The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu
After an hour of scissor jumps, squats, high kicks and punches at a fitness club, I decided to head home for a shower. Highly aware of the unattractive sweat stains on my chest, back and armpits, I rushed discreetly to the lift, hoping I would be alone, until a bald man dressed in sweats appeared behind me.
I recognised him immediately from a YouTube video I saw only about a week ago. He competed in a yoga competition where he did a headstand with his hands stretched far behind his shoulders. I thought he was slightly wobbly in his attempt but still, pretty impressive.
“Now you’re looking very sexy,” he said to me as I was about to compliment him on his yoga skills.
“What? Excuse me?”
I didn’t know polite introduction was passé.
“All that sweat, it makes you sexy. Sweat releases a type of scent. Pheromone,” he said.
He flashed me a grin, revealing two rows of perfectly white and even teeth. To be honest, if he hadn’t opened his mouth, I would have thought he was kind of cute.
When caught in a situation like this, I’m often confronted by these thoughts – should I tell him off straightaway or should I wait to give him the benefit of the doubt? Maybe I am too sensitive. Maybe he didn’t mean to be offensive. Maybe he didn’t know he’s being offensive.
“Pheromone? I thought only men release pheromone,” was my choice of response to him.
My tactic was to get him to think about sweat in a scientific manner. I thought Sun Tzu was in me and I, in him.
“Ohhh no. We all release pheromones. That’s how we attract each other,” he replied confidently.
My strategy seemed to have failed but fortunately enough, someone younger and definitely prettier caught his attention.
“Hi! How are you married?” he asked the girl cheerfully and then pretended to correct himself. “Oops! I meant how are you?” Without remorse, of course.
He chuckled at his own joke while the girl stepped forward to give him a hug, an indication they knew each other.
Just as I thought it would be interesting to observe their interaction with each other, the lift opened with a loud ping revealing a man standing inside. We all stepped into the lift and stood in silence until we parted ways at different floors.
Many men who read this probably think what the yogi said to me wasn’t a big deal at all. Why do women put up such a fuss when a guy makes sexual comments about her? Can’t they see it as a compliment instead?
Well, here’s the thing in case you don’t already know: Many women do not like strangers (or even men they know) commenting on their sexuality simply because it’s something private and intimate. Given, there are possibly women who love and welcome this kind of comments but I don’t think I had given this man any reason to think so.
My friend Andy claimed that men get upset with women who find it offensive when being sexually hit on because they secretly wish women would do the same to them. I don’t know whether that’s true but I think if most men don’t find themselves being sexually hit on by women, it could be because women in general think it’s an unacceptable social act, which then perhaps means men shouldn’t be doing it either.
Sexual harassment is a violation of a person’s dignity, body and private space. It’s a violation because it is premised on the basis that a person’s body belongs to that person only and nobody has the right to assume or act otherwise.
I remember a particular bus trip I took with my girlfriends when I was about 15. When we got on the bus, there were only two empty seats left at the last row of the bus. Mei Ling and I took the seats while Carol and her younger sister, Grace, sat on our laps.
Five minutes into what turned out to be a pretty bumpy ride, a hand reached out from my right to stroke Grace’s bare thighs. Startled, I turned to see who the offending hand belonged to. He smiled at me with a look that seemed to say, “So, whatcha gonna do about it, huh?”
I heaved Grace up to her feet, stood up and turned to face the man. I can’t remember how my girlfriends reacted to this sudden outburst but I remember staring disgustedly into the man’s eyes for the rest of the journey. I said nothing but I made pretty damn clear to him that I was watching him, with judgment.
I was decidedly brave that day because the man triggered a memory I had kept a secret for a very long time. When I was ten, my English teacher rubbed himself against my buttocks while I was reading an essay in front of the classroom. I did nothing about it and I told no one. My inaction would forever plague me because I’ve often wondered how many other innocent girls had also become victims of his despicable act.
Sexual harassment is criminal for the simple fact that men in these stories think they have every right to touch something that doesn’t belong to them or say something that could potentially rob a woman of her dignity. Do they think they have absolute power and authority to do so? Or is it because a young innocent girl is defenseless and hence makes for easy prey? Or perhaps, a woman’s body is public property?
I’ve had girlfriends who complain about men who make them squirm with discomfort. These are men who touch them unnecessarily, refer to them as "sexy lady" or send them pornographic material. There are also men who take the liberty of sending women text messages that are filled with sexual nuances. The funny thing is, these men almost always behave differently in person; ie they appear to be polite and respectful when you see them face-to-face. This just means that you can never really tell the identity of a sexual harasser. They can vary from a random stranger walking on the street to someone you already know who is married with children.
Sexual harassment is a big deal because it reduces a person’s worth by stripping away their dignity. The common emotions that can go through a victim range from:
• Helplessness – Eg. Feeling all alone and not knowing who to turn to for help.
• Shame, guilt, self-doubt – Eg. I must be slutty if he thinks he can say all those things to me. I must have asked for it.
• Awkwardness – Eg. I don’t know what to do or how to behave if I see him again.
• Fear – Eg. Will he do something to me if I see him again?
• Betrayed – Eg. He is my teacher. How could he do this to me?
• Confused – Eg. I want him to stop but will he hurt me if I tell him off?
• Self-resentment – Eg. Why didn’t I do anything about it?
All these emotions can have a negative impact on a person’s relationships or ability to focus at work because the person becomes too pre-occupied with these emotions.
I have had experiences where I don’t ever want to see or talk to the person who said inappropriate things to me simply because I feel utterly uncomfortable in his presence. I worry incessantly about bumping into that person if I know he is within my premises. To inflict such emotional arrest on someone is harassment. Unless you’re on the receiving end of it, you can’t even begin to understand the debilitating effects it has on a person who is sexually harassed.
It can be difficult to report someone for sexual harassment. There’s always the fear of making something so private and humiliating public, but here are some things we can do privately to reinstate our dignity and restore the power that has been stripped away from us.
• Let the person know what he did is wrong, you don’t want it and he needs to stop.
It doesn’t have to be verbal communication. Write to the person rationally and clearly, leaving no room for doubt that you want him to stop. Do not say it in a joking or apologetic way – no emoticons with half winks or smiles because a harasser will take any opportunity to turn that against you if it ever gets worse or nasty later.
Letting the person know takes away that sense of helplessness. It puts you back in charge which in turn puts the sexual predators off because they often get a kick out of asserting power over those whom they think are vulnerable.
• Show the person what he did is unacceptable through your body language.
Like the bus incident, I avoided causing a scene by letting the offender knew through persistent eye contact. Trust me, bad people often become uncomfortable when they are looked straight in the eyes. The man in the bus shifted uncomfortably in his seat and avoided eye contact after a while.
It takes courage to face your harasser but tell yourself if you don’t, you may resent yourself later for not doing anything when you had the opportunity to.
• Pretend to be confident even when you’re really not.
Like Anna Leonowens’ advice to her son in The King and I, do whistle a happy tune when you’re feeling afraid of your adversary. You may feel utterly uncomfortable in his presence and would rather avoid him if you can, but what if you work together? Your office may be too small for you to hide.
Put on a brave show by appearing confident in front of him. Give him that look which says "I know something that you don’t" and this may put him on suspense as to whether you have said something to your superior or colleagues. Sexual harassers often cash in on the bet that you’re far too weak and scared to tell anyone but if he starts to suspect you may actually have, he’s likely going to think twice about behaving badly again.
• Tell someone about it.
Make sure it’s someone you trust and will act in your best interest.
There are many reasons why some women keep the harassment to themselves. Mainly, they are afraid of being judged. For instance, women who feel unattractive are afraid to tell someone they are being sexually harassed for fear of being ridiculed. “Right, as if someone would sexually harass an ugly person like you.” Like the culprits, victims of sexual harassment vary in their profiles. No one is immune to it.
Another common reason for keeping it a secret is the fear of being judged as the culprit. “Who ask you to dress so provocatively? You totally asked for it.”
Confiding in someone not only allows you to unburden yourself and receive support, it also provides you with a witness should you decide to pursue a formal complaint against your harasser. Who knows? Maybe the person you confide in had a similar experience with the same harasser? Knowing you’re not alone will provide you great comfort and courage to go through this episode.
• Document every detail.
Spare no details and be specific right down to the date and time when the incident happened. Sexual harassment is very hard to prove. It usually boils down to my words against yours. If you do find the courage to let the person know, do it in writing if you can. You may not be ready yet to take any formal action against the culprit but you may in the future. When you do, you’ll be grateful that you’ve kept all the information you need to state a strong case against him.
As a person who has been a victim of sexual harassment, my ultimate aim is not to punish the offender but to make him stop the harassment. Getting into an ugly fight or publicly humiliating the person need not be an option and sometimes can even be counter-productive because the harasser can get defensive or violent.
Confronting your harasser takes a lot of courage and it’s never easy, but if you manage to, you’ll feel empowered, liberated and proud for standing up for yourself, knowing that you may have played a part in stopping the guy from preying on other women.
This article was first published at the Malaysian Insider on 29 May 2014.