Why It’s So Hard To Speak Up About Sexual Harassment

The women of Hollywood have banded together to form the Time’s Up – an initiative to fight against sexual misconduct in the industry. Members include Kerry Washington, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon, and already, they’ve raised $15 million in legal defense funds. In support of the movement, attendees at the Golden Globes are walking down the red carpet tonight in black and wearing Time’s Up pins. 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we were all astounded by the number of women who came forward with their stories of sexual harassment. But getting the conversation started is just the first step: We now need to understand what constitutes sexual harassment, how we can take action against perpetrators, and what we can do for the women who speak up.

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Singaporean Lawyer Asked To Leave After Complaining About Sexual Harassment 

I was at the base camp of a mountain range, and the temperature had dropped below 10°C. I had brought along a sleeping bag I last used at my polytechnic orientation camp. It goes without saying that the flimsy material was useless against the biting cold.

In comparison, my travel partner – whom I had met on a travel forum online – had brought along a down feather sleeping bag. “You’re going to die in that stupid sleeping bag of yours,” he chuckled. “Just share with me, lah.” We had shared his sleeping bag earlier on the trip, so I thought nothing of it.

Later that night, I was jolted awake by a hand over my vagina. I lay there in the dark, frozen, thinking it might have been an accident. After all, the sleeping bag was meant for one person. But then I felt two fingers pressing down over my thermals, circling my clitorial region and wandering all over. There was no way he wasn’t aware of what his hands were doing.

It has been almost a year since it happened. I’ve replayed that incident in my mind a million times, going over every little detail, thinking of the different ways I could have dealt with it better. I could have told him off. I could have told him that what he did counts as sexual harassment, or maybe even sexual assault.

But instead, I just told him to stop (which he did, and then kicked me out of his sleeping bag soon after) and left it at that.

I spent three more days with him, till we reached the end of the trail. We parted ways as soon as I could. I did not confront him about the base camp incident, although my mood was visibly affected for the rest of the hike. He eventually asked why I was “giving off such bad vibes” towards the end of the trip, but I still found myself tongue-tied.

Why is it so hard to speak up?

Till today, I don’t know why I reacted so… meekly. I’m a writer for a women’s magazine. I’ve been told that I don’t take sh*t from people. And I strongly believe that sexual misconduct should be called out. So why was I so conflicted?

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“The perpetrator may behave in such a self-assured manner – as if it’s his right to behave in that manner – that many women doubt their perception and experience of the event,” explains Lilian Ing, clinical psychologist at Fernhill Consultancy.

In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, I realised I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Gwyneth Paltrow said she was harassed by Harvey, and she confided in then-boyfriend Brad Pitt but never pressed charges or even confronted him; and her story has only surfaced two decades later. Cara Delevingne, who also says she was harassed by Harvey, said in an Instagram post that she was hesitant about speaking out because she didn’t want to hurt his family. She added that she also felt guilty after, even though she wasn’t at fault.

“It’s normal to feel confused or unsure,” says Anisha Joseph, manager of the Sexual Assault Care Centre. She added that this confusion can be worsened due to victim-blaming attitudes.

Take, for example, the 28-year-old Singaporean lawyer who told The Straits Times that she was asked to leave after she filed a complaint against her boss. A senior female colleague told her to keep quiet, while a male founding partner of the firm said to her that “such things happen when you’re a pretty girl.” The HR department even told her not to make a fuss.

This is infuriating on so many levels, but the sad thing is, you can understand her dilemma. For one, Lilian pointed out that many women are unable to speak out for fear of repercussions, especially if there is a power imbalance in terms of physical size or authority.

Also, you cannot ignore that sexual harassment is a traumatising ordeal. A client of Lilian’s only spoke up about her own experience 18 months after it had happened, and she only did so because she finally felt she wasn’t alone or “crazy” after reading about other women’s accounts of sexual harassment following the Harvey Weinstein exposé .

“Shock and trauma may impact speaking up. At such times, with such an emotional reaction to an event, we may need time for our brains to catch up and make sense of the experience, and by then, the moment has passed for a confrontation,” says Lilian.

What exactly is sexual harassment?

The first thing you should know is sexual harassment can take non-physical forms. For instance, if someone you’re working with asks you about your sexual history, or makes lewd and intrusive comments about you, that can count as sexual harassment as well.

“It doesn’t have to be physical to cause alarm, distress, or harassment,” Anisha emphasises.

Since sexual harassment can take on so many forms, it can be hard to know when we’ve been a victim of it.
Lilian suggests asking yourself these questions to help you find out:

  • Am I comfortable with what is happening?
  • Do I feel threatened?
  • Do I feel insulted?
  • Do I feel respected when I say ‘no’?

Your answers should be pretty telling about whether it’s sexual harassment or not.

What should you do about it?

If you’ve faced sexual harassment at work, you should report it to your direct supervisor or HR, says a lawyer that CLEO spoke to. This way, steps can be taken to ensure it stops. However, you should note that laws in Singapore do not specifically criminalise sexual harassment.

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“Only some forms of sexual harassment will amount to a criminal offence,” says Ms Simran Toor, a partner at WongPartnership. “These include acts which amount to ‘insulting the modesty of a woman’, ‘outrage of modesty’ or ‘criminal intimidation’ under the Penal Code.”

You’ll also need to consider the timeframe of an investigation and things like giving statements, attending court, and facing cross-examination as a witness. If you have proof, such as messages or e-mails, you should also keep them until the case is over.

“Many cases of this nature involve ‘my word against yours’ scenarios. What may prove helpful in such cases is… evidence that [supports] your account of events,” says Simran, adding that while a criminal report may result in a conviction, it’s not a means to obtain other forms of redress, such as assurance that the harassment will not continue.

You may also consider getting a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), though it might be best to seek legal advice first. “As a POHA application involves a court proceeding, it’s also important to think through whether you’re ready for the time commitment, cost, and exposure,” says Simran.

Time to speak up

The Singaporean lawyer who was asked to leave her firm told The Straits Times that when she spoke up about her experience, she was called a liar. This isn’t surprising: “Perpetrators are often painted as strange, violent men, and experiences that don’t fit this myth are assumed to be untrue, misunderstood, or accidental,” explains Anisha.

Given society’s tendency to mistrust victims of sexual harassment, it’s easy to see why so many stay silent. This is precisely why it’s important that we’re having this conversation.

From what we’ve seen in Hollywood, when victims of sexual crimes call out the perpetrators, they raise society’s awareness of the problem and create an environment that encourages others to come forward. But know this – it can be difficult, so you shouldn’t blame yourself if you’re unable to do so. Sometimes, it may not be physically or psychologically safe to speak out.

In Gwyneth Paltrow’s case, she was afraid of being fired. In the Singaporean lawyer’s case, she was afraid her career prospects might be jeopardised. In my case, I was travelling in a remote destination with a man who could easily overpower me.

The way forward

If you file a police report, the perpetrator will be investigated and may be charged in court. That, of course, doesn’t always happen. But with high-profile perpetrators having gotten away with so much for so long, it’s heartening to see companies severing ties with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, and Terry Richardson in the wake of these accusations.

Such tangible actions against sexual misconduct sends out a strong message that it is not tolerated in our society.

And that, is how change begins.

If you have experienced sexual assault or are unsure about a sexual encounter, you can get help by calling the Sexual Assault Care Centre at 6779 0282 (Monday to Friday, 10am to midnight).

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