As a woman in my mid-twenties, I’ve heard the suggestive comment, felt the stare, and know the visceral rage that surges through the body in response to unwelcome touch; these are common, tolerated for too long as a not-so-secret rite of passage to womanhood. In just under a year in Shanghai I have been sexually violated by two expats living and working here, a friend and a stranger. One would later say he was just too intoxicated, while the second who held me so close to his body I thought I might suffocate, would offer up no excuse.
Sexual violation, a blanket term for both harassment and assault, is not just the experience of cis hetero women (which I happen to be), members of the LGBTQ community are also victimized as well as cis hetero men. In most cases it’s coming from people we know: friends, acquaintances, colleagues, employers — and diminishes feelings of security and self-worth. So how can we as a community work to prevent this and what resources are available in Shanghai? I sat down with reps from Ladyfest, LesQueers, Safe Haven, Girl Gone International, and Phoenix Risen to find out.
What is Sexual Violation?
Sexual Violation is a term that was created to cover all violations of a sexual nature, from sexual harassment to assault. Sexual assault is commonly defined as sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. The UN defines sexual harassment as unwelcome behavior including “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” If it’s made clear either through verbal or non-verbal cues (body language, pitch and tone, etc.) that your actions and / or comments are making a person uncomfortable, that falls under sexual violation. Common contexts where sexual violations routinely occur include places of work, public spaces (public transportation, a bar, a party), social media (cyber stalking), and of course private spaces, like the home.
In my very first agency job, my client got very drunk over dinner. My boss asked me to take him upstairs to the hotel room. In the elevator, he tried to molest me, and I just narrowly got away. When I told my boss what happened, he just said “So what? He just really likes you?”—Dina, age 26*
A guy I was studying abroad with, walked up to me at a club and put his hand down my pants in front of everyone when I was dancing. It made me uncomfortable for sure, and a lot of people saw it happen and I think they thought it was consensual, that I was into it. —Caleb, age 25
I blocked him on WeChat, then he sent me a message on tinder, threatening that the next time he saw me in a public place he was going to embarrass me—the conclusion I came to was I always have to be out with people I feel comfortable with, so I’m ready if something happens. —Adriana, age 29
It all starts with consent. There are people from all over the world in Shanghai’s expat community, if you’re sexually active be mindful of cultural differences when obtaining consent. If you don’t get an enthusiastic yes, it’s a no. If someone is intoxicated, it’s a no. To avoid misunderstanding, be honest about how you’re feeling, if you’re uncomfortable try to verbalize it. Michelle Ibarra of Safe Haven argues this is the biggest issue plaguing the international community of Shanghai, saying, “It comes down to cultural context, to background, to where you grew up; in a lot of the stuff I’ve come across here, the problem was a lack of clear communication, people acted on how they felt, instead of considering the other person."
Tips and Resources If You Experience Sexual Violation
Sexual assault and rape are crimes in China. If you have been sexually assaulted, your first step is to call the police (110) to file a report. Physical evidence is extremely important if you wish to seek legal recourse. Get a rape kit as soon as possible (the police and international embassies, like the U.S. Embassy, can help with this; read their full report on help for victims of crime).
Time stamps are also important. One tip is to send an email to yourself ASAP, in order to keep track of the time. Tell a friend right away so you have a witness, inform them of when and where the assault occurred. For additional support, if you are an expat who has been physically abused, you can call the Safe Haven Hotline, a source for safety planning as well as legal and medical help (Website coming soon, hotline will officially later this spring, more details to come). It’s also a good idea as mentioned above to check your embassy’s resources.
If you are combatting ongoing sexual harassment one initial step (dependent on the context) is to address your harasser directly to make him / her aware that the behavior is unacceptable. Start with “I” statements, to avoid escalation. If in your place of work, you can state the behavior and say if it continues you will go to HR — know your company’s polices and your rights as an employee. Make sure you are keeping emails, texts, or any evidence you can use later if necessary.
Two men were staring at me, they turned around they started talking to each other about me in Spanish, so I understood. In Spanish, I said: 'Can I help you with something? You shouldn’t stare that way'—I was scared and my voice was shaking, but it worked, they stopped. —Jane, age 29
Gabby Gabriel of LesQueers insists on the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the conversation. Resources there include an online hotline, which will launch April 1 and a list of LGBTQIA+ friendly bilingual psychologists and counselors. The app they are developing, Q Key, will work as a guide for the community to choose safer spaces within the city; contact through their site. It’s also true that Trans people experience high rates of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, TransTalks ( WeChat: transtalks) is a support group that provides a platform for cross-gender communities in a friendly, secure environment.
If you are getting harassed through social media, check to see what safety measures are in place, for example you can report people on WeChat (on their profile page, select “report” from the menu in the top-right corner) and block them (all protections here). If you choose to block, make sure you’re doing so on all fronts: Facebook, Tinder, etc.
Additional resources for support include, Shanghai Women’s Federation, a network to lean on that's been around Shanghai since the 1950s. Any Helper (WeChat ID: anyhelper) is a university run service available 24/7 to easily find you resources in your area, such as medical services; also for finding resources or answering pressing questions The Shanghai Call Center is available 24/7. Lifeline Shanghai is also there if you need someone to talk to anonymously, they've got volunteers on the phones from 10am-10pm.
Addressing the Bigger Picture
Challenging the status quo: Here in Shanghai, Phoenix Risen offers empathy workshops that aim to educate on boundaries and facilitate better communication in the workplace and beyond. LesQueers also hosts workshops on harassment in the workplace specific to the LGBTQIA+ community. Steph Zoo of Phoenix Risen, makes a case for educational workshops as the best preventative measure, adding, “We also need to bring men into the conversation and view them as collaborators in changing the status quo.”
Strength in Allies: Be an Upstander. A U.S. study found that 70% of workplace harassment cases go unreported.Bystander intervention, or standing up when something sounds, looks, or feels wrong is one important way to enact change. It's important to note, that first you should consult the person targeted (ask how they would like to deal with the situation). If done right, speaking out can help empower the person victimized by harassment and give the aggressor a chance to learn and correct their behavior. If you find yourself in a position where you are accused of misconduct, try to listen, and take it as a learning moment; then if you feel it’s warranted, issue a clear apology without a disclaimer (i.e. "I was drunk").
On the subway, a man kept asking these tourists where they were going, if he could go with them. He wouldn't stop and I felt like he was harassing them. In order to divert the conversation, I asked one of the girls what time it was. —Christina, age 26
He went over to a woman sitting by the window, he pulled her underwear up and attempted to cut her tag out with scissors. She was in shock…I went up to him, told him to leave and that he was no longer ever welcome in the bar. —Alex, age 28
How to Respond to People Seeking Help
There are long term psychological impacts of assault and harassment, including feelings of worthlessness, depression, and increased anxiety. If a friend is coming to you for help it is very important to be supportive, as sexual violation of all types is difficult to talk about, and you are their first line of defense. Here’s what you can do to help a friend who has experienced trauma: Provide a safe space. Leave judgement at the door and mirror the language your friend is using (i.e. if they use the word assault, you use the word assault). Listen. Don’t rush to provide solutions, let them share their experience. Get Professional Help. Connect your friend to the resources they need, according to the severity of the situation.
The Organizations (In Their Words)
This article was a collaborative effort to provide a few in-roads into the issue of sexual violation and a few things to think about for individuals on all sides of the equation. It was done with the cooperation of a few hands-on organizers in Shanghai who each work to make our community better and more inclusive. Here’s some additional info on each organization involved, in their own words:
“Ladyfest is a grassroots DIY community organizing a festival and other events promoting gender equality and equity.” —Joanna Palmowska, LadyFest
“LesQueers is Shanghai’s premier LGBTIQ+ community for women and nonbinary people; we have community oriented events, diversity/inclusion training, and an international app coming soon.” —Gabby Gabriel, Founder of LesQueers
“Safe Haven is newly launched in Shanghai and will help connect victims of domestic abuse with various support services. Girl Gone International is a global community in 140+ cities dedicated to women who travel.” —Michelle Ibarra, Board Member of Safe Haven
“Phoenix Risen brings men and women together to combat sexism as the root cause of sexual violation; active in 10 countries, 15 cities in China, Africa, and SE Asia.” —Steph Zoo, Executive Director, Phoenix Risen
* If you’re feeling empowered and want to do more check here for ways to get involved.
*All names were changed, to keep those who shared their experiences anonymous.