Unwanted, unwelcome

By December 14, 2020 March 10th, 2022 Research Publications

Calling a female co-worker “babe,” inappropriately touching a male employee, and taking photos of an unsuspecting schoolmate showering – these are all examples of unwanted and unwelcome actions that constitute sexual harassment. It can be physical, verbal, non-verbal, written; it can be carried out in person or, now that our lives revolve around technology, over text and direct messaging; and, it can happen to anyone, regardless of gender.

Sexual harassment is “unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, abusive or offensive working environment.”

– International Labour Office

Singapore has seen a string of high-profile cases involving sexual misconduct lately, particularly in institutes of higher learning. In fact, more than 170 such cases were handled by universities, polytechnics, and ITEs (Institute of Technical Education) over the past five years. Notable incidents of sexual harassment include the infamous peeping tom case exposed by victim National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey in 2019, and most recently, the sacking of ex-NUS professor Jeremy Fernando following allegations he had made non-consensual sexual advances towards several students. But it seems all too familiar now – just swap the name of the assailant and the school, and that’s another sexual misconduct case splashed on the front cover of the news.

Inappropriate sexual acts do not only happen in schools, however. Workplaces saw reports soar from zero in 2017, to 9 in 2018, and 13 in 2019, a trend most likely spurred by the global #MeToo movement, which highlighted just how pervasive sexual harassment is, and encouraged victims to come forward with their stories and speak out against their aggressors. Online local podcast Okletsgo also came under fire earlier this year for their history of misogynistic comments and making sexual remarks about women.

Sexual harassment – a serious problem?

So, it seems that sexual harassment is increasingly becoming a serious problem in Singapore, a statement which resonates with majority (77%) of the 124 respondents we polled on their perception of the issue. While more than half believe authorities are dealing with such cases seriously, a significant minority, about 40%, are of the opinion that more needs to be done to put perpetrators to task.

For this group of respondents, they want to see tougher laws and sentencing for criminals involved in sexual harassment cases (88%), and for compulsory training to deal with such cases, especially in law enforcement, to be implemented (85%). Sexual harassment is seen as a less severe form of sexual assault, which involves criminal acts of rape, assault, and molestation, and thus can be taken lightly. Evoking once more the Monica Baey case, the voyeur Nicholas Lim was given a conditional warning for trespassing and filming Baey without her consent, causing a furore online, an even sparking petitions which were signed by thousands, reflecting the sentiment of many who felt the punishment meted out was too light.

Poll respondents also indicated that the Singapore society does not know how to deal with sexual harassment incidents, with nearly 70% believing it to be true, and another 77% saying the topic is taboo. Nearly all respondents say the first step to tackle sexual harassment in society is to start young by way of education and increasing awareness of the matter in schools (93%). The culture of victim-blaming, which 60% say is rampant in society, should also be eliminated.

A report by Today in September had uncovered how victims of sexual harassment and assault face a ‘second wave of trauma,’ when the people around them attempt to “rationalise away the behaviour of the culprit by attributing part or all of the blame on to the victim.” More often than not, victims, especially women, are blamed for being sexually harassed – their skirts were too short, they should not have been out that late at night, they should not have been drinking – and the perpetrators’ actions are justified because of the reasons set out above. When victim-shaming is seen as ok, it encourages the normalisation of sexual harassment. Several respondents also noted that victim-blaming is prevalent online, as seen in the example below which shows comments by netizens on a commentary that questioned whether drinking is the root of the problem in cases of sexual assault:

One interesting observation made was that several respondents had called for victim care to be strengthened. The lack of support, they said, is a possible factor why victims of sexual harassment are reluctant to report their horrifying ordeal to the authorities. If more attention and resources are allocated towards helping victims overcome their trauma, and if authorities are honest and transparent while dealing with sexual harassment cases, more people who have suffered the same fate would be encouraged to file a report against their attackers. This, in turn, would deter would-be assailants from committing the crime.

On whether workplaces and schools deal with sexual harassment cases seriously, majority felt otherwise, with 63% saying policies in places of employment were not adequate and effective enough in preventing and addressing sexual misconduct, and 62% indicating the same for schools. It should be noted that companies in Singapore are not obliged to implement policies on workplace harassment – in fact, Singapore was among the few that did not ratify a legally binding international labour standard, which requires countries to adopt laws and regulations that mandate a workplace policy on violence and harassment. However, there are laws here that govern certain acts of harassment – including of the sexual nature – the Penal Code, and the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Employees may also seek help through the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).

As for schools, it is encouraging to know that universities like NUS and the Singapore Management University (SMU) have set up victim care units. There are now also tougher penalties for offenders, more information on sexual harassment, as well as compulsory modules on matters like respect and consent. However, there are still lapses, which were revealed during the Jeremy Fernando saga – there was a lack of communication and transparency on NUS’s part, to which it later admitted to. Most recently, Education Minister Lawrence Wonghad urged institutions to be open and timely when addressing allegations of sexual misconduct, and said his ministry is working closely with IHLs to review and strengthen measures to combat sexual misconduct.

What is sexual harassment?

We asked respondents what they think amounts to sexual harassment, and we have split the responses by gender.

For women, the most egregious instance of sexual harassment is quid pro quo (90%), or “something for something,” a form of blackmail where the harasser demands sexual favours from the victim, forcing the latter to choose between agreeing to the lewd request or risk losing out on promotions or even their job. This is followed by unwanted sexual advances (83%) like repeatedly asking someone out on a date and uninvited touching, physical threat (79%), non-physical forms of harassment (76%) like sending nudes via text, flashing, or stalking, and lastly, verbal threats (62%).

For men, physical threat ranks the highest (72%), followed by quid pro quo and non-physical forms of harassment (69%), unwanted sexual advances (55%), and lastly, verbal threats (47%).

Reporting sexual harassment

Contrary to researcher bias, an overwhelming 88% of women respondents said they would lodge a report if they were sexually harassed. Meanwhile, only two thirds of male respondents indicated they would do the same. Majority of both men (67%) and women (77%) also said they would feel safe lodging a report if they became victims of sexual harassment.

However, when asked if they are clear about the procedures to report a case of sexual harassment, 71% said they were not.

For the few who would not come forward if they had been subjected to such a crime, 75% of the women polled said they were worried about being shamed as a victim. Other reasons include worries that reporting the matter would affect her reputation, they do not feel safe reporting the matter, they do not trust the process, and that no one would believe them (62.5%). As for the one third of men who said they would not lodge a report, 70% attributed this to the fact that no one would believe them.

Almost all women polled (92%) said they would seek help if they were sexually harassed, and many would go to the authorities for assistance (79%). Family (67%) and friends (52%) are also sources of help and support. A smaller proportion would turn to people in charge, be it at work or in schools, and an even smaller number said they would seek help from medical professionals (23%).

Fewer men indicated they would seek help (70%), and if they did, they would turn to the authorities first (68%), and those in charge at places of employment or education (56%). Friends (54%) and family members (51%) do not rank as high for men in their chain of seeking assistance should they be sexually harassed.

The 8% of women who said they would not seek help all said it was because they were worried about being shamed as a victim. For men, it was because they would feel embarrassed telling others about their ordeal (94%), and are worried that no one would believe them (76%).

It was encouraging to note that 90% of respondents would lodge a report if they witnessed someone being harassed in real life. However, only 60% said they would do so if they saw sexual harassment being conducted online. This is worrying – after all, the cases of technology-enabled sexual harassment have quadrupled between 2016 and 2019, according to the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). Given our reliance on technology, this trend is not going to subside any time soon. Non-physical forms of sexual harassment are also just as damaging – for example, sexual photos of a victim could be spread online by a jealous ex, and there is no way for him or her to stop the spread of those images, leaving them helpless.


 It is heartening to note that many of our respondents are receptive towards reporting sexual harassment cases, not only for themselves, but also if they witness it happening to others. This is a step towards normalising reporting such cases, and hopefully, to make sexual harassment a thing of the past.

Sexual misconduct, of course, occurs outside of workplaces and schools, like public spaces or even homes. Given the brevity of this survey, and the sensitivity surrounding the issue, Black Dot Research will conduct an in-depth interview in the future to gain more insights on sexual harassment and victim response.

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