Weinstien: Disappointed but not surprisedOver the past few weeks, every major news outlet has spoken about the Harvey Weinstein scandal. More recently, women have taken to social media to air their views about sexual harassment in general, starting with the #metoo campaign to raise awareness on how prevalent sexual harassment actually is.
When I read about the scandal, I was disappointed— but not surprised. Big Hollywood executive abusing his authority and traumatising young women in the process? What’s new? In my opinion, most women have reached the same stage of resignation that I possess – the understanding that society hasn’t grasped how prevalent sexual harassment is everywhere (yes, Singapore too) and that quite a few men amongst our peers are guilty of spreading it. What do we do in response? Engage in whisper networks spoken of in various news articles detailing how women protect other women – by discussing how annoying and intolerable such behaviour is; yet, concluding that there’s actually nothing we can do about it. Instead, we just band together and try to help each other from falling prey to vulnerable situations.
Why is sexual harassment so prevalent? Even before we discuss that, let’s talk about what constitutes sexual harassment to begin with. Where should our boundaries lie? Is it when a boy eyes my body from head to toe, oblivious to the fact that I’m glaring at him? Is it when some guy decides to stare at me during the duration of an entire MRT ride, whilst trying to close the distance between us? Does it count when my friend’s superior made sex jokes during work, even though it didn’t concern my friend at all, and was just a general joke?
The first one, I’m pretty sure counts. The second, somewhat, since I don’t know if he’s just doing that to me, or to any target in general. The last? Pretty work inappropriate, but I’m not sure either since it wasn’t directed at her specifically.
The thing is, I think women are sometimes afraid of speaking of sexual harassment because (i) we don’t always know where the boundaries end; and (ii) if we do, our audience may not necessarily be receptive to what we’re saying. These concerns were just recently discussed by the person who coined the term herself, Lin Farley.
I know for sure that someone touching me inappropriately is definitely harassment, and so is making lewd remarks and come-ons (in any situation). And I recognise that sexual harassment doesn’t have to come from someone of a higher authority than you. It can happen from acquaintances, strangers and even friends. But when I try calling out the boys I know who make lewd jokes in general, or who find rape funny, all I get told in response is that I’m oversensitive, that I don’t know how to take a joke, or that “boys will be boys”
Photo: Getty Images
So, what I’m saying is— I think that these jokes, these comments about my body and the way boys eye me up and down may seem harmless in the short-term. But in the long term? It suggests to me that men are able to cast doubt in women’s minds in general about being harassed or about “asking for it” because we accept and we allow them to start small. By talking dismissively and crudely about our bodies, or by telling us we’re being sensitive when actually, they’re objectively being inappropriate about what they say. While I’m not accusing these men (the ones who joke or eye us) of being sexual predators, I am saying that enabling such behaviour isn’t necessarily good either. But hey – I’ve been taught that these are just teething problems in befriending and growing close to other people. After all, I can always just choose to avoid such people, right?
Another complicated thing about sexual harassment is how it usually goes hand-in-hand with a comment about the victim’s appearance. Was she gorgeous? (then you know, it’s natural for men to want to stare at her and want her) Was she wearing something revealing, or tight-fitting? (well then, she probably asked for it by tempting men with her body). On the one hand, I can understand the importance of dressing appropriately for situations and recognising that we don’t live in a perfect world – women are expected to “take care” of ourselves by restricting what we can wear just because “some” men can’t control themselves (and it’s obviously the women’s problem, right?) On the other hand, I find it entirely ridiculous that women are continually being blamed for what they choose to wear or how we look as opposed to us teaching men not to rape, or not to molest or grope, and just be a decent, respectful human being. Research has shown that one’s appearance or clothing choice does not necessarily play a role in sexual attacks (Georgetown Law's 'Myths & Facts about Sexual Violence'; ConsentEd's 'Provocative clothing is a risk factor'; The Washington Post's 'Why dress codes can’t stop sexual assault'), rendering this point moot to begin with. Moreover, if one girl dresses more “modestly” over another, that just seems to suggest that a comparatively “immodest” girl will be the victim – instead of preventing anyone from being victims to begin with. So can we please stop victim blaming and instead focus on the more important thing – that we all need to work towards saying “don’t sexually harass others” as opposed to “don’t be a victim”?
On a side note, I’d like to point out that Mayim Balik’s commentary on the issue was, in my opinion, pretty misguided. I think that she has focused too much on how society in general has given too much weight on appearance (which is both ironic, but also sadly true and something for another think-piece another time) and therefore ended up criticising other “more attractive” (her words, not mine) women for being harassed. She missed the main point – nobody asks to be harassed, it just happens to them. This is regardless of gender, and regardless of looks. While I do feel annoyed that Ms Balik has been attacked for and judged based on her appearance, it is important that we recognise that sexual harassment should be wrong regardless of looks, and not focus on the superficial.
One thing that I am grateful for, though, is that this scandal has brought greater attention to such problematic behaviour and that more people are gaining the courage to lobby for change. Still, while I do await the day we come to terms with the complexities of sexual harassment and learn how to best tackle them, I remain skeptical about whether it can happen at all.