Rethinking the discourse of sexual harassment

Published on The F-Word UK blog on 14th August 2013


After following Everyday Sexism on Twitter and reading its website for nearly a year, there are times when reading their continuous flow of sexual harassment stories becomes too painful an experience. I have contemplated unfollowing Everyday Sexism’s Twitter account because there are entries that became too much to bear. On the one hand, I am reminded of the series of harassments I had suffered. But on the other hand, which will become the main thrust of this post, I was becoming tired of sexual harassment as a ‘victim’ narrative.

In the discourse of sexual harassment of popular feminism (found in mainstream media and new social media), women, and it is nearly always women, come forward to talk about their experiences. This in itself is a powerful thing: women have historically been denied a voice to express gender-based injustice in private and public spaces. Facilitated by new forms of media technologies, the new age of twenty-first feminism has granted every woman (with a phone and/or access to the internet) the opportunity to tell their stories. And what stories they are.

Online spaces like Everyday Sexism allows women to share and seek support from others who have shared similar experiences. Such spaces, without a shadow of a doubt, help recuperate the disempowered feeling when a harasser finds pleasure and amusement in debasing women. There are many initiatives across the UK such as the Hollaback! project that reaches out to women who have faced street harassment with information on how to respond to their attackers. But as Everyday Sexism has shown us, those who have dared to challenge their harassers are faced with some serious repercussions for their courage. For that reason, these spaces must continue to thrive and bolster support.

However, there is something missing in this discourse of sexual harassment. The glut of women reporting sexual harassment clearly underline the enormity and how commonplace it is, but we hear too little of a semblance of justice done to women who report incidents of sexual harassment. As a discourse of sexual harassment, a way in which we talk and define it, the perpetrator is a shadow-like figure and rarely embodied as a complete person.

The reason why the discourse of sexual harassment is victim-oriented lies in the nature and legal framework of sexual harassment as a crime. Victims of sexual harassment at work are encouraged to make an informal complaint and collect evidence. Formal complaints involving a police report meanwhile are discouraged as it will make the work environment for the victim ‘uncomfortable’.

I have been informed by lawyers that women can always leave their job and seek work elsewhere after experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. In this economic climate, that is far easier said than done. Harassers, meanwhile, enjoy the relative anonymity of not being subjected to much public scrutiny of their motivations and why they have been allowed to commit sexual harassment in the first place.

How do we transform the discourse of sexual harassment to make perpetrators more accountable for their actions and set the terms to stem future harassment? But more importantly, how do we redress the imbalance of the victim-heavy narrative of sexual harassment and in the process neutralise anger and trauma into hope?

Perhaps the welcoming of more men into feminism as allies and pro-feminist supporters can help rebalance the discourse of sexual harassment. But this welcome is not without prior knowledge of the abuse of influence and male privilege by men who call themselves ‘feminist’. The recent implosion of Hugo Schwyzer is a cautionary tale of men who are lauded for not just wanting to be part of popular feminism but also wanting to be a voice within it and a very loud one, too.

The sudden, rapid and ongoing demise of Schwyzer’s credibility as a ‘feminist’ was satisfying but may then make male participation into feminism an ideological mine field. Or will it? because I highly doubt it. There will be a queue of men who would love to take Schwyzer’s place. The adoration that men get for claiming to be feminist is hard to resist.

There is great resistance from men who think that feminists regard all men as potential harassers. In a similar way, commentaries calling on the examination of masculinity in light of child abuse cases have stoked anger in men because they think they, innocent men, are accused of being potential rapists and abusers of children. But the truth is, straight men are socialised into thinking that female bodies are for looking and possession. Also, entitlement to bodies creates an illusion that men can get away with it.

Also, there is an assumption that female feminists have a liberal attitude towards sexuality and are easily ‘up for it’, if men ask nicely and impress female feminists with their knowledge of second wave feminism. Such an assumption is easily exploited by self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ men resulting in harassment and abuse. Reminders to ‘be aware’ and ‘stay away’ from these men are not enough to protect ourselves as they can easily take their abusive behaviour and create damage elsewhere.

An example of a successul take-down of a harasser is pertinent here. The recent dressing down of British ‘star’ philosopher Colin McGinn is one of the few but crucial victories for women in academia. Evidence of Colin McGinn’s sexually inappropriate messages to a graduate student bolstered a campaign to make him accountable for his misconduct. McGinn’s defence of his actions, consisting of intellectual prose, was rubbished by the majority of his colleagues.

McGinn’s fall from grace is an example of justice of a more stubborn order whereby a highly esteemed man of ideas is brought down to his knees by the power and pressure emanating from his ranks. However, his accuser’s identity may never be revealed because in the sensitive and precarious universe of academia, one’s name and its associations are everything.

As female feminists vulnerable to sexual harassment, we need to be savvy, strategic, and informed both on a factual and emotional level on how to tackle harassment while preserving our privacy and dignity. Learn how other women have won their case against harassment. Justice is a process that requires support from the highest level of authority possible, not just the law but other institutions that the harasser’s privilege relies on.

Sexist men and the people who love them

First published on Loyar Burok on 12th August 2013

This article is about the men who walk amongst us whom we admire, whom we call our friends, lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers. If you prefer, this article may also be about the ‘other’ men out there, the rapists, child abusers, sexual harassers, and other shadowy characters in the news and conversations whom we hope to never meet and know in real life. But above all, this article is about liberal hypocrisy.


Did it come to any shock or surprise that many respectable white men in Britain have been exposed as paedophiles, rapists, and low-lifes in fine suits? How did they get away with despicable behaviour for so long while their accusers languish for decades waiting for justice? Sometimes in their belated battle for justice, their accusers continue to languish post-trial because justice has an expiry date.

In Britain, men who worked for the police sleep with female activists in order to infiltrate activist groups. Some of these men have even fathered children with these women. As police ‘spies’, all of these men have assumed false identities as fellow activists that they have managed to maintain through lie after lie for years. When these men were exposed, the women reported to have felt as if they were raped by these men. Who wouldn’t feel like that?

Case after case of sexual crimes in the past year have revealed men, all men, who have lied and destroyed people’s lives. These men have chosen to prey on girls and women, and thought nothing of the repercussions. For a long time, these predatory men have walked among innocent people, many of them children and protected by their status, the law, and the auspices of the state. It is only when these men are finally caught, placed in the dock, and subjected under the mercilessly glaring light of the media that they are framed as criminals.

Before they were classed as criminals, they were just like any other man you might know. Nice, pleasant, loving, well-respected, normal. How much does it take for us mere mortals outside the machinations of the law and media to recognise that the men among us are guilty of heinous crimes like rape and harassment? A lot, plus some denial on the side.

In Malaysia, we have so little faith in the justice system and its apparatuses that we resort to our own kind of justice and sense of order. This is why private security and fear of crime are so high in Malaysia. Some people go to extremes and take the law into their own hands by committing vigilante justice. Others take futile precautionary steps and not go outside alone late at night and build iron grills around their own personal prisons.

When there is so much fear of the ‘other’ men we don’t know, we usually become blinkered from those who commit everyday forms of sexism and misogyny under our own eyes especially when they don’t look like your garden variety rapist. In films and the popular imagination, rapists are visibly psychotic and don’t hold down respectable jobs.

Is this the reason why many women refuse to report if they had been raped and/or harassed? Because they will be disbelieved? And perhaps because it is far easier for us to condemn those we read about in the news, but not those we know and consider our friends? Except for the privileged few, we’ll never meet the men who have committed crimes of a sexual nature and so we’re sheltered by own self-righteousness and cowardice when we hurl abuse at these men from behind the screen.

Gender-based harassment and assault within high-profile liberal middle-class circles are relatively common and some go unreported. When they are reported they are forced under the carpet in the name of … what exactly? Somehow the proximity of familiarity renders the crimes of the respected and respectable insignificant and easily dismissed. How long do we wait until they are properly exposed as criminals?

The possible reasons why criminals within one’s respected ranks are protected may be economic (no one wants to lose their jobs), social (being a whistleblower has shown to be stigmatising and damaging to one’s livelihood), and political (you don’t want to lose the prestige, power, and popularity by exposing the guilty because apparently no one is a saint).

But it is also possible that the protection of the respected and respectable within the liberal middle circles is class-based. Since time immemorial, the crimes of the powerful and privileged have often been overlooked or mitigated while the poor and disenfranchised are punished disproportionately harsher.

This article is not a call for a witch-hunt of would-be male rapists and harassers amongst us but rather a reminder for us to reassess what justice means. There is credible evidence that those who purport to fight oppression are perpetuating oppression themselves and by implication undermining the good work of others. We are quick to point out the hypocrisies of others, namely politicians and religious authorities but struggle to come to terms with those closest to us and our own.

In one of the more transparent countries in the world with a functioning legal system, Britain, justice as has an expiry date. Even if the crime had happened a long time ago, it does not make it less of a crime but its sentence will be mitigated by the time length between the act of crime and indictment. Hence do not wait to tell others of the injustice that you know and that has happened to you. It is therefore fitting to conclude with an adage attributed to the courageous Shirin Ebadi who said that we may not be able to end oppression for good, but the least we can do is tell as many people about it.


A companion piece to this article is by Clarissa Lee who has written about the insidious dynamics within liberal and “intellectual” circles that lets men within such a circle off the hook.