Since the #MeToo movement was launched in 2017, testimonies from sexual assault survivors have exploded, shining the spotlight on perpetrators who may have gone unpunished. In Singapore, the response has been a little quieter compared to the West, but we speak to three brave women who want to share their stories in the hopes of changing people's perceptions about sexual assault.
This is Amy's* story.
It has been nearly three years since I was sexually harassed. My boss used what I had believed to be a work meeting as an excuse to set out his sexual fantasies of me in graphic detail, and to proposition me repeatedly.
Pinned into a corner and physically unable to escape, my immediate refusal was treated as the start of a negotiation. It would be two hours before he finally took no for an answer and allowed me, shaken and frantic, to leave. It has been two years since I managed to leave the company and escape the pervasive culture of gaslighting, intimidation and bullying that followed my numerous attempts to report my boss’ behaviour – to management, to human resources, to anyone in authority who would listen. It was nearly a year after I first reported the incident before anyone took me seriously.
After months of trying to make myself heard, numerous meetings with human resources and discussions with senior personnel, I was told that upon eventual confrontation by the senior management of the company, my harasser had broken down and tearfully admitted what he had done, saying that he deeply regretted his unprofessional behaviour.
My relief at this point was tangible; the only thing I had ever asked for was an apology. Finally, a solution was in sight. Maybe, now life could go back to normal.
Just days later, however, he did an about-turn and “changed his mind”. Of course he had never been inappropriate – I had, he alleged, made the entire thing up. His earlier admission was never mentioned again. From that moment on, he was the person whom everyone believed. In the face of clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I was the liar.
Branded a “troublemaker”, I was hauled, alone, unprepared and without notice, into a meeting with other senior management who demanded that I stop speaking about the harassing and bullying behaviours that I was, by then, experiencing on a near-daily basis. I was told that I should be aware that any reports I had made were damaging and stressful for him, a man many years my senior. I was, according to them, bullying him.
This was my first real job; I had no idea what to do, or how to support myself. Traumatised and isolated, I was in a seemingly endless spiral of shame and confusion, fighting desperately for a way out. I knew that what he had done, and what the company was now doing, were both legally and morally wrong. The company had clear policies on harassment and bullying – it was all there in writing.
Why would no one support me? Was I the problem? Was I losing my mind?
After he claimed that I was lying, I lodged a formal complaint and asked for an independent investigation. He was promoted just days later! It was then made known to me that it was in everyone’s best interest that I quit. In short, I was “encouraged” to leave, so I resigned. If only I, or any other survivor, could be the recipient of the unquestioning levels of support he had received.
Stop shaming survivors, support them
I have learnt that harassment is less about sex or desire than it is about power. A need to minimise an individual by attempting to show them, the “victim”, that they are less important, less valuable than the perpetrator. I feel that, for aeons, our society has been conditioned to exactly mirror this image – to support the harasser, to raise him up despite his misfeasance, and to suppress his victims.
Judgment, shame and isolation have been the watchwords of a society reacting to survivors who speak out. Anita Hill’s, and now, Christine Blasey Ford’s experiences are perfect examples of how society – men, women and the institutions that govern our existence – has been collectively conditioned to doubt, to minimise and to silence those coming forward.
Today, we are faced with testimonies from numerous men and women who bravely bare their experiences to the world in pursuit of justice, or in the hope of simply saving one more soul from the clutches of yet another predator. Rarely is there any recognition of the true courage it takes to come forward. Instead, survivors come to expect a slew of questions:
What were we wearing? Had we been drinking? Were we flirting? Did we “ask” for it? Why did we not come forward earlier? Why do we wish to be anonymous? If we are not anonymous, surely we are only reporting this for attention? What on earth are we complaining about?
I often wonder whether the people who ask these questions, or who leave their barbed comments below the line without fear of retribution, ever truly think about what they are asking, and the reasons behind their questions. Perhaps they may not know that they act as unwitting agents of society’s efforts to silence survivors, and are simply responding as they have been conditioned.
Or perhaps they are in full possession of their faculties and simply take pleasure in the pain of others. Some people may call them trolls and write them off . But these individuals are an important barometer of where we are as an ever developing society. Clearly, we are not quite there yet.
For a long time, I told very few people about what had happened. I received such mixed reactions from friends I shared with that I did not know whom I could trust. This was before #metoo – the movement which started in October 2017 against sexual harassment and sexual assault – and before many people in my immediate circle were comfortable with discussing sexual harassment openly.
We are now living in very different times, even compared with three years ago. The #metoo movement has sparked hope in the hearts of survivors of the predatory behaviour that is now slowly being exposed as commonplace in our society – in every society. My own fear of speaking out is diminishing. Seeing so many prominent voices come forward to share their experiences allows us to feel less isolated.
Everyone wanting to help should consider the following vital points, when situating themselves as an ally in the fight against sexual harassment:
-If you see anyone, man or woman, being placed in a position where they appear to be uncomfortable – whether it is on a train, in the street, in a bar – ask them if they are okay.
-Show them that you are in a position to provide support. Fighting sexual harassment need not be with violence. Sometimes, a kind gesture towards the survivor is all that is needed.
-If anyone tells you that they have experienced sexual harassment, believe them; do not judge or blame.
-Remember that sexual violence is never the “fault” of the recipient. It is not something that survivors should be “ashamed” of.
-You are there to support, so listen. Don’t push for information that the survivor is not comfortable giving. Ask what you can do to help, and speak up, but only if you are asked to do so.
-Encourage survivors to seek medical attention if they need it, and to seek assistance in whatever way they see fit – whether it’s to report the harassment to the police, to their supervisor, to speak to someone at the Sexual Assault Care Centre (Aware) or, if they wish to remain anonymous, to Hear to Change at www.heartochange.com.
-Above all, support this person’s chosen course of action, no matter what they ultimately decide to do. Even if, in the end, they decide to do nothing.
Mine should not be a cautionary tale, although perhaps it reads like one at first glance. I feel no shame for having been the recipient of inappropriate behaviour. I am proud of myself for having spoken up, in the face of continued and, at times, almost overwhelming resistance. I look back at myself during that challenging year with gentleness, knowing that hindsight can be a cruel critic, and with the knowledge that, at the time, I did everything I was able to do, to shelter myself against an environment from which I believed, and which I was told, I was unable to escape.
My experience has taught me a lot about myself, and even more about the world in which we live. I have met the most incredible network of women who have dedicated their lives to helping survivors. I have seen loved ones grow in understanding and acceptance. I now have the tools, and the experience, which I intend to share with the world, to support other survivors and, with luck, to change people’s perceptions of what a “victim” of harassment really looks like. I have the utmost respect and admiration for all the men and women who have come forward.
There is strength in numbers, and every voice added to the chorus empowers and invigorates those of us who are engaged in this mission against harassment.
We may yet have a long journey ahead of us, but one day, survivors will be able to stand up, without fear or shame, and report their experience of harassment.
They will be believed, they will be supported, and their harasser will be brought to justice. It will take an army, but, thanks to #metoo, I think we finally have one.
AWARE launched #AimforZeroSG today, a campaign to build a society with no sexual violence. They also released a powerful video where survivors of sexual violence have bravely spoken out about what they’ve had to endure. Aiming for zero means owning the problem, giving real support, prevention and commitment. www.aimforzero.sg
This essay is also in the December issue of Her World.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.