Thoughts on the ongoing issues on sexual harassment

By: Adnan bin Yunus

Source of this picture is from: Times Higher Education)

In the current social landscape that we embody, sexual harassment has become normalized. Society has long been governed by deep-rooted patriarchal systems which have made women vulnerable. Unfortunately, the plague of sexual harassment affects even men despite women being 80% of survivors.1 However, global movements like the Me Too Movement has ignited hope. Treating sexual harassment as ‘unacceptable’ is being entrenched not just by western states but also by other democracies closer to home such as India and Bangladesh where women have voiced out against poorly enforced laws which have left most survivors with no recourse.2

(Source of this picture is from: Writers to the Signet Society)

Essentially, the crux of sexual harassment is any act that is predatory in nature with or without the intention to be so, which causes discomfort to the individual on the receiving end.3 We all know too well that such vicious behaviour thrives in many industries and social settings globally like the arts and entertainment industry, corporate settings and even worse now an increase of sexual harassment in households due to the pandemic.4

Some men still subscribe to toxic patriarchal ideologies because of institutional sexism in social dynamics. For example, in the current workforce climate, men form the majority in positions of power.5 Corporate mechanisms to tackle sexual harassment are implemented merely to dodge liability rather than because it is a progressive social need.6 Corporations are profit-driven which means minimal investment in training employees to revamp workplace culture. Even existing mechanisms are counterintuitive. Many male employees have not taken lightly in being told that “men need fixing”. To be bold, this is actually true however, start any training by telling a group of people they are the problem, and they will naturally get defensive.7 This places female employees in a riskier position and contributes to some of their cases getting dismissed by human resources.

(Source of this picture is from: juiceonline.com)

Furthermore, incomprehensive sex education contributes to the predatory nature of sexual harassers. Existing sex education syllabuses prioritises biological knowledge of the human body at the expense of generating awareness on emotional intelligence. This is problematic even in our home country, Malaysia.8 Perpetrators fail to recognize the trauma inflicted upon the survivor and fail more importantly, to understand their own emotions and behaviour of why they inherently need to feel powerful at the expense of someone else’s pain.

(Source of this picture is from: YOUniversityTV)

Moreover, there is an intense stigmatisation which is reflected by the lack of social institutions that can expertly deal with survivors of sexual harassment. Therapy is available but some survivors find it tough to open up. Even if they do seek out help, therapy is not a cost-effective method to deal with the long mental process that survivors wish to open up about. This predicament causes some survivors to share their stories long after the actual encounter took place that is met by much criticism by society such as ‘why didn’t you say something sooner?’ which invalidates a survivor’s feelings.9 This issue extends to men too as cases involving men are even more underreported than women because many men are subdued by ‘toxic masculinity’ and of the notion to ‘man up’.10

So, what can be done to combat sexual harassment more comprehensively? In Malaysia, citizens, politicians and NGOs such as the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) are lobbying for the Sexual Harassment Bill to be passed by Parliament. Currently under the Malaysian Penal Code,11 one usually sues for sexual harassment under tortious claims like the Employment Act 1955. However, sexual harassment laws mostly regulate workplace harassment and lacks totality. A comprehensive Sexual Harassment Act will allow for more detailed policy that covers all forms of sexual harassment irrespective of the place or setting and a specific tribunal will be formed to exclusively deal with sexual harassment cases.

(Source of this picture is from: Vanguard News)

Further policy considerations include reforms by the Education Ministry. Sex education must involve syllabuses that inform students from a young age on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour without having to figure out from their own experiences when it’s too late. Meanwhile, corporations must ensure women are placed in more positions of power because many possess the necessary qualifications. This will allow female subordinates to feel more welcomed and protected. A workplace environment where male employees are privy to protocol and more importantly, tend to want to be better human beings to their female colleagues can be cultivated too.12 Additionally, the government must incentivize a proper platform for NGOs and therapy centres to accommodate and aid survivors in dealing with the effects of encountering sexual harassment by subsidizing the cost of therapy or providing free consultations to survivors in financial need.

It is time that we listened, it is time that we acted. If you have a voice, speak up especially for those who cannot. While the conversation is uncomfortable, there is a grave importance to engage in them. Many false perceptions must eradicate. For example, where men advocate to protect women because they could be our daughters or mothers. Women shouldn’t be granted basic personal liberty just because they could be someone else’s mom or daughter but rather because they are human beings with feelings, ambitions and can contribute to a better world.

  1. Anna North, ‘Measuring #Metoo: More Than 80 Percent of Women Have Been Sexually Harassed or Assaulted’ (Vox, 21 February 2018) <https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/2/21/17036438/sexual-harassment-me-too-assault-hollywood> accessed 5 November 2020 []
  2. ‘India: Women at Risk of Sexual Abuse at Work’ (Human Rights Watch, 14 October 2020) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/14/india-women-risk-sexual-abuse-work> accessed 5 November 2020, see also Jennifer Chowdhury, ‘#MeToo Bangladesh: the textile workers uniting against harassment’ (The Guardian, 10 September 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/sep/10/metoo-bangladesh-the-textile-workers-uniting-against-harassment> accessed 5 November 2020. []
  3. Anastasha Abraham and Natasha Franklin, ‘Sexual Harassment’ (All Women’s Action Society, 2020) <https://www.awam.org.my/sexual-harassment/> accessed 5 November 2020. []
  4. Ida Lim, ‘NGO: Sexual Harassment Happens During MCO Too, Here’s How Women Can Stay Safe’ (Malay Mail, April 2020) <https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/04/07/ngo-sexual-harassment-happens-during-mco-too-heres-how-women-can-stay-safe/1854386> accessed 5 November 2020. []
  5. Alice Eagly, ‘Why Do So Few Women Hold Positions of Power?’ (Northwestern Institute for Policy Research, 8 March 2016) <https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/news/2016/why-so-few-women-hold-positions-of-power.html> accessed 6 November 2020. []
  6. Mia Cahill, The Social Construction of Sexual Harassment Law: The Role of the National, Organizational and Individual Context (1st edn, Routledge 2020). []
  7. Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, ‘Why Sexual Harassment Programs Backfire’ (Harvard Business Review, June 2020 <https://hbr.org/2020/05/confronting-sexual-harassment> accessed 6 November 2020. []
  8. Esther Landau, Tasnim Lokman and Mohamed Basyir, ‘Protection Against Sexual Ignorance – Good Reason To Revamp Sex Education Syllabus’ (New Straits Times, 10 March 2019) <https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2019/03/467702/protection-against-sexual-ignorance-good-reason-revamp-sex-education> accessed 6 November 2020. []
  9. Beverly Engel, ‘Why Don’t Victims of Sexual Harassment Come Forward Sooner?’ (Psychology Today, 16 November 2017) <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/201711/why-dont-victims-sexual-harassment-come-forward-sooner> accessed 6 November 2020. []
  10. Hannah Yeoh, ‘Men Also Face Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ (The Star, 14 February 2019) <https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/02/14/hannah-yeoh-says-men-also-face-sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace> accessed 6 November 2020. []
  11. Section 59 of the Malaysian Penal Code. []
  12. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’ (1stedn, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine 2018). []