Until last week, no public figure in Singapore had been implicated in a sexual harassment case since the start of the #MeToo movement.
Then on Jan 25, actor and YouTube personality Eden Ang was publicly accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards his 18-year-old personal assistant.
The accusations were sordid: Eden, 29, allegedly told his PA to “call me daddy”, and once instructed her to wear a G-string to work. He also allegedly touched the 18-year-old inappropriately, including smacking her on her butt.
The 18-year-old in question, Lilith, went public with her identity late Tuesday night (Jan 30). On her social media account, Lilith said she would be filing a police report against Eden.
Eden however has denied the allegations. He described the accusations as “hurtful and false”, and said: “I did not take advantage of anyone”.
So whom should you believe?
Lawyers told The Pride that cases of sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, are often difficult to prove in court.
Josephus Tan, of Invictus Law Corporation, explained: “Most sexual harassment cases in the workplace are often subtle or take place in a very private setting with no one around.
“Unless another party witnesses it or the harasser admits to it, it’s often a ‘he said, she said’ scenario, which rarely stands in the court of law,” he added.
The court of public opinion, however, is a different beast. Both Eden and Lilith have their detractors, though the most troubling remarks have been directed towards the latter.
“Girl wants fame”, “She dressed in this way sexy (sexual) as she find herself trouble. No one to pitty of her”, “she just wants publicity like those in Hollywood case”, “she just wants attention”, some netizens said.
Although it is justifiable to question the validity of any allegation, comments like these reek of a victim-blaming or slut-shaming mentality. They not only infringe on a woman’s freedom of expression, they also deter victims from coming forward.
In verified cases of sexual assault, some of the main reasons cited by victims for not seeking any help included embarrassment, shame, and the fear of not being believed.
Such incidents are more prevalent in Singapore than you may think. According to a 2015 Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) survey, more than one in three young people here have experienced some form of sexual violence – ranging from verbal harassment to non-consensual touching to rape; just 6 per cent of victims however have sought help or reported the case to the police.
The situation however is changing. Since the start of the #MeToo movement, a growing number of victims, including in Singapore, have been speaking out about their own experiences. At the SACC for instance, there has been an 81 per cent spike in people reaching out to them for help over the last three months.
“#MeToo has given thousands of sexual assault and harassment survivors a platform to share their experiences, and has been an empowering show of collective solidarity, support and courage,” SACC manager Anisha Joseph told The Pride.
“It comes as no surprise that many survivors feel emboldened to talk about what they have faced when others around them are doing so as well.”
Still, there are growing concerns about the movement. During a public event last month, New Yorker journalist Ronan Farrow, who published the expose on Harvey Weinstein, expressed his fear that innocent men could become “casualties” of false sexual assault allegations. There is also a suspicion that people could use the movement to gain more fame.
“I think you’re right to say that we all have to be conscious of the risk of the pendulum swinging too far,” he said, as cited by NewsWeek, although he did add that the #MeToo movement was a very positive step.
New York Times editor Bari Weiss also addressed the issue in an op-ed, where she warned of the “limits” to believing every story.
“What we owe all people, including women, is to listen to them and to respect them and to take them seriously. But we don’t owe anyone our unthinking belief.”
“Trust (the accuser), but verify,” she suggested.
International research has found that only 2 to 6 per cent of sexual violence cases reported to the police turned out, or were suspected, to be false. These cases of course do not account for online allegations ever since the start of the #MeToo movement, but in this instance, rates for false allegations of sexual violence were no higher than those reported in other categories of crime.
Anisha told The Pride: “False allegations are rare, while underreporting of sexual violence is overwhelmingly common. Based on our experience with SACC, close to seven in 10 clients do not report their experiences to authorities.
“The ‘false allegations myth’ is too often overblown to silence the vast majority of sexual violence experiences, which happens every day, on the street, at home, in school or at work.
“Women have little to gain from exploiting such a movement, especially one that can dig up painful or uncomfortable memories,” she said.
WHAT ARE THE BOUNDARIES?
Earlier this month, another debate arose about the #MeToo movement following an online article regarding popular US comedian Aziz Ansari.
The details of the article are as follows: A woman, identified only as “Grace”, went on a date with the Master of None star. The date proceeded to his apartment, where the couple started to kiss and later undressed. At one point, the comedian tried to have sex with his date. The woman felt uncomfortable. She displayed verbal and non-verbal cues, before finally saying “no”. At this point the actor stopped, and the woman went home. The comedian later apologised via text.
Following this article, even some feminists said that what Aziz did was not a form of sexual violence.
In an article in The Atlantic headlined, The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari, author Caitlin Flanagan described Grace’s story as “3,000 words of revenge porn”.
Grace was angry that she wanted affection, kindness, attention from the comedian, but the comedian just wanted sex, Flanagan suggested.
Psychology professor Michael Cunningham at the University of Louisville, had a similar theory.
“It appears that Grace wanted Ansari to treat her as a potential girlfriend to be courted over multiple dates, rather than a pickup from a party engaging in a mutually acceptable transaction,” Cunningham told TIME. “When he did not rise to her expectations, she converted her understandable disappointment into a false #MeToo.”
However, there are others like feminist writer and speaker Jessica Valenti who felt that Aziz’s behaviour demonstrated an imbalance in power between men and women when it comes to relationships.
“A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful,” she tweeted.
Although there appears to be no agreement on the issue, this public debate is positive, clinical sexologist and relationship coach Dr Martha Tara Lee told The Pride. For one, she noted that public discussion could help more people be aware about the issues raised by the #MeToo movement.
“Many are undoubtedly confused about what is going on – don’t care, or choose not to care. Hopefully some people are getting educated in the process with all this debate and dialoguing happening.
“Like any advocacy effect, the tide will take place over time, and the tipping point comes as more people begin to become more informed about the issues – and able to articulate the importance of consent, and practice it,” she said.
Anisha of the SACC also pointed out that the current lack of public education on sexual behaviour is directly tied to why sexual violence happens. She feels that much more public education is needed to address misconceptions about sexual violence, sexual coercion and victim-blaming attitudes.
“Increasing understanding of consent and the realities of sexual assault are key to ensuring that survivors meet with support and empathy, rather than blame and judgment,” she said.
“The sooner we acknowledge that sexual violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that it is aided when we minimise the effects of unhealthy relationship dynamics or sexual coercion, the sooner we can create a society where consent is truly respected at every stage of a sexual activity or relationship.”
Dr Martha believes that men can sometimes be confused about what constitutes appropriate behaviour.
“Unfortunately, society and media portrayal of courtship seems to celebrate persistence to the point of harassment and constitute it as part and parcel of romance or romantic behaviour.
“The line (between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour) has to do with consent. If somebody has expressed discomfort and asked for such behaviour to stop, their wishes should be respected.”
So what is her general advice for now?
“No means no. Maybe is a no. Do no harm. If somebody says no, then it’s a no and do not continue.”
Seek help if you are victim of sexual harassment. The Sexual Assault Care Centre’s helpline (6779 0282) runs from Mondays to Fridays (10am to midnight).