The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was reading a book on the MRT. I was alarmed when I felt a hand brush against my butt – but then brushed it off thinking maybe it wasn’t intentional.
A minute later, I felt it again. I looked at the reflection in the window and saw a man behind me with a laptop bag. Maybe his bag just brushed against me… this can’t be happening, right?
I shifted away. And the man shifted with me. I couldn’t see his hand in the reflection, but felt the unmistakable sensation of a hand rubbing against me. Without saying anything or even looking at him, I pushed through the crowds into another cabin.
I ran out of the train crying, disgusted by what had happened, but even more disgusted at how I did not defend myself.
I told the control station staff, who said, “You should have pressed the emergency button to stop the train, now we can’t catch him and he’s going to hurt more innocent girls.”
The first thing that came to my mind was, is this an emergency worth stopping trains for?
When I went home and told my parents that I had been molested, they looked at me and said, “You see? Who ask you to wear shorts?” I never expected victim blaming to come from my own parents, especially when I was the victim.
Sex is not openly talked about in Singapore, a society with deep-rooted Asian values. Growing up, most of our parents didn’t give us the talk about the birds and the bees. Religious and traditional values encourage modesty over any overt references to sexuality.
It’s thus no real surprise that when sexual assault happens, online comments often blame the victim’s dressing or behaviour.
Even as millennials, my friends and I seldom talk openly about our sex lives, and the subject of sexual assault has never once been brought up. When I told some friends that I was writing this story, we actually talked about it for the first time.
Turns out that quite a number of them have been assaulted before. And all of them did not shout for help or confront the perpetrator. People around them were either hesitant to speak up, or too engrossed in their phones to notice.
There is clearly a problem here, and I wondered why our society is so silent on sexual assault. Is it because we lack courage to stand up for ourselves and others, or don’t have enough open discussion and education on what to do in such situations?
Or is it simply because we feel paiseh about attracting attention to ourselves?
I conducted an online survey with 45 Singaporean males and females aged 19 to 30, and found that 1 in 4 had been sexually assaulted before. Common reactions include not being sure whether it was really assault, and not being able to react in time.
When she was in secondary school, Joanne* was asleep on the bus when a teenage boy touched her breast. He alighted right after, so she didn’t have time to react.
“Not sure if it counts,” writes Claire*, “I was on the train once when I heard a camera click. I turned around and saw someone holding his phone like he was taking a photo of me. Other passengers standing nearby would have seen it, but no one alerted me. I let it pass.”
My heart breaks when I hear stories like these from fellow women. Many survey entries included phrases similar to the above “not sure if it counts” and “I let it pass”. Another female chose to ignore and avoid the perpetrator, because it was “just light touching”.
One of my survey questions assessed respondents’ definition of sexual assault. Almost everyone unanimously agreed that rape, molest and sexual acts without consent were acts of sexual assault. Slightly more than half agreed that stalking was assault. As for verbal harassment, cat calls and roving eyes, only about 30% think it counts.
You see, maybe the use of the word “assault” seems too strong and aggressive to include something as “harmless” as a stranger checking out your figure on the streets. Assault means to attack, and suggests a certain degree of violence.
But who said violence is only physical? What makes a stranger’s unsolicited comments about our bodies, or unwelcome dick pics on Tinder any less invasive?
Not saying that victims of sexual assault are exclusively female, but to make it easier for the guys to relate, let me give you an analogy:
Imagine you are in a public toilet just doing your business, and some creepy dude stares at your dick the entire time. He didn’t touch you, but how does that feel?
Us ladies aren’t exposing our skin on the streets, but sometimes people undress us with their eyes.
Let’s recognise that sexual assault doesn’t have to be a physical action to “count”. No one should have the right to make you feel uncomfortable in any way.
In fact, in the digital age today, assault comes in many forms. One survey respondent gave a good example of how she was harassed with lewd texts and persistent missed calls.
Upskirt photos, emotional blackmail from angry exes with your compromising photos and an admirer who can’t take no for an answer are all the new forms of assault that technology has unfortunately enabled.
When asked what they would do if sexually assaulted, about 7 in 10 respondents said they would shout for help and call the police. 6 in 10 would inform security and use self-defence techniques.
In reality, only 1 out of 11 respondents who encountered assault informed security.
The thing is, no matter how rationally you arm yourself against sexual assault, you are never really prepared for it.
In an ideal world, we would all know what to do, respond logically and not let the perpetrator get away.
When it actually happens to you, your mind is a blank. And you blame yourself after that, before anyone around you actually tells you, “You shouldn’t have worn –insert clothing article here-” or “Why didn’t you do something?”
Much has been said about victim blaming culture, which exists in many societies around the world from the Middle East to the United States.
In Singapore, I think silence has become part of our paiseh culture.
You might ask, why don’t these women speak up? How can they let all this injustice happen to them? How can they let it pass because it is “just light touching”?
Let’s imagine if they stood up and shouted “Molest!” What would we do?
A survey respondent Rachel*, who was also assaulted on the MRT, said she does not feel comfortable alerting security for fear of “being attention-seeking”. It may sound baffling coming from a victim who has every right to get assistance, but I’m pretty sure she is not the only one who feels “paiseh” to inconvenience others, or potentially cause commotion.
So for all of us Singaporeans, is it time to stop being paiseh? Not just as victims, but also when we are the bystanders.
Recently, I read a Facebook post about someone being molested in a bookstore. She shouted loudly for help, and there were several people around. All of them stared open-mouthed, and no one said a thing. The molester ran away scot-free. Only after that did the shopkeeper come over to ask if she was alright – as if it wasn’t too late.
Maybe we subconsciously think that even if we were to call for help, no one would do anything. Not because they don’t care, but because everyone else is as lost as us. We live in a culture where people generally mind their own business and keep to themselves in public, buried in luminous screens.
Firstly, the paiseh silence starts way before we even know what sexual assault is, and perhaps that’s the point.
To talk about sexual assault, one has to first talk about sex.
Many of us grew up in a typical Asian family where sex was a taboo or awkward topic. In school, they showed us scientific diagrams of copulation. Sex education focused on abstinence rather than safe sex or consent.
In the Internet age, paiseh silence from our parents and teachers means we go online to find the answers. Unfortunately, porn became an alternative source of sex education.
As we eventually become parents ourselves, it’s time to decide what culture we want to create, and what conversations we will have with our children.
I would teach my children that sex is an intimate experience shared with someone you love, but there are also people who think it’s purely physical. Some of them may use you for their pleasure – through their eyes, hands or bodies. This is wrong, and it should not happen to you. But if it does, make your voice heard.
And till we succeed in creating a world where calls for help are not met with silence, we must look out for one another, men and women alike.
The next time you see someone being sexually harassed or assaulted, please don’t paiseh anymore. Speak up and do something. Because you would want people to do the same for you too.
*These names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.
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