graphic detail wasn’t enough. After all, the accused was like a family member. And the boy, well, was a boy.
In Cambodia there’s a phrase that translates to “boys are pure gold.” It’s tempting to think this first means “valuable” but that definition is secondary. What the phrase truly means is that boys can be burned, beaten and smashed and yet still be gold. They’re tough. They don’t complain. They grow to be men where they enter into another phase and translated phrase: “man with 5 hat chest.” A hat is a measurement term in Cambodia that equals about ½ meter. A “man with 5 hat chest” can be likened to our version of the macho man, the tough guy. While the body undergoes dramatic changes when going from boy to man, the masculine psyche merely congeals.
The accused was a respected traditional healer in the community. This particular family even referred to him as Uncle. He’d been there over the years and the family believed he’d saved their lives on numerous occasions. So they didn’t give it a second thought when the healer said he was awfully sick and that to heal himself he’d need the boy to sleep in bed with him.
The boy didn’t want to go but boys are pure gold. As he was aggressively fondled he escaped and ran home in a frenzied blur to tell his parents what happened.
Many Cambodians, unlike their more progressive Thai neighbors, can’t understand the idea that a Khmer man could be sexually involved with another man. And so a Khmer man sexually abusing a young boy? It’s out of the question. One mother, upon hearing of such an abuse, was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe it. Our men here like women.” Of those Cambodians who believe that men can sexually abuse children, many believe it is a crime only committed (1) by foreign men and (2) by homosexual foreign men. They hold these beliefs despite the evidence that says (1) about 70% of rapes and assaults are committed by someone known to the victim and (2) homosexual men are not more likely to abuse children than heterosexual men are. In fact, many Cambodians refer to such crimes as “the foreigner disease” and they believe that advocacy groups who work to convince them otherwise are against Khmer culture and seeking to bring shame to the country.
According to my sources in Cambodia and corroborated by other international research I’ve done, most sexual abuse of children is not from a foreigner or even a local stranger – it’s from a close friend, family member or community influential. Child sexual abuse at the hands of foreigners often makes it in Cambodia’s local newspapers, but the same crimes committed by locals makes the papers more often. This is telling, especially when taking into account how such crimes often go unreported when the accused is friend or family. So why does the denial still exist?
It’s the case of already having a firm belief and tying that belief to personal identity. Information that reinforces said beliefs seal themselves deeper into memory, while information to the contrary is easy to disregard. It’s the right-wing conservative who hears of underpaid workers striking and immediately thinks lazy bums, or the left-wing liberal who reads Obama’s drone strike kills innocent chil and quickly flips the page.
The boy’s parents didn’t believe him. The healer’s cough became more consistent. He asked the family again and the family agreed again. The boy, raised to be pure gold like so many other boys in the world, knew so deeply what awaited him if he complained that he began to question his own story of what happened.
He was penetrated this time, violently. This time when he ran home in a blur he had something to show. Blood. Lots of it. All through his underwear.
The family was brought to tears and believed the boy this time. The healer was eventually arrested, found guilty and imprisoned.
Stories like this are not uncommon in Cambodia. And I’ve heard similar stories during my time in Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines and the United States.
The traditional healer is behind bars and the boy is all healed up physically. Of course he is. Boys can be burned, beaten and smashed and yet still be gold.
If only psychological trauma could bleed.
First Step Cambodia is, in my opinion, the country’s premier organization for helping male survivors of sexual abuse. Please consider supporting their work.
-Certain details have been altered to protect identity