Backlash against letter denouncing #MeToo movement: Stealing a kiss is not okay

French actress Catherine Deneuve was among those who signed a letter denouncing the #MeToo movement. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - At engineer Katherine Yew's first job, a senior male colleague placed his hand over hers while she was using a computer mouse at her desk.

The then 24-year-old pulled her hand away, but did not confront or report him.

"I was naive then, but if it happened now, I would speak up," she says, adding that after the incident, she felt angry and taken advantage of. She is now 36.

An open letter signed by 100 Frenchwomen denouncing the anti sexual-harassment movement #MeToo seems to make light of such behaviour.

Signed by women writers, academics and performers, including Oscar-nominated French actress Catherine Deneuve, it noted: "Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss.

"Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not - and nor is men being gentlemanly a chauvinist attack," read the letter in France's Le Monde newspaper, which added that the #MeToo movement had spiralled out of control.

It also accuses the movement of encouraging a new "puritanism", reducing women "to defenceless preys of male chauvinist demons".

Since it was published on Tuesday (Jan 9), the letter has drawn angry backlash from people around the world, including Singaporeans, many of whom thought the claims in the letter were "exaggerated".

Of the 25 men and women The Straits Times spoke to, 15 disagreed with the letter, voicing their support for the importance of #MeToo in raising awareness of sexual harassment in society. However, many were also sympathetic to some of the points the letter raised.

The #MeToo movement, which has made waves across the globe, began last October, when American actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to publicise their experiences on social media with the hashtag #MeToo, to show the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault.

This followed a flurry of accusations of sexual harassment against high-profile men in Hollywood, such as producer Harvey Weinstein, who has allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted nearly 100 women; and celebrated American actor Kevin Spacey, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several men.

Secondary 4 student Chong Shin Ee, 15, says that it is absurd to suggest that touching a knee or stealing a kiss is not a serious thing.

The CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School student, who has discussed the #MeToo movement with friends, says: "I feel the open letter is unreasonable. Consent was not given. Touching a knee or stealing a kiss might be a small thing for the perpetrator, but for the victim, it's a big thing."

A 38-year-old dental receptionist, who wished to be known only as Ms Rin, also disagrees with the letter.

"Some guys can't keep their hands to themselves, but brush it off as if it's nothing. So women need to speak up, otherwise men will just keep finding excuses," she says, adding that she was molested in a crowd when she was 12 years old.

Ms Juwon Park, a former Channel NewsAsia producer whose male colleague made "inappropriate remarks" about her and had disciplinary action taken against him last October, "strongly disagrees" with the points in the open letter.

Now a business reporter at the Korea Expose, an English news and culture magazine on South Korea, she says: "It's dangerous to trivialise sexual harassment."

When asked where the line should be drawn, she says: "We should focus on establishing a culture of mutual respect rather than cherry-picking which actions and words from perpetrators can be condoned."

Then there were several who felt that most people have the power to decline unwanted advances and so are, to some extent, responsible for such advances if they continue.

Project administrator Rachel Rae, 42, says: "They could have refused the advances. But they kept quiet all these years. Why are they all (speaking up) at this time?"

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has long spoken up against the culture of victim-blaming, which is still prevalent in Singapore.

Survivors also have reasons for remaining silent - they might be afraid of being judged, disbelieved, losing their jobs or getting loved ones into trouble.

Many of the men polled acknowledged the role of #MeToo in raising awareness of sexual harassment.

However, some were concerned that the movement may be encouraging people to "out" individuals on social media without hard evidence.

Says consultant Sanjay Varma, 57: "If a person is falsely blamed, he loses face, he loses his job and he might even lose his wife. It's very difficult to prove. It's your word against mine."

Hedge fund consultant Ted Yeo, 40, thinks that the #MeToo movement, while well intentioned, has itself been guilty of "cheapening" sexual harassment.

For instance,when the same hashtag is used for rape and other "lighter" forms of harassment, such as lewd comments, as others "jump on the bandwagon".

Mr Yeo, who supports the open letter, says: "I have friends who have been raped. Some chose not to use the hashtag #MeToo because they feel there is too much noise.

"#MeToo has almost become like a witch-hunt. I'm now afraid to tell a co-worker, 'that's a really lovely skirt'," said Mr Yeo, who has himself been on the receiving end of harassment from a woman.

Ms Megan Lim, 30, who works in human resources, says: "If someone is wrongly accused, how does he prove his innocence? There needs to be some checks and balances."

Human resources and women's rights experts say that more public education on what constitutes inappropriate behaviour is needed.

Mr Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, says companies should make it clear in their HR policies what is not acceptable, and educate staff.

What is considered "acceptable" behaviour might vary across industries and depends on the company's "culture and values system", he says.

Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at Aware, says: "It is a myth that non-physical harassment is not serious - stalking, intimidation and belittling can have a severe impact on survivors' well-being.

"It is also a myth that standing firm against harassment - which is non-consensual by definition - has any negative impact on mutually desired flirting or relationships."

She adds that there is an urgent need for public education on the social realities of sexual violence.

Clinical sexologist and relationship coach Martha Tara Lee says: "Society and media portrayal of courtship seem to celebrate persistence to the point of harassment and call it romantic behaviour."

Despite her brush with sexual harassment, Ms Yew says she is still sitting on the fence with regard to the open letter, as she believes that there are women who behave in a way that invite unwanted advances.

She says: "Women need to know how to protect themselves."

For help, call the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), Sexual Assault Care Centre, on 6779-0282, from Mondays to Fridays, 10am to midnight.

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