Time to stop pinning blame for sex crimes on victims

The number of women coming forward to accuse the powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of offences ranging from sexual harassment to rape has continued to grow, after The New York Times' expose earlier this month.

That has in turn given courage to tens of thousands of women worldwide, including those here, who are saying "me too" and disclosing on social media the harassment and abuse they have faced in their own lives.

National athletes have also come forward to blow the whistle on sexually abusive coaches or team staff, including American gymnast and Olympic gold medal winner McKayla Maroney.

That there now seems to be an outpouring of stories about sexual offences underlines how many victims have hitherto chosen to keep quiet about their experiences. Make no mistake about it - even in ordinary cases not involving an accused who is rich and powerful like Weinstein, it takes a lot to report a sexual offence.

Most victims don't.

A 2013 study by the United States' National Research Council found that 80 per cent of sexual assault cases go unreported. In Singapore, a survey of about 500 young people aged 17 to 25 released by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) in 2015 found that one in three has experienced sexual assault or harassment, but only 6 per cent sought help.

Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), the only specialised centre for sexual assault survivors here, said in an article this year that it found about seven in 10 of those who reached out to it for help last year did not make police reports.

Actress Natassia Malthe (left), one of the women who have accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual offences, leaving a press conference with her lawyer Gloria Allred in New York City on Wednesday.
Actress Natassia Malthe (left), one of the women who have accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual offences, leaving a press conference with her lawyer Gloria Allred in New York City on Wednesday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There are many reasons why most victims of sex crimes stay silent, from the perception that these crimes are "minor" to feelings of shame and the fear of being blamed. One woman in her 20s who was groped in a club said in a Straits Times article published earlier this year that she did not report the crime as it seemed "minor".

I did not realise it then, but there is nothing "minor" about sexual offences, including harassment. Society should not brush aside such incidents or belittle the suffering of victims.

That, too, was how I felt after I was touched inappropriately by two men I did not know on two separate occasions. I was not even 10 years old at the time and at a loss about how best to react. I kept quiet about the incidents because I thought they were a small matter, and because I felt ashamed and embarrassed that they had taken place.

In some cases, victims shy away from reporting such crimes as they fear they will not be believed. It is often the victim's word against that of the alleged perpetrator. What works against victims of sexual offences is the small number of false accusations that have been levied against innocent individuals.

As a result, some victims may find the burden of proof dauntingly high - a reality that was captured in a spoof online video that was highlighted by the SACC during a workshop for journalists, in which a man was grilled about whether his laptop had truly been stolen.

Nor does it help that the act of reporting or recounting sexual abuse could trigger memories that the victim would rather forget. Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han found it all a bit too much after the release of her novel Fang Si-chi's First Love Paradise in February this year. The book was based on what were said to be true-life accounts of teenagers sexually violated by their tutor - including herself. Lin, who was 26 years old and suffered from depression, committed suicide in April, with the intense scrutiny over whether the book reflected her own experience a likely aggravating factor.

After her death, Taiwan newspaper The China Post published an editorial that challenged current attitudes with this question: "How do we expect a victim to cry for help when society still leaps to analyse the victim's appearance, behaviour and motivations before looking at the perpetrator?"

Indeed, a culture of victim blaming - whether intentional or unintentional - has made it hard for victims of sex crimes to report sexual offences. Questions are asked about whether victims had worn revealing clothes, gone out alone at night or behaved in a flirtatious manner. Instead of taking the perpetrator to task, there is a tendency to make the victim feel guilty for not doing enough to protect himself or herself.

Given the complex mix of shame, self-blame and trauma felt by victims of sexual offences, the decision to report or talk about such crimes is not an easy one. In hindsight, I feel I should have reported my own two encounters with molesters to the police. Doing so could have led to the arrests of the culprits and stopped them from re-offending or even escalating their actions. Even if the molesters were not caught, people in my community would have benefited from being made aware of sexual predators on the prowl.

I did not realise it then, but there is nothing "minor" about sexual offences, including harassment. Society should not brush aside such incidents or belittle the suffering of victims.

I am glad that there are now posters at MRT stations and on buses urging commuters who have been molested not to suffer silently, and advising them on steps they can take (shout for help, dial 999 and take note of the culprit's looks). It is also good to see more efforts here to make it less onerous for victims to make a police report.

More can be done to end the victim-blaming culture and provide more empathy and support to victims of sex crimes, to make it less daunting for them to break their silence.

• Sexual Assault Care Centre helpline support is available on 6779-0282.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'Time to stop pinning blame for sex crimes on victims'. Print Edition | Subscribe