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Sexual misconduct still little understood

This file photo dated Aug 12, 2019 shows the clothes of victims of sexual harassment at an exhibition, 'Don't tell me how to dress'. The exhibition was part of social campaign to raise awareness on gender equality. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

Last week was dramatic for anyone who is concerned about sexual misconduct -- and the social stigma which is attached to it. A series of news items about women and girls experiencing abuse and sexual harassment were reported in one week. The sufferers came from all walks of life and the abuse took place at various locations -- university, on the street, at school or even in the community.

The first case involved Pareploy Saeaia, a 24-year-old boxer, who fought in the street with a man who poured beer over her. The incident took place at a food outlet in Huai Kwang district.

The man, a former staff member of a five-star hotel, wanted to insult Pareploy after she refused to clink glasses with him. While her rejection makes a lot of sense as the man is a stranger to her, the man could not take no for an answer, especially from a woman who refused to acknowledge him.

In Uthai Thani province, a female teacher ordered schoolgirls who came to school without wearing a singlet to conceal their bra under their uniform to submit to a line-up of boys staring at the girls, to shame them out of their behaviour.

This punishment is unacceptable, not to mention violating Education Ministry regulations. It also shows that some teachers do not understand the concept of sexual harassment.

In Ubon Thani, a mother of a 12-year-old girl reported to local police that her daughter was raped by two men close to her. One man joined a funeral in her village, another man came from her neighbourhood.

A lack of understanding of sexual consent was also evident in pro-democracy activist circles.

A high-profile Thammasat University student activist, Sirichai Nathuang, 21, was criticised on Twitter after netizens accused him of manipulating a younger student to have unprotected sex with him -- by claiming that he was allergic to condoms and could not find one that fitted him.

He later admitted on Facebook that he manipulated the woman. He resigned from the Thammasat University Student Council and other student activist groups, including the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a protest group.

It is ironic that there have been cases of alleged consent violations, manipulation and violence against women among pro-democracy supporters and human rights defenders.

These cases involve academics, writers and journalists. Some have never reached the headlines. They emerge briefly on social media and fizzle out. Needless to say, these cases are not tried in court as the victims rarely speak up.

It is also ironic that these activists chant slogans on human rights, but once they return to their private spaces, such as with family or their partners, they abuse and manipulate women.

In some incidents, they claimed they were not aware of their sexual misconduct. Some may be aware of it but take advantage of women, especially those in weaker positions.

Some feminists say the mainstream pro-democracy movement doesn't pay enough attention to sexual abuse and harassment. Sexual consent, in particular, is not a concept that all human rights activists and Thais in general know much about.

Many Thais were born to families in which they have seen unequal relationships play out between mothers and fathers.

At schools, while teachers have been teaching students about sex education, they rarely go near sexual consent. Even worse, teachers and students shame girls for acting or dressing appropriately.

It goes without saying that sexual harassment in the office never goes away. Subordinates remain silent about their bosses' sexual misconduct because they don't want to get into trouble.

On TV shows, soap operas portray women as people incapable of living without men's assistance.

Growing up in this environment can imbue certain sexual norms in which women are mistreated.

I believe this norm is so strong and so pervasive in society that some people can support equality in the political and social arenas, without bothering about gender equality.

Meanwhile, these misrepresentations of the gender role breed a culture of silence. While the so-called #MeToo movement encourages sexual abuse victims around the world to speak up, the movement has failed to gain any traction in Thailand.

Women, or anyone witnessing sexual misconduct, avoid speaking up, not to mention going to the police.

This is not to mention the submissive attitude of sufferers. I have met women who admitted that they felt confused and questioned as to whether they were sexually abused or harassed by men.

One young woman in her early 20s told me that her friend sexually harassed her in her room.

When she confided in her friends, she was blamed for letting the man into her room.

Some said the man joked with her and she should let it go, discouraging her from sharing her story with others. She has blamed herself for not reacting dramatically enough, like screaming or kicking him harder.

The inequitable gender norm doesn't just affect individuals' mentality. It also affects public service and public policy.

The best example is the number of women in the Royal Thai Police (RTP). Most police are male who might not be capable of dealing with cases about sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

No surprise then if we often hear police dismiss domestic violence as a matter between husband and wife.

Social media exposes some instances of sexual harassment. But it will take some time for people to digest and integrate them into their personal lives. It will take months or years for #MeToo movement to flourish in Thailand.

The good news is that concern about this issue is growing. More cases of sexual misconduct are being shared on social media, helping counter the culture of silence.

The feminist movement also has been growing in Thailand in the past few years. Feminist groups are educating the public about gender rights through campaigns and workshops while supporting women handling sexual assault and harassment cases.

Many new-generation TV dramas are trying to challenge the traditional narrative by emphasising female strength, talents, and independence.

The prevention of sexual abuse and harassment is about reinventing Thai culture. But it takes us all, not only feminists and policymakers, to help do away with this stigma in society.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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