Dear Monica Baey,
Our paths have never crossed, and it’s also been close to a decade since I was a young undergraduate like you are today.
As a result, I can’t say that I know you as a person, or claim that I understand firsthand the realities of current university students.
Yet, this has not made me feel any less invested as you made public your experience of being sexually harassed on campus last year, and now lead the campaign for your school, NUS, to take a tougher stance against offenders.
Offenders like Nicholas Lim – your fellow student who thought it would be fun to surreptitiously film you as you took a shower.
By making your experience public on your personal Instagram account, I’m not sure if you expected for it to go viral the way it has.
I’m also not sure if you were emotionally prepared for the scrutiny that has followed, and the judgment that strangers would cast upon you.
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While thankfully, the public response has appeared largely supportive, among the less flattering terms I’ve heard some people use to describe you are words like attention-seeking and opportunistic. And then there are the tasteless comments critiquing your appearance, as though that somehow calls into question the validity of your status as a victim.
Now, I hope that these are people who have never been through the harrowing experience of dealing with sexual harassment or assault, and do not personally know anyone who has.
Because if they do, I find the lack of empathy shocking that their first instinct is to undermine a victim’s character.
Perhaps they would see why their comments are misdirected and unempathetic if they had any inkling at all of the trauma and distress that someone goes through in the months and years after being sexually harassed.
Perhaps they would realise that criticising the victim instead of the perpetrator, in an incident where guilt has been established, no less, is part of the reason why many victims choose not to speak up about their experiences, leading to a culture of silence around sex crimes.
A victim gains very little from being open about her experience. There is the fear of being doubted by others, and the inadvertent shame of having people know and gossip about the fact that you have been intimately violated.
Add to that the effects of such a traumatic episode to your everyday life, from something as normal as going to the toilet, to taking public transport, to being in an enclosed space with strangers.
I see that in an acquaintance, who, like you, had a voyeur film her in the shower while living on campus in another university. That voyeur was never caught. She, on the other hand, was traumatised and moved out the very next day.
I see that in the instance a Facebook friend of mine wrote about witnessing a young girl being violated by an older man on the bus. The girl had frozen in fear, and it required my friend to physically lead her away to get out of the situation.
I see that in my own experience as a teenage girl – when a boy I didn’t even know trailed me as I walked home and attacked me when we were finally alone in the carpark. To this day, as a 30-year-old woman, I still constantly look over my shoulder in quiet areas, even when I’m walking in broad daylight.
The effects of encounters like these are unlikely to plague perpetrators like Nicholas, who managed to work as an insurance agent in the one semester he was suspended from school.
It is also hard to determine how remorseful he really was in writing that personal apology letter, delivered to you through an email sent by a faculty staff.
And even more murky is how the very institution obligated to provide its students with a safe environment to pursue their education could consider this as sufficient restitution for his actions.
Like many others, I would have thought that it is the school’s prerogative to impose a clear, no-tolerance policy towards known sexual predators as part of its commitment to protect its students, even if the individual had been let off with a conditional warning by the authorities.
What is crystal clear, however, is that if not for those Instastories you decided to put up last week, the inadequacies of the university’s policies would not have come to light, just like the dozens of other past cases unearthed by a group called NUS Students United where other victims like you saw perpetrators escape with simple punishments similar to the one you described as “a slap on the wrist”.
If not for your courage to talk about your experience publicly, the intense discussions that have emerged in the past week about the seriousness of voyeurism as a sex crime, and the need for our society to recognise it as such, may not even have taken place.
If it wasn’t for your voice, there may not be the ripples of change we’re already starting to see, from NUS organising a townhall this week to discuss the concerns over sexual misconduct on campus, to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung calling the punishment Nicholas received as “manifestly inadequate” and instructing universities here to review their policies towards similar offences.
So thank you. Thank you for refusing to stay silent. Thank you for being brave in your quest for redress.
As the conversation shifts towards stronger repercussions for those guilty of sexual misconduct, not just in schools but also across wider society, we can only guess how many of those guilty of it are currently living in fear about their dirty deeds coming to light, or how many would-be offenders will now think twice instead of acting on their urges in the belief that they will be given a second chance.
But it doesn’t take a university degree to see what a world of difference this narrative would make for victims who know now that they no longer have to remain silent and helpless.