Does sexual harassment happen on campuses? In 2017, IGNITE, in collaboration with the Feminist Society, launched a survey to uncover some dark secrets from students and campus staff from all across Malaysia… and the results were shocking. This is part four of IGNITE’s Sexual Harassment & The Culture Of Misogyny On Campus series.
A lot of the discussion surrounding sexual harassment tends to revolve around men. Considering the existing societal power structures that we have, and the fact that sexual harassment and assault more often than not is about asserting power and not about lust, it is not surprising to find out that men are usually the perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence. However, it must be noted that men too, suffer from sexual harassment and assault, be it from other men, or women.
Men: The Perpetrators
According to Women’s Aid Organisation’s (WAO) annual report in 2016, 92.3% of survivors of domestic violence surveyed by the WAO were abused by their husbands or partners. Almost 10% of survivors had suffered from sexual abuse. These appalling figures can be difficult to digest, as it reflects the extremely toxic situations that many men have placed women in.
However, it almost seems as if not enough is done, especially by lawmakers, in order to prevent this from escalating into higher figures. One can even argue that the relative inaction by authorities may be a result of the general attitude that seems to stem from our politicians. Malaysia is no stranger to controversy, having made international headlines multiple times whenever a politician makes an outrageously misogynistic statement. It is said that a politician is a representative of the people, thus the misogyny displayed by our politicians should not come as a surprise, considering the rampant societal prejudice that women face in Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia has the dubious honour of being ranked number one in the Hofstede Power Distance Index, which measures the extent to which less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect unequal distribution of power.
This disparity in power distribution can be seen when women are told to put up with transgressions by men, with the oft-mentioned adage “boys will be boys” being the go-to excuse. Women are also forced to remain silent about their harassment out of fear of there being repercussions, should they speak out about their experience. This amalgamation of misogyny, victim-blaming and toxic masculinity has culminated in an environment that stifles the voices of women, and pardons the actions of men.
This attitude is mirrored by the results of our survey, where it was found that almost a quarter of respondents believed that a women’s attitude or clothing can be a reason for her to be sexually harassed or assaulted.
What’s worrying to note is that how 10% of female respondents were of the opinion that a woman was to be blamed for being sexually harassed. This internalised misogyny, which is stereotypically found in Asian households, seems to have found its way into Malaysian campuses as well.
It was also found that 3 out of 4 respondents believed that sexual harassment and assault happens in Malaysian campuses. This general perception may hint at the possibility of there being a large number of cases that go unreported. The lack of clear stipulations in section 509 of the penal code also makes it difficult for women to report incidents of sexual harassment or assault. However, multiple organisations have actively campaigned for the implementation of a standalone Sexual Harassment Act.
Men: The Survivors
While women more often than not are the ones affected by toxic masculinity, it also affects men severely. The idea that men cannot be sexually harassed or assaulted is a dangerous one, as it invalidates the high number of male survivors of sexual harassment. This was also seen in our survey, were it was found that 50% of male respondents thought it was impossible for men to be sexually harassed or assaulted.
We found that almost 20% of men had experienced sexual harassment off campus. The idea that men cannot be sexually harassed or assaulted can even affect male survivors, with one of our writers downplaying a particular incident until a conversation with a friend made him realised the nature of the incident.
I was taking the public transport to my workplace at Suria KLCC. Moments later, a middle-aged man boarded the train and was seated right in front of me. Throughout the journey, when I was looking at my phone, I could see from the corner of my eyes that the man was staring at me in an uncanny manner. When he disembarked, he stood up and grabbed me by my bare arms and lifted himself up, giving me a smirk before he left.
I was left startled. I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. At that moment, I felt that maybe I was overreacting to such a minor situation. I kept it to myself until one day, my friend was telling me about her opinion on sexual harassment. I gave it a deep thought and realised that what happened to me was a sexual harassment (albeit a minor one) because I did not want it to happen to me, I did not want the man to grab me by my arm and smirk at me.
From then on, I understood that sexual harassment could happen to anyone, at anytime. Be it men or women; in broad daylight or late at night, you could be a victim of sexual harassment.
This account, while being an example of how sexual harassment can be passed off as being something minor by the survivors themselves, also highlights another important point: the grey areas around sexual harassment. With regards to the Aziz Ansari incident earlier this year, the lack of boundaries regarding sexual harassment makes it difficult for survivors to pin down an incident as being an example of sexual harassment.
The toxic masculinity that permeates our society also prevents men from speaking out about sexual harassment, for fear of being perceived as being “not manly enough”. The fact that male erections are involuntary also leads to accounts of sexual harassment being dismissed, with unsympathetic listeners saying harmful statements such as “You had an erection, you must have enjoyed it!” This reluctance in speaking out is also exacerbated by the Malaysian legal system, which does not protect male survivors.
What can we do, as Men?
Most, if not all men, have engaged in some form of misogynistic or problematic behaviour at some point. While this may be difficult to accept, it does not make all of us inherently bad people. Rather, it is a product of the society that we live in. Acknowledging these problems, jarring as they may be, and making an attempt to unlearn them, will be a step in the right direction. The perpetuation of misogyny and rape culture can also be reduced to an extent by calling out problematic behaviour when one notices it. Rape jokes are not funny; they are hurtful and humiliating.
It is also important for men to pay attention to discussions surrounding sexual harassment and assault. Not only are we the perpetrators, but some of us are survivors, too. Victim-blaming should never be an option; it only serves to harm the survivor. Conventional stereotypes about both men and women need to be challenged, in order to tackle the bane that is toxic masculinity.
We can do better. We must.
By Saran Anandan & Kelvin Wong