In the Harvey Weinstein scandal, as many as 75 people, including Hollywood actresses such as Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, have reported facing sexually harassment by the acclaimed movie producer Harvey Weinstein. But this is also happening back home. For instance, a 13-year-old girl was molested on the bus and stalked to school for 6 months by a stranger who repeatedly touched her inappropriately. Her story is just one of many in Singapore – a survey showed that more than 1 in 3 young people reported experiencing sexual violence.
Evidently, sexual harassment is a pertinent issue that remains highly under-reported in Singapore. Many victims do not speak out despite the need to, and perpetrators repeat their crimes. Sexual harassment then goes on, just like how it did to the 75 (or more) victims of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. What does it mean to be sexually harassed? Sexual harassment involves threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviors or communications of a sexual nature. Furthermore, if consent was not given willingly, actions of a sexual nature against someone may be considered as sexual harassment. Just because a person did not say “no” does not mean that they give consent. In many instances, cases are unreported because people subjected to inappropriate behavior were unaware that it was considered as sexual harassment. Perhaps explicit acts of sexual harassment have not happened to you, but you may have unknowingly been made a victim. Sexual harassment is manifested in various forms, but the underlying basis is that such behaviors may be actionable if it is meant to or have the potential to cause you harassment, alarm or distress. These are signs that your boundaries have been crossed. It can happen anywhere and anytime, be it on public transport, in workplaces, or even online. In fact, cyber sexual harassment has been on the rise especially with the pervasiveness of the Internet in our society today – 1 in 5 sexual assault cases in 2016 involved use of technology. Such cases may include receiving unwanted sexually harassing messages or comments on social media, or even having illegally obtained pictures and information uploaded onto the Internet without knowledge or consent of the individual.
Incidents are also common in workplaces, where employers typically abuse their power and authority to intimidate victims into silence. For example, a Singaporean lawyer who experienced repeated sexual harassment from her boss was given a year’s salary and asked to leave the company when she complained about the incident. Like her, many victims fear the repercussions of reporting such cases, afraid of losing their jobs or jeopardizing career prospects. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender. As in the case of female NYU professor Avital Ronell sexually harassing male graduate student Nimrod Reitman, victims aren’t always female. We must not forget that the sexual harassment of men is very real yet overlooked. In Singapore, police data reported that 7% of molestation victims in 2016 were male victims. Although they have every right to the traumatic feelings they may experience, men often internalize their experiences and suppress their emotions to maintain their image of masculinity. As such, male victims typically find it more difficult to sound out “because of societal perceptions which make men feel more “shame””, leading to negative psychological and emotional consequences. Suffering in silence Perhaps we need to take a step back and first recognize why victims may not speak out. Victims often see sexual harassment as a humiliating experience. Shame is a natural and valid reaction, usually causing people to feel as if they have done something wrong. They may even take the blame for not defending themselves, hence making them feel worthless and humiliated. Thus, many feel helpless in such situations and do not voice out when they should. Victim blaming is when the responsibility of the crime is wrongfully attributed to the victim. “She must have provoked him into being abusive”, “You were just asking for it wearing that”, these are some examples of victim blaming. Such attitudes reinforce the inaccurate idea that victims are to blame for their own demise when they are not; it is the conscious choice of the perpetrator. Victim blaming further diminishes victims’ resolve to stand up for themselves, while abusers escape being held accountable for their wrongdoings.
Speak up, Speak Out
Victims or not, we must first be aware of what constitutes sexual harassment. If you ever find yourself in such a situation, remember that it is more than alright to speak out if you feel that something is wrong. As a victim said, “I just know that I am not the only one and won’t be the last.” Many individuals have gotten away with various forms of sexual harassment, leaving behind victims vulnerable and scarred. As it was in the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it took 75 victims for it to finally surface. Let’s not allow this carry on.