A woman in Shanghai had her breasts groped by an express deliveryman while receiving a package at her home back in May. The man excused his behavior by saying that he did it simply because he was lonely but blamed her for wearing sexy clothes when answering her door. The deliveryman's company claimed that they dismissed him but refused to issue any official apology for the incident. The woman then published her experience on a gender-based violence social media platform, which attracted waves of discussions about the state of sexual harassment laws in China.
A woman tries to defend herself from sexual harassment. Photos: CFP
Sexual assault and the city
Some Chinese netizens contend that the deliveryman should have been arrested for sexual assault. Others bluntly agreed with him that the victim was to blame for misleading him with her revealing attire.
Incidents of sexual harassment and assault occur across China every day, but only a handful are reported to the authorities and even fewer are ever resolved to the satisfaction of the victim.
Not all victims are brave enough to defend themselves or speak out afterward. The reasons, in terms of cultural values, social mores and governmental legislation, are complicated in China.
According to A Report on Sexual Harassment on Chinese College Campus released by Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center earlier this year, almost 70 percent of respondents had experienced a form of sexual violence or harassment.
About 50 percent of them also said that they have no idea how to handle such incidents, while 90 percent agreed that China needs more and better sexual harassment prevention education.
In China, there is no clear legal definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. According to Hong Dongfan, a Shanghai-based lawyer with AllBright Law Offices, the first and only time that the concept of sexual harassment appeared in Chinese law was in 2005 when the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women was amended.
The law "forbids" sexual harassment of females and encourage women to complain about such behavior to companies and related departments. "But due to the absence of sufficient legislation, the judgment on such cases is usually made by law enforcement or jurisdictional authorities based on comprehensive situations," said Hong.
No laws in place
According to Peng Xiaohui, a sexologist and professor at Central China Normal University, the original concept of sexual harassment was a feminist claim to fight against discrimination of women when it was first proposed in the United States last century.
In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as "unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."
Peng explained to the Global Times that there are important elements in American legislation regarding sexual harassment, which aims to protect "weak groups" from being sexually exploited.
Firstly, when occurring in a company or school, the perpetrator is probably in a superior position over the victim or intends to obtain some influence in power or authority.
Secondly, the perpetrator and victim can be any gender. A female superior, for example, could just as easily perform harassment against a male. Also, sexual orientation is not considered, which means the perpetrator does not have to be of the opposite sex.
Peng said that these elements are now widely accepted by the Chinese sexology field because sexual harassment, as a complicated concept, cannot be explained or defined in one simple sentence.
But Peng considers sexual harassment in public spaces such as groping on the subway as another form of sexual violence which is more serious than the sexual harassment mentioned above.
Such obscure recognition of the term has deep cultural roots in China. "Something important is removed during the combination of the American concept and local culture," Peng said. "Currently, fighting against sexual harassment has developed into fighting against sex."
A woman being sexually harassed
Peng said that China has a long history of restraining sexual expression, with sex generally prohibited from being discussed in public. For example, sex education is often considered taboo by Chinese parents and schools, leading society to perceive sex as something dirty, evil or shameful.
In March, a mother of a primary-school-age student complained on her Sina Weibo that a sexual health education book that her child's school issued showed pictures of reproductive organs. She thought her child was far too young to learn about such subject matter.
The complaint incited heated online debates, among which some agreed with the mother while others accused her of being too conservative. The school finally decided to pull the text book following an outcry from other concerned parents.
In fact, the book, titled Love Life, published in 2011, was compiled from material issued by the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education implemented by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2010. It was written specifically for children aged 7 to 10 years old.
Huang Lili, director of a Beijing-based sex education study association, said in a March report by the Beijing News that, according to the UN guidance, education on reproductive health should be completed before graduation from primary school. She also contends that sexual education in China comes far later than that in other countries.
Peng said that Love Life was the result of a decade-long effort by sex-ed experts. But he remains optimistic that the controversy and public debate will in fact raise more awareness about the issue and hopefully compel Chinese parents and schools to realize how important it is.
Meanwhile, Peng believes that people who look down upon women who were sexually assaulted or raped are perpetuating a form of "cultural violence" that can emotionally injure the victim in an even more damaging way than the original physical attack.
Ji Minglü, a senior psychologist and director-general of Shanghai Perfection Youth Development Service Center, said that female sexual assault victims are often mistreated by their own families or friends due to the worship of virginity and purity.
Things are even more complicated for male sexual harassment victims in China. Traditionally and culturally, men should be impervious to such behavior, but the reality is that just as many men as women experience various forms of sexual harassment.
For example, there are many sexual harassment experiences being shared by male victims on zhihu.com, a popular ask-and-answer help platform in China. And according to the Guangzhou survey, nearly 40 percent of male respondents had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment or violence.
But male victims tend to keep such experiences to themselves rather than report it to the police or their workplace superiors, so as to maintain "masculine dignity." According to Hong, the lawyer, the absence of regulation in this aspect deters male victims from seeking help or legal recourse.
But there is hope. Last month, a male victim in Dalian, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, shared online his experience of being molested by his male driving coach. After the post went viral, local police acted and detained the perpetrator for 10 days.
In last June, a male security guard in Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province, was sentenced to prison for two years and nine months for molesting several male subordinates, becoming China's first-ever case of male-to-male molestation being heard in a court of law since 2015, according to a news report of thepaper.cn.
Volunteer college students campaign for anti-sexual harassment with performance art.
Due to complicated cultural and social values, parents are quite hesitant to teach their children how to protect themselves from sexual harassment.
There is an essay that has been widely shared on WeChat among Chinese parents reminding them to tell the children that "some body parts are not allowed to be touched by others."
"Such education only refers to the negative effects of sex but ignore the positive parts, which could possibly deliver the young a partial perception that sex is dirty and evil," said Peng.
He believes that sexual education should be integrated into a comprehensive system that presents all sides of sexual anatomy and intercourse to the public. Ji agrees that early sexual education can help prevent bad things from happening. "For young victims, parents should let them know that it is not their fault," he said.