Hidden in the face of stigma


Grossly underreported: Perpetrators and targets of sexual harassment and assault can be of any gender identity, sexual orientation, or age.

The challenges and social pressures are difficult to bear for male survivors of sexual harassment too — we need to change societal perceptions against gender-based violence.

IT was supposed to be another fast and uneventful commute when he caught the shuttle bus from the LRT station to his university.

“I was sitting by the window on the bus and had my earphones on. As I was minding my own business, a man came and sat next to me,” the student, who only wants to be known as Adam, recalls the distressing incident in late 2019.

“After a while, I realised he was talking to me, so I took off my earphones.”

The man, in his 50s or 60s, started chatting, asking Adam for his name, where he studied, and which faculty he was in.

“I then noticed that his fingers were slowly creeping up my thigh. At first I thought that it was because of the cramped space, but then he started playing around with his fingers,” says Adam, who began feeling uneasy and did not give the man his personal details.

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“He continued by putting his palm on my thigh and moved towards my groin. I then turned my leg and the man moved his palm away, but he still kept playing his fingers on my thigh until we reached the university.

“I shivered a bit and kept thinking why it happened. I never thought I would be a target.”

Adam did not report the incident because he took it as a small matter then. However, looking back, Adam says he now realises that it was actually an important issue, and wishes he had done something about it.

“Now I know how my sister felt when she was harassed many years back when she was only in standard one,” he says sadly.

Recently, local actor Hafreez Adam shared his own experience where he was a target of sexual assault in an effort to raise awareness about the fact that men can also be subjected to sexual harassment.

Hafreez described on his social media page how while working on set a female co-worker grabbed his bottom and chest multiple times without his consent.

“I know she meant it as a joke. But the problem was, it’s my body and I’m not comfortable with people touching me in those areas,” he wrote, adding that the co-worker still continued touching him inappropriately despite him telling her to stop and that he did not like it.

Hafreez then conducted an informal survey on his Instagram Stories, asking “if a man pats a woman’s buttocks, although he does it as a joke, what do you view that as?” Most of his followers answered,”sexual harassment.”

When he then asked if a woman did the same to a man, most of his followers responded it would be inappropriate too but few used the term sexual harassment.

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“It counts as sexual harassment too. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman and you’re doing it to another man or woman,” Hafreez wrote.

“Don’t normalise this behaviour. It’s OK if both parties agree, but if one party is not OK with it, that is sexual harassment.”

Shortly after, many entertainment portals reported on the incident. Sadly, the reaction from the public was largely disappointing and reflective of how we as a society approach sexual harassment and assault. Many of the responses on Facebook used the “laughing emoji” and while some users expressed support for Hafreez, others responded with jokes or dismissed the incident.No laughing matter

Perpetrators and targets of sexual harassment and assault can be of any gender identity, sexual orientation, or age. The All Women’s Action Society (Awam) defines sexual harassment as unwanted or unwelcome conduct that is sexual in nature, and may be committed physically, verbally, non-verbally, psychologically or visually, which may cause the person being harassed to feel humiliated, offended or threatened.

Statistics and research show that sexual harassment and domestic abuse primarily affects women, but men can also be subjected to it. A 2019 YouGov Omnibus survey of more than 1,000 respondents found 36% of Malaysian women and 17% of Malaysian men have experienced sexual harassment. While the rate of reports are generally low, men are even less likely to report on incidents of sexual harassment (44%) compared to women (57%). The biggest reasons why survivors do not make a report is due to embarrassment (54%) and the feeling that no one will do anything about the problem (38%).

The police recorded 420 male victims of physical sexual assault and 24 male victims of non-physical sexual assault between 2018 to 2020. There were also 50 male victims in cases relating to the outraging of modesty. In reality, these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg as many survivors fear coming forward.

Patriarchal challenge

According to Awam programme and operations manager Nisha Sabanayagam, empirical studies indicate that underreporting by male survivors of gender-based violence appears to be a common thread globally.

“Although not much research has been done in Malaysia about this specific issue, based on the cases that Awam has received from male survivors, the reasons why males do not report in Malaysia are similar,” says Nisha.

One challenge faced by male survivors of sexual harassment and assault in Malaysia is the patriarchal culture where sexual crimes against men are often dismissed, or even joked about.

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Instead of receiving support, many survivors suffer in silence as they fear embarrassment, being mocked, or stigmatised. Furthermore, many survivors feel too ashamed to make reports to the police and are afraid of not being taken seriously.

As of Jan 21, Awam received a total of 103 cases relating to gender-based violence, 17 of whom were from men.

“At least two cases out of these 17, involved males who were survivors of physical domestic violence. In the first case, the survivor himself could not make the report because he was embarrassed and it was his friend who approached Awam,” says Nisha.

The second case involved a man who found it very difficult to even speak to Awam about his experiences.

“He was in denial that what he was experiencing was domestic violence. He finally chose to make a police report. The police officer in charge took his report, but also indicated surprise that the survivor, as a male, was the one who was abused as opposed to the other way around,” she shares.

Break the gender barrier

Apart from the shame and stigma, male survivors could also be in denial or practise self-blame, says Nisha.

She points to another prevalent culture of patriarchy, where men are expected to behave in what are deemed as “masculine” traits: strong, aggressive, macho. Hence, a male survivor of gender based violence, may wrongly equate himself as being “weak” and feel ashamed.

“Added on to this is the general insensitivity of society towards survivors of gender-based violence as whole – this insensitivity is made even worse when the survivors are male. Male survivors have told Awam that when they make their experiences public, the typical reactions are laughter or the response of “wow, you are so lucky to be harassed by a woman” or “are sure you didn’t enjoy it?”,” says Nisha.

Sadly, the organisation has witnessed these incidents first hand during their training where male survivors share their experiences of being sexually harassed but, the responses from fellow participants, usually men, was laughter, Nisha shares.

“There are also fewer support systems and resources available for men. Literature also indicates that even counsellors have expressed disbelief that male survivors of gender based violence can experience physical, mental, or emotional torture at the hands of their partners, especially when the partners are female.”

Patriarchy not only affects women negatively, it is also bad for men, Nisha says.

“The root of patriarchy is gender inequality and to overcome this, the Malaysian government must take a firm stand for gender equality in all areas of public policy,” she notes, adding that this will eventually lead to a nation and society that values everyone equally regardless of gender.

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