Reconsidering the Unwanted Sexual Touching of Boys by Adults: An Ethnographic Study in Rural Cambodia

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The unwanted sexual touching of boys by adults is a form of child sexual abuse. However, the genital touching of boys may be culturally “normal,” with not all instances necessarily being “unwanted” or “sexual.” This study, set in Cambodia, explored the genital touching of boys and the local cultural constructions of it. It entailed ethnography, participant observation, and case studies involving 60 parents, family members, caregivers, and neighbors (18 men, 42 women) in 7 rural provinces and Phnom Penh. Informants’ views, along with their use of language, proverbs, sayings, and folklore were recorded. The combination of the emotional driver for touching a boy’s genitals and the physical action of doing so is /krɨɨt/ (គ្រឺត or ក្រឺត). The motivation is usually overwhelming affection, and to socialize the boy to cover his nakedness in public. The spectrum of action ranges from light touching to grabbing and pulling. Benign and non-sexual intention is signaled by adding the Khmer predicative /tʰoammeaʔtaa/, or “normal,” as an adverb to the attributive verb /leiŋ/, or play. The genital touching of boys by parents and caregivers is not necessarily sexual in nature, though it is possible that abuse can be committed despite the absence of such intention. Cultural insights are not a “defense” or basis for exculpation, with each case evaluated simultaneously through cultural and rights-based lenses. There are anthropological implications in gender studies, and it is essential to have an understanding of the concept of /krɨɨt/ to ensure that interventions to protect the rights of children are culturally responsive.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8235-8262
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Interpersonal Violence
Issue number13-14
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • child sexual abuse
  • cross-cultural attachment
  • cultural defense
  • genital touching
  • unwanted sexual touching

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