It’s always struck me as odd that the issue of sexual harassment is perceived as taboo in our culture.
In a nation that places such importance on the modesty of women, why is the protection of women from unwanted sexual attention considered taboo?
Why is it that intimate relations between two consenting adults outside marriage are policed, but regulation against sexual abuse in the workplace and public still a question mark?
Here’s the thing about taboos: it involves hushed tones, shushing, shaming and rebuking anyone so quickly for deigning to speak about it, that space is never even given to question why it’s a taboo in the first place — and that is a problem.
The danger of taboos and shame culture
In 2002, the world reacted in horror when The Boston Globe revealed that at least 70 priests were involved in child sex abuse cases and that the Archdiocese had been covering it up for years.
Why, we wondered, had these religious leaders — whom the community relied upon to be morally upstanding — chosen to cover and protect paedophiles instead of the children they were harming? And while this is in no way empathetic of the Catholic Church’s handling of the situation, it’s necessary to examine and consider whether we too have at one point or another heard whispers of sexual impropriety and turned a blind eye.
Comments such as:
“It’s none of my business.”
“I don’t know if it’s true and I wouldn’t know how to deal with it if it is true.”
“The situation will get too messy and complicated if I probe further so I shouldn’t probe.”
“If this is true, it will be embarrassing to many people, so it’s better not to find out the truth.”
“I might jeopardise my career if I say something.”
This is what taboo culture does. With so much left unspoken, it leaves us unsure of what the boundaries are, and even more uncertain of what to do when a boundary is transgressed.
And who does that ultimately serve? Who benefits from this? The predators. The transgressors. The ones who happily take advantage of blurred lines.
This culture of shame is dangerous and destructive for the lives of the most vulnerable.
We assume the lines are obvious. We assume men should know not to rape or harass. We assume victims should know what to do. And yet, sexual assault cases continue to happen, and we cynically ask rape victims why they didn’t report it earlier.
Sexual harassment is “difficult to define”
The idea that sexual harassment is difficult to define, is a myth that pervades despite a multitude of evidence to the contrary.
Tell that to Everfi, the US-based company that administers an extensive online course that I am required to take every semester as part of my Masters’ program in the US. Not only does it define what sexual harassment is, it also links information about sexual harassment laws in each US state, outlines what actions to take and where to seek support.
Or tell the United Nations, who offer this comprehensive list of examples of sexual harassment.
Not everyone may feel harassed by the same things. A passing comment from a co-worker that your new high heels look like “slut shoes” might be perceived as offensive or playful, depending on your dynamic with that co-worker and the tone in which it’s said.
But we can’t regulate sexual harassment based on individual perception. We regulate it by setting clear standards of what is unacceptable conduct, which people then must abide to, regardless of individual feelings.
Let’s take catcalling as an example that is frequently rolled out in debates about “what counts as sexual harassment”.
Activists around the world have advocated for laws protecting against street harassment, and countries like France and the Philippines have even introduced anti-catcalling laws.
But on the other side of the debate, we have news anchors and tabloid writers who say the attention is flattering. And ultimately, the issue becomes reduced to a battle of “The Uptight Feminist vs The Cool Girl”, distracting us from the real problem, which is: Why do men feel entitled to shout obscenities to women on the street?
Prevention, protection and accountability
The work of changing culture requires a multi-pronged approach.
Widespread education (yes, that includes schools) on what qualifies as sexual harassment is of course necessary, but it should also include practical exercises on intervention that can be applied in a real situation. Often, people don’t say anything because they simply don’t have the language or a guide.
Bystander intervention training breaks down what can feel like a monumental effort into smaller, manageable steps. By shifting the energy around “speaking up” from awkward to empowering, it has proven to be highly effective in college campuses and even the military. Making this training a legal requirement in workspaces normalises intervention.
A nationwide PR campaign that reinforces clear anti-sexual harassment messaging and actionable steps keeps the conversation going. Culture doesn’t change after one training session.
Reporting processes should be made visible and simple, because dealing with the stress of sexual harassment can be traumatic and is difficult enough for victims to go through. We add to that burden by not preparing and communicating clear and safe channels for reporting. All organisations must have whistleblower policy and protections, and ensure all staff are made aware of it and have access to it.
The consequences of sexual harassment should also be consistent across the board as it will prompt potential harassers to think twice about their actions.
Is telling a sexist joke worth getting suspended from work or fined? The type of consequences also needs to be paid attention to. What is the best way to deal with offenders — punishment or rehabilitation? Or both?
Education, action and consequences — upheld by a legal framework — are key. People don’t change without a strong, motivating force to do so.
This article is part of a series on sexual harassment written by Tiwin Aji, a career coach and media personality from Brunei Darussalam. Tiwin is currently a Fulbright scholar at The New School in New York City. She previously wrote a fortnightly advice column for The Scoop called ‘Winnie Wisdom’.
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