Does sexual harassment happen on campuses? In 2017, IGNITE, in collaboration with the Feminist Society, launched a survey to uncover some dark secrets from students and campus staff from all across Malaysia… and the results were shocking. This is part three of IGNITE’s Sexual Harassment & The Culture Of Misogyny On Campus series.
Disclaimer: this article is not an authoritative treatise on issues on rape, sexual harassment, consent and modesty but rather a (semi-)coherent opinion piece aimed at generating discussion.
The conversation surrounding rape and sexual harassment carries many double standards. It often primarily involves a male perpetrator and a female victim (excluding many male victims of sexual violence). Paradoxically however, the victim is almost always scrutinised, from her state of dress to whether she resisted enough, or whether she was “clear” in her resistance.
Consent, or lack thereof is never enough to settle the issue. Did he/she consent? No? Then it is a crime. Why are we still arguing over this?
And yet like clockwork, the questions inevitably pop up, the doubts linger even at the back of your mind. And where I come from the same solution is always given: a woman should be modest to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
Let’s Talk about Consent
Consent – to give assent or approval – is a deceptively simple concept to grasp.
You may have heard of the controversy surrounding comedian and actor Aziz Ansari, and a woman (referred to as “Grace”) who accused him of sexually harassing her. Her story has sparked a wide debate over the very definition of sexual harassment. Does Grace’s story count as sexual harassment or just “bad sex”?
Increasingly, modern standards of what constitutes ethical sexual relations establish consent as the most important condition.
Sometimes, it is verbal and obvious. Sometimes there are grey areas.
So how do we know consent exists in sex? Unsurprisingly, it is really complicated. What is becoming a common notion is that harassment, even in a sexual sense, has little or nothing to do with sex and desire at all, but power.
Power dynamics is an important factor to consider when discussing unequal sexual relations. For instance, adults for example are always considered to have power over children.
A child having sexual relationships with an adult will in many countries be considered as rape, even if there is “consent” as it is agreed upon that a child who doesn’t have the full mental faculties as an adult can never consent to sex with an adult.
In an educational context such as a university, teacher-student relationships are frowned upon due to the inherently unequal power dynamic and any case of misconduct will hold the educator responsible for deliberate abuse of authority.
So by process of elimination, if sex is not between two equals then the level of consent is dubious.
Similarly, heterosexual relationships tend to be rife with gendered power dynamics, thanks in part to the construction of gender roles spanning literal centuries which pervade politics, culture, social structures, media etc. Society has historically been patriarchal and this affects how we view male-female dynamics, along with what men and women are expected to do. Even as adults, women are not so much autonomous beings who can make their own choices, but infantile children who need to be protected by the strong menfolk.
The workplace is currently the most popular space where power and the exploitation of it is now being navigated by many women.
Let’s Talk About Modesty
With this in mind, does the modesty argument still have merit?
On my part, the idea that covering myself would prevent harassment had always sounded ludicrous. Growing up in a Muslim background however, this is still considered to be common sense.
Modesty has many definitions. Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “moderation, temperateness, self-control, freedom from excess or exaggeration…”.
This is the most general definition I could find, but one popular definition at least in popular consciousness is “propriety in dress, speech and conduct” and it is highly gendered. Modesty is often expected of virtuous and self-respecting women but in my experience is hardly associated with men other than token reminders.
Recently a museum in Brussels, Belgium created an exhibit showing the types of clothing survivors were wearing when they were assaulted.
Tellingly, most of these clothes are almost shocking in their plainness. Some of them are skin-showy such as a swimsuit, but many of these clothes seemed to have been worn by the survivors while they were at home. One article of clothing was also disturbingly a pair of children’s pyjamas, emphasising my earlier point about acts of sexual violence being more about power exploitation.
I can point out my personal experience being harassed despite being covered from head to toe, even in niqab. I can also point to the many, many, many articles detailing other women saying that dressing modestly does nothing to stop harassment.
The problem is there is a dearth of empirical evidence to suggest a causal relationship between sexual harassment and state of dress. So why is it still accepted as common sense?
In my view, the lack of conversation is the main problem. People generally do not want to talk about difficult issues that make us uncomfortable. Also, for many complicated reasons, it is still difficult for women to speak out if they have gone through these things. Our previous article has talked about the lack of adequate avenues on the part of our university in generating awareness and providing assistance to the student body regarding these issues.
We should acknowledge that while modesty in itself is a noble concept, how it is propagated in our culture has its consequences; ironically, the sexual objectification of women and the occurrence of victim blaming. Do women deserve blame for being harassed due to the state of their dress? I would argue no. Some people would rebut that it is the same as having preventive measures to protect your house from being robbed. However, those things are not comparable. Setting up locks and alarms to your house is a proven way to deter robbers, and sometimes not even then. We’ve already established that clothing as a means of protection is such a flimsy argument and women have the right to walk in a space and be safe no matter what the circumstances. Rather than putting the onus on the victim to protect themselves from harassment, we should foster more nuanced and productive discussions on rape culture, consent and male-female relations.
By Nabilah Alshari
NEXT WEEK: We take a look at sexual harassment, misogyny and toxic masculinity from a male perspective.