She was just 12 when she was sexually assaulted.
Charissa* was shopping with her mother at a sports warehouse sale, when she suddenly felt someone touch her buttocks. Taken aback, she looked around and saw that the only people near her was a family with two teenage boys.
As none of them were behaving suspiciously, she chalked the incident down to her overactive imagination.
Then, as Charissa and her mother walked past the family, she felt it again – a brush against her buttocks.
She knew instinctively that what just happened to her was wrong. But, being so young, she was still unable to fully comprehend the severity of the situation and could not process the fact that she had been molested.
As such, Charissa kept quiet, leaving even her mother in the dark over what had transpired.
But that silence came at an emotional cost for Charissa.
The 25-year-old told The Pride: “I think when I kept silent, I felt… anger and disappointment towards myself and my body. It could also be because of this incident that caused me to feel less confident about my body, especially my derriere.”
Speaking to The Pride, Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) manager Anisha Joseph explained that victims like Charissa can be left “highly traumatised” in the aftermath of sexual assault, leading them to experience negative feelings such as “anger, shame, fear, numbness, denial or guilt”.
She added: “If (these) feelings are left unattended for a long time, they can lead to phobias, relationship and intimacy issues or flashbacks that may leave a negative impact.”
While, in this instance, it was ignorance that led Charissa to remain silent about being molested, there are a myriad of other reasons – ranging from emotional trauma, to external and institutional barriers – why victims like her choose not to report sexual offences.
Culture of silence on sexual assault
Anisha believes this culture of silence stems mainly from society’s reluctance to have open and honest conversations about the issue of sexual assault.
“Singapore is not an exceptional society when it comes to sexual violence. It is a common reality here, just like everywhere else, and we need to have more open, accurate, judgment-free discussions about the problem,” she said.
“A ‘culture of silence’ is formed in part due to the lack of public education on the social realities of sexual violence. Many people internalise myths about what sexual violence is and how it happens. We see this in the ways survivors have often reported being treated, with judgment or blame, whether it is by loved ones, or authorities and professional first-responders.”
In a recent example which highlighted just how deep-seated this culture of silence can be in Singapore, a former track-and-field athlete – who cannot be named to protect her identity – was told by her parents to “move on” after she confided in them that her coach, Loh Siang Piow, had allegedly molested her several times.
The athlete’s parents asked her to “forgive” the coach if it was a “one-off” incident, and suggested that making a police report would only result in her being greatly inconvenienced due to the investigations.
Nonetheless, the athlete did eventually file a police report against Loh, who was also accused by another teenager of sexual misconduct.
Loh was eventually charged with an initial five counts of outrage of modesty with the use of criminal force on a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old. He stood trial for two of the charges last month and is awaiting sentencing.
Impact of the #MeToo movement
The recent advent of the #MeToo movement however, is slowly but surely helping to change this culture of silence in Singapore.
By bringing the topic of sexual assault into the spotlight, the movement has encouraged numerous victims to speak out about their experiences, with several even reporting their abusers to the relevant authorities.
Just last month, an 18-year-old girl, Lilith, went on her Instagram account to publicly accuse actor and YouTube celebrity Eden Ang of behaving inappropriately towards her when she was working as his personal assistant.
She alleged that Ang had asked her to wear a G-string to work, told her to “call him daddy”, and even touched her on her buttocks on at least one occasion. Lilith revealed that she did not speak up earlier as she was afraid of the repercussions.
She said: “I haven’t said anything so far because I’ve been scared…no, terrified by what speaking up would mean…for my safety, for my dignity, for my family and for my friends. But enough is enough.”
Ang has since denied Lilith’s accusations, and is currently “seeking legal counsel against parties who continue to intentionally aggravate and hurt” him.
Another recent case saw Singapore hurdler Kerstin Ong lodge an official complaint to Sport Singapore (SportSG), the national governing body for sports, alleging that her former coach had behaved inappropriately towards her.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia (CNA), Ong had said: “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong… We don’t have to be afraid, and we shouldn’t tolerate this. Why must somebody suffer in silence?”
SportSG has since advised Kerstin to file a police report over the matter.
Importance of support from family and friends
Much like the case involving Loh’s accuser, Kerstin too, faced opposition from her inner circle when she initially intended to file a police report over the incident when it first happened more than two years ago.
In this instance, it was her teammates who dissuaded her from alerting the authorities.
“They said I should always try to solve it from within. I guess you’re always taught to protect your coach,” Kerstin told CNA. “They started ignoring me… I was really sad, they were friends and they turned against me…(but) because it wasn’t pursued, a lot of people subsequently thought I was lying.”
Anisha highlighted that the reactions of family and friends can determine whether sexual assault victims choose to speak out or remain silent.
“Oftentimes, it is the reactions of others to their experiences that damage or slow down survivors’ emotional recovery,” she said. “SACC clients have shared how their own families and friends have responded with disbelief, judgment, resentment or discouraging comments. Many survivors also worry how their loved ones would react if they report the case to authorities.
“Friends and family need to be the first line of defence, as they are often the ones that survivors reach out to first. It is important that the survivor makes their own decisions on what they feel is best for them, and are not pressured to take any one action. Statements like ‘It’s not your fault’, ‘It’s your choice’, ‘It’s your experience’, ‘I’m here to support’, can be really helpful.”
Speak up, seek help when needed
However, Anisha stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to what sexual assault victims should do, as the road to recovery varies from person to person.
She explained: “There isn’t a right or wrong way to respond to sexual violence, and we cannot assume that everyone will benefit from speaking out about such highly-personal experiences.
“Nonetheless, we encourage survivors to speak to a professional, a trained volunteer, and/or someone they trust. Many clients have shared that just speaking to a counsellor who is not judgmental, a lawyer who can provide information about their legal options, or being accompanied by a befriender to make a report or go to the court, has really helped them in their recovery.”
For Charissa, keeping silent in the face of sexual assault or harassment is no longer an option for her.
Last year, while shopping at a bookstore, she was molested again when a secondary school student placed his palm on her buttocks.
This time however, Charissa was not about to let the perpetrator off. Instead, she publicly confronted the student, who eventually confessed to molesting her and apologised profusely. Nonetheless, the student was still hauled up to the police station, where he received a warning letter and was required to undergo counselling.
Describing how she felt after speaking up and confronting her molester, Charissa, a writer, said: “I felt validated from his confession. When I reported the offence, I felt more anger towards the perpetrator, and I understood the problem lies with him, not me.
“Coupled with the people around me giving me their support and commending me (for reporting the offence), it has convinced me that people should do the same if they find themselves in similar situations.
“So, I would advise everyone to ask for help when they’ve been molested and not let the perpetrators go. There are nice Singaporeans out there (who are willing to help). Your silence could lead to someone else becoming a victim of the perpetrator.”
*We are not using Charissa’s real name to protect her identity.
If you happen to be a victim of sexual assault and require help, you can call the Sexual Assault Care Centre’s helpline at 67790282 (Mondays to Fridays, 10am to midnight) to speak to a trained professional.