Three years ago, Samantha Tan was working as an artist liaison for an arts festival when she faced sexual harassment. Then 21, she was assigned to a foreign artist and the nature of the job meant that she spent most of her working hours with him alone.
Once, the artist tried to force Tan to join him and the festival’s senior management for supper and drinks after an event, during which he had already consumed a few drinks. He even got physical when she refused, attempting to drag her into the cab. Tan managed to pull herself free and the artist left after being hurried by those in the cab.
Over the next few days, Tan received several messages from the artist inviting her to join him at the hotel’s swimming pool, or in his room. She never responded to them.
When she brought the matter up to her manager, she was told to handle the situation carefully as the artist had been invited by a big sponsor of the festival and had a good relationship with the artistic director.
“When I asked for a transfer of artists, he responded that all his other artist liaison personnel were young women like me,” Tan told The Pride. According to her, the manager explained that replacing her would be to knowingly put them at risk, too. “He advised me to spend as little time alone with him as possible,” she added.
At the next event, she tried her best to put some distance between her and the artist. But the artist approached her after the event. He took her hands, insisted on her taking him back to his hotel even though there was a shuttle bus hired to do so. He also asked her to accompany him the next evening for an unofficial event. She declined both.
Her concerns were eventually heard by the senior management, who sent an older colleague to accompany her so she would no longer be alone with him. When the artist’s engagement was over, someone else was assigned to take him to the airport. However, the artist continued to send Tan messages asking her where she was.
A few weeks later Tan found out that right before he left, he allegedly sexually assaulted another female staff member who was sent to retrieve something from him at his hotel. It left Tan horrified.
The whole experience made Tan feel “guilt, fear and shame”. It also affected Tan’s relationships with men, something which, she said, infuriates her.
“I think the mark it left on me surfaces in insidious ways. I have never felt as vulnerable and out-of-control as I did in that time. Every encounter with men physically bigger than me since is very calculated,” she said.
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Initially, Tan had been hesitant about speaking out, as she was just starting out in an industry she loved working in and feared that doing so would jeopardise her career.
“Working in the arts was a dream of mine and one I’d been working really hard towards… I was starting out in an industry I loved and wanted to work in for a long time,” explained Tan. She eventually opened up and shared about her experience in a Facebook post a year after the incident, when reports about allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein started surfacing.
Tan is among 100 interviewees whom Singaporean playwright Ken Kwek spoke to in preparation for Pangdemonium’s upcoming play, This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls. The play was inspired by the #MeToo movement that gained worldwide prominence in 2017.
The 39-year-old award-winning playwright told The Pride he had been working on a different project with Pangdemonium’s Adrian Pang when the movement first started. When it became a worldwide phenomenon, signalling just how endemic and widespread sexual assault and harassment is, they felt it was “too big an issue to ignore”.
“I went back to the drawing board and began work on a new play, which eventually became This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls,” said Kwek. It took him eight months to complete the interviews, and another eight to write the play.
“The scope of the stories I heard was huge. Interviewees recounted all kinds of stories; stories of violent rape, of being flashed in public spaces, being harassed by colleagues and bosses, molested at nightclubs, assaulted by family members, the list goes on and on,” Kwek said. However, he added that there weren’t any common methods used by sexual predators.
“If the #MeToo Movement has shown anything, it’s that people who aren’t sexual predators are capable of offending others’ sense of professionalism, comfort or safety. Pretty Girls is not a play about sexual predators, but about ordinary men and women undone by sexual behaviours that have emotional consequences.”
He added that he was inspired by the courage displayed by the victims he interviewed. “It was often heart-breaking to hear victims – both male and female – recall their trauma, particularly the stories of violent assault and child sexual abuse,” Kwek shared.
“Just being able to sit there and recount their stories to me was proof of their strength. A few interviewees were still coping with pain and trauma, but they were also fighting to get back on their feet, to continue living with hope and optimism. That gave me plenty of motivation.”
In the play’s synopsis, Kwek said he saw the whole issue being as much an issue for men as it is for women. He elaborated: “The #MeToo movement is a much bigger and more complicated thing that covers a whole raft of issues – from questioning gender stereotypes and rejecting sexism, to challenging patriarchal power structures and creating policies that protect employees from workplace sexual harassment. I think men can and must play a critical role.
“How can more women be included in corporate and political leadership positions unless men are willing to work with them as equals? How can male-dominated industries such as, say, tech, be more gender-equal unless parents encourage their daughters, as much as their sons, to play with robots and pursue computer science? And how can toxic masculinity be redressed unless fathers are willing to acknowledge their faults and failures, and redefine for their sons what it truly means to be a man?”
The play, Kwek suspects, will hit a raw nerve with some audiences and possibly anger others. But his hope is that it opens up a space for difficult issues to be discussed – such as how institutions can better protect employees from sexual misconduct, and how men and women can change their attitudes in approaching each other as sexual creatures.
He also wants men to “take the stories that survivors have to tell seriously”.
As for Tan, she hopes that the play would continue to raise crucial awareness on sexual abuse and the myriad ways it happens, and address the systemic factors that proliferate it.
“(The play’s title) is also a statement that sexual abuse deniers have lobbed at stories of sexual abuse, as part of their claims that victims in some way ‘asked for it’,” Tan said, calling such comments ludicrous.
“I hope This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls gives comfort to all of us who have suffered, and courage to those who still feel alone in their trauma. Finally, I hope it will send a message that while there was a time where we were cowed into silence, that time is now gone.”
This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls runs from May 10 to May 26 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets, priced between $40 and $75, are available at Sistic.