[Review] : Feminist Bodies – Sexual Assault

From Left to Right: Vee, Siew Li, Victoria, Sha, and Ms. Natasha during the forum

  On May 11th (Friday), Projek Dialog collaborated with IACT College for a forum called ‘Feminist Bodies: Sexual Assault’ which was held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at VSQ@PJ City. The invited speakers consisted of Ms.Sha Roose, the Co-Founder of The Aubergine Design Collective (Interior Design) who has remarked that she has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 3 , Ms.Siew Li who is a Clinical Psychologist for depression who now teaches Clinical Psychology Programme at HELP University, Ms. Vee Izhar, an activist of 6 years who now liaises with the Ministry of Health and lastly, Ms.Victoria Cheng who is the Lead Program Manager for Projek Dialog as the forum moderator.   The forum was open to the college students – mainly those who studied ‘Criticisms on Media’ under Ms. Natasha’s teaching as she requested Projek Dialog to help form this special talk. It is important to note that Projek Dialog does not receive regular requests from private institutions. Therefore Projek Dialog would like to express our sincere gratitude for opening new opportunities to create discussions with the younger generation regarding a serious matter which should be talked about more openly by everyone regardless of age, status, gender, race or religion.   The female body was placed in the spotlight due to the body itself being a highly political subject in society. The forum focused on the female body due to the high amount of issues to cover within the limited amount of time, but at the same time was also made clear how sexual assault on the male body exists and is acknowledged as equally serious to their female counterparts.   The forum began with a simple question: “What is sexual assault?” To summarise from the answers given by the panelists’ unique explanations, sexual assault is the sexual form of contact and non-contact without the consent of the recipient whether it is receiving unsolicited explicit images of a person’s genitals, unwanted indecent touching, forcing someone to watch pornography, forcing someone to participate in intimacy, rape, and/or any sexually harmful attention which affects the human’s physical and mental being.   Zee explained the cause of sexual assault is the deep-rooted patriarchal system that is internalized by society today and how the system plays an active part in retaining men to hold the primary role and power when it comes to control, leadership, moral authority, and social privilege. Because of Patriarchy, ‘‘weaker’ men, women, and trans women, and even senior citizens have fallen as victims into this system. She emphasized that sexual assault usually began from family mainly targeting children and many survivors have suffered in silence due to their family relationship with the assailant. As a trans woman herself, Zee explained how her community rarely reports to the authorities relating to sexual assault as they are deemed to be ‘deviants’ because of their choices to become women. They were seen as ‘creating trouble for themselves’ by choosing to become the ‘weaker sex’ therefore being vulnerable to sexual threats.   Going back to the point where the female body is mentioned to be political, Victoria gathered the stories shared by Zee to make note how the female body is perceived to be a curse judging how the authorities have questioned the trans women’s decision in becoming women – How sexually provocative a female body is, therefore, it is not unusual for women to be sexually assaulted and harassed because it is their fault for being so ‘provocative’ in the first place. Zee added how Trans women are often taken advantage of by authorities themselves due to their inability to be taken seriously enough to file a report. They, unfortunately, would not have much choice but to remain silent due to their state of predicament.    

The panelists taking turns to express their opinions on the questions asked by the Moderator

  It is interesting to note that when one of the male attendees was asked about his sexual assault experience, his answer seemed to cause an uproar of laughter amongst everyone. He humorously recalled a story when he and his friend were ‘aggressively’ flirted by a group of girls which caught them by surprise, as he recalled his experience as unique and awkward. He also mentioned how the group of girls made unwanted physical contact towards them during the incident. Even though he narrated his story in an indifferent and easy-going attitude, the response from the crowd sets a good example of how in reality, men’s sexual assault cases and stories are often viewed as trivial, feeble and even funny in comparison to a female’s case. This response can set male victims back from seeking help for fear of being shamed and ridiculed for becoming a victim of sexual assault.   Regardless of how he perceived the scenario to be ‘awkward’ and how the audience received the story to be ‘funny’, his experience is still considered sexual assault or sexual harassment. According to Victoria, the victim of sexual assault may not have much control of how he or she should act in the moment of the incident because the victim is instantaneously placed in a position where the recipient may not know how to act due to the physical, mental and emotional shock. It is sad to know that many of our attendees have shared stories in which they were terrorized by their attacker as they were simply living out their daily lives, only then to be blamed for their shortcomings by their own peers and even family members.   This type of response also indicates the subtle ‘victim-blaming’ society is hardwired to act and how any sexual cases are treated differently depending on who the victim is. Victim-blaming for women in Malaysia mainly centred around the issue of family and honour (being a daughter and protecting the family’s name), purity and modesty (usually related to their cultural and religious background). On the other hand, victim-blaming for men are often excused for their lack of masculinity and assertiveness. Sha told the crowd how severe victim-blaming culture can be up to the point when even medical professionals whom victims rely heavily on would also be guilty of committing. Sha added that the friend of hers have been shamed by her own therapist for ‘overreacting’ on her sexual assault experience because hers wasn’t ‘as bad as what other people have gone through’. Diminishing a person’s problem by minimizing their pain and comparing it with another problem will not solve any problem at all.   Based on Siew Li’s statistics, the common reasons why people seek therapy is due to depression and anxiety. While there is no exact number to indicate how many would want therapy due to sexual assault alone, it is usually a combination of many issues which resulted in them to seek professional help. The self-blame and fear of reliving the trauma of their sexual assault experience would be the reasons why clients would usually take time to come to terms and to open up about their past. It is also common for victims to remain quiet due to the stigma in society and fear of backlash for revealing their story. Victims would often suffer symptoms of Depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) within the one or two weeks after the incident and would need a strong support system and a healthy coping mechanism in order to recover from the trauma.    Let’s try to imagine what marginalized communities had to endure on the issue of sexual assault. People with disabilities and impairment are still people who are able to sexually function therefore their vulnerability and disabilities are often used against them. When faced with sexual assault, they do not have the same platform to voice out their distress compared to able-bodied men and women. In fact, they do not have a strong representation in the public eye and in the mass media. If they were to share their stories, the majority may be obliged to feel more sense of pity towards them instead of solidarity and empathy. Some would even go as far as to ridicule them for their ‘attention-seeking’ claims or accusations. Denial is often used as a defense mechanism when faced with an unwanted situation.    This brought us to one of the most important points regarding sexual assault – that sexual assault is committed to demonstrating power towards the less-powerful beings. It is not about pleasure between the giving and the receiving end but a forceful act of establishing authority over a person without their permission. The attacker does not care for the victims’ feelings or consent as they believe that they deserve to do whatever they want to the victim, which in this case, to sexually force, threaten, intimidate, and commit an abuse of authority when the victim does not or cannot consent. Zee hit the nail on the head when she mentioned how it all comes back to the law and how the law needs to be amended and fairly enforced in order to protect the real victims of sexual assault, as well as to prevent more sexual assault crimes being committed in our society.    Awareness and education on rape culture should be greatly promoted into both our public and private education institutions in order for the people especially the younger generation to learn that victims should not be silenced into believing that they need to carry a shameful secret. We should not let the attacker walk free while locking the victim/survivor into a prison of self-guilt because it reflects how our society has failed to uphold justice and to instill the basic human concept of respect and consent among its people. Society needs to deconstruct and rehabilitate its mentality and attitude regarding sex-related topics in order for everyone no matter if they are women, men, transwomen or disabled people to reclaim autonomy of their own bodies, free from the dictation of the old toxic stigma which holds no significance for a consciously developing community and country.  

A group photo of the audience and the panelists