No one will believe me, say male victims of sexual harassment


Photos By AZLINA ABDULLAH

Men encounter myriad gender-based violence including unwelcome advances, inappropriate comments, and physical harassment, and this can extend beyond the physical to psychological, verbal, and online. Photo: Freepik

When 29-year-old marketing executive Jake* was with his previous company, he was often told to do “whatever it takes” to close a sale. This would include entertaining customers, most of whom were female bosses.

Jake admits that he felt singled out because he’s tall and good looking and his female colleagues would say things like, “if you have it, flaunt it” and “nobody would say no to that cute face”.

“My boss (a female) and colleagues would often joke that I had to ‘please all the sugar mummies to close sales’.

“Although they said it jokingly, and I never really had to do anything, I felt uncomfortable about the explicit innuendos,” he says.

“I didn’t report it because I took it as part of the job. I guess I was young and impressionable at that time,” says Jake who wished to go by a pseudonym for this article.

“Of course, I was worried about my job security too.”

He never told anyone about it and admits he didn't realise that he was experiencing sexual harassment till much later.

“I didn’t want to be embarrassed and I also felt that I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

“It wasn’t until recently that I heard about the anti-sexual harassment law and gender-based violence, which women’s groups have been advocating about and I want to say that not only women, but men also face this.”

Nik, a 34-year-old male, says he stopped going to the gym because he has been “harassed” by other men.

“There was this guy who would often walk very near me when I was exercising on the machines. He never said anything but he tried to brush against me as he walked past.

“Initially I thought it was accidental, but it happened once too often that I started to get suspicious,” says Nik.

“Then it got worse, he would come near me and stare at me in the washroom/shower area,” he says.

“I never thought to do anything about it like report it because it sounds silly and, would people even believe me?

“He would just deny it and it would be his word against mine since nobody else saw what happened,” he adds.

When it comes to domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV) and harassment, the dominant narratives are on men as perpetrators, given the disproportionate number of women who are victims of gender-based violence.

There is a scarcity of research, worldwide, on male victims of IPV and harassment, and the limited existing research shows that male victims are less likely to seek help compared to female victims.

Existing research shows that male victims of gender-based violence, such as domestic abuse or sexual harassment, are less likely to seek help compared to female victims. (Picture posed by models)Existing research shows that male victims of gender-based violence, such as domestic abuse or sexual harassment, are less likely to seek help compared to female victims. (Picture posed by models)One of the reasons for this is the pervading narratives on masculinity that cause stigma around the idea of men as victims (which relates to their believability), according to a study, “Barriers To Men’s Help Seeking For Intimate Partner Violence” published in the Journal Of Interpersonal Violence in 2021.

The concept of men as “victims” (or women as perpetrators) requires people to “move outside the traditional boundaries of thinking”, says researcher Mohammad Mazher Idriss in his paper “Abused By The Patriarchy: Male Victims, Masculinity, Honour-Based Abuse And Forced Marriages”, which was published in 2021.

In October last year, during the opening of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Advocacy programme, Women, Family, and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri reported that more Malaysian men have started to come forward to report sexual harassment.

Out of the 762 cases reported from July 6 to Oct 2, 2023, 187 reports were from men, she highlighted.

According to Nancy, there are four levels to categorise the severity of a sexual harassment case: low level (sexual jokes against victim), mid level (sexual gestures or verbal language), high level (request for sexual acts, looking at victim in an inappropriate manner) and critical (harassment to the extent of causing physical and mental harm).

She added that Kelantan had the highest number of reports from men (52 cases) during that period with the majority of the cases involving harassment made using jokes.

Nancy said the number of people lodging sexual harassment complaints had gone up and attributed it to the advocacy programmes that have helped the victims – whether men, women or children – to speak up.

“The frequency of sexual harassment cases is probably higher than the reported cases,” she added.

Empowering male victims

Men’s hesitancy to report sexual harassment and gender-based violence is due to societal expectations, prevailing stereotypes, and challenges unique to male victims such as society’s expectation that men should embody strength, machismo, and resilience, fostering disbelief when they disclose their experiences as victims. Photo: Dr Desmond CheahMen’s hesitancy to report sexual harassment and gender-based violence is due to societal expectations, prevailing stereotypes, and challenges unique to male victims such as society’s expectation that men should embody strength, machismo, and resilience, fostering disbelief when they disclose their experiences as victims. Photo: Dr Desmond Cheah

According to educator and mental health consultant Prof Dr Desmond Cheah, there needs to be “a progressive shift in attitudes to foster an environment where men feel more empowered to openly share their experiences”.

“This evolving cultural mindset will encourage both men and women to step forward and report incidents of sexual harassment which have been long veiled in stigma and silence,” says Cheah who is founder and chief learning officer of MeMori Cerdiq, a learning institution for children.

Cheah is also founder and president of Mind Integration and Mental Invention Convention.

“Awareness campaigns and educational initiatives have played a pivotal role in shedding light on the prevalence of gender-based violence against men.

Such efforts will empower individuals to recognise and report incidents that might otherwise go unnoticed,” he adds.

According to Cheah, men “encounter myriad gender-based violence including unwelcome advances, inappropriate comments, and physical harassment, and this can extend beyond the physical to psychological, verbal, and online”.

PDRM data from 2013 to 2017 revealed that 21% of reported sexual harassment cases involved male victims.

Out of 1,218 reported cases, 257 were from men stepping forward to report incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The contrast between the number of reported cases involving male victims and the total cases reveals the historically underreported nature of gender-based violence against men.

“While societal norms and stereotypes have long discouraged men from reporting such incidents, a positive shift is underway and men are finding the courage to overcome these barriers, contributing significantly to the increase in reported cases,” he says.

Not a sudden phenomena

Men who encounter gender-based violence including sexual harassment encounter challenges in accessing dedicated support systems. (Picture posed by models)Men who encounter gender-based violence including sexual harassment encounter challenges in accessing dedicated support systems. (Picture posed by models)

But, says Cheah, the rise in reported cases does not necessarily indicate a sudden surge in incidents.

“Instead, it reflects a positive shift towards a more inclusive and supportive environment where men feel empowered to break their silence and speak up.”

“Men’s hesitancy to report is due to societal expectations, prevailing stereotypes, and challenges unique to male victims.

“One of these challenges is society’s expectation that men should embody strength, machismo, and resilience, fostering disbelief when they disclose their experiences as victims.

“This contributes to a culture of silence, where men fear ridicule, scepticism, or doubt about the validity of their experiences.

“The apprehension of not being taken seriously and the potential backlash are formidable deterrents, dissuading many men from reporting incidents,” he says.

“Men who encounter gender-based violence and sexual harassment also encounter challenges in accessing dedicated support systems.

“Unlike women, who benefit from more well-established organisations advocating for their rights, the landscape for men is less defined although avenues for support do exist,” says Cheah who is also a sponsor and volunteer with the Women’s Aid Organisation.

“With the introduction of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 2022 and the setting up of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Tribunal, as well as programmes such as the Women’s Ministry’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Advocacy Programme, it is hoped that more men and women will report sexual harassment.”

“In the past, those who chose to report have found themselves navigating a prolonged and emotionally-taxing investigation period, often compounded by the necessity to continue working alongside their alleged perpetrator,” he highlights.

“To encourage reporting, enhancing legal frameworks and fostering supportive environments where victims can confidently come forward without the fear of judgement, is necessary,” he says.

“And, if the victim decides to pursue legal action, documenting incidents, preserving evidence, and maintaining a record of the harassment is valuable.”

Cheah says that bystanders, irrespective of gender, play an important role in addressing gender-based violence.

“If you know a male friend going through it, there are ways to support them: provide a listening ear without judgement, create a safe space by encouraging them to speak openly about their feelings and experiences, offer emotional support and reassurance, and suggest seeking professional help if needed,” he advises.

"Counselling or therapy can be a safe space for men to process their emotions and navigate the challenges associated with being a victim of harassment," he concludes.

Men who are experiencing gender-based violence can contact:
> Befrienders (03-03-79272929 / 03-79568145)
> Talian Kasih (15999/ 019-2615999 on WhatsApp)
> Malaysian Mental Health Association (017-6133039)
> Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (012-2479561)
> Mental Health Psychosocial Support Service (03-29359935/ 014-3223392)
> JAKIM’s Family, Social and Community Centre (011-19598214 on WhatsApp)
> Mental Integration and Mind Intervention Convention (012-6353718 on WhatsApp)
> HumanKind (012-3005453)
Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Family

Expression of love: How two mothers find joy in making their kids' bento boxes
An eating disorder threatened his life; but now he inspires others to live
Male volunteer at women's NGO runs programme to help prevent child sexual abuse
From plate to brain: Why parents need to be mindful of what their children eat
5 plants that pet owners should avoid having at home or in the garden
Why nutrition education is a critical element in raising a healthy generation
Dear Thelma: I'm exhausted and frustrated with my grandma
First woman country chair in Shell Malaysia on the challenges faced by women in leadership
Starchild: Why Malaysian kids think their teachers are the heroes of education
Lonely and isolated: Study found parents lack support in their role

Others Also Read