“If a woman says she likes sex, does that mean she likes being raped?” asked Winnie Wong Wai Yin, a fourth-year film student at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Wong said that she had experienced sexual harassment on multiple occasions, recalling one incident when she was in secondary school.
“I was on my way home from school and took the MTR from Kowloon Tong station to Tai Wai. I was listening to music, so I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. Suddenly, I noticed something rubbing against my dress and at first thought it might be some lady’s carry-on. Still, it felt odd, as the ‘touch’ was rhythmic. When I turned around, I saw a man behind me,” Wong recollected. “I was so startled that I just stared at him instead of reacting, and then I immediately left the train.
“I am furious and regret that I didn’t report the incident at the time. There may be other girls who have suffered the same sexual harassment that I have but also did not report it,” observed Wong.
An analysis of news reports about sexual violence at MTR stations by various Hong Kong media outlets over the past six years showed that sexual violence occurred frequently at the Admiralty and Prince Edward Stations, at each of which nearly 30 incidents were reported, as well as the Wan Chai and Kowloon Tong Stations.
Under a government policy emphasizing rail transport, the MTR is the most common way to get around Hong Kong, with over 5 million trips occurring on an average weekday. Thus, according to one study, the Island, Tsuen Wan, and East Rail Lines each had over 1 million riders on weekdays in the period from September 1 to 27, 2014.
The MTR is not the only place where Wong has been sexually harassed, with other incidents occurring on the bus and a bike path.
In such instances, those who experience sexual harassment are often blamed for it. Wong recalled that, when she sought help from a friend after one incident, “She told me not to wear a short skirt to minimize the chances of sexual harassment.” She was disappointed with this response. “Just because I’m keen to wear short skirts and drink with my friends until midnight, does that mean it’s justified for a man to sexually assault me? It’s ridiculous.”
Winnie Wong is not shy about sharing her experiences of sexual harassment. (Credit: Data Story)
Wong felt that victims were becoming increasingly willing to open up about their experiences with sexual harassment following the social movement last year and that there were some downsides to the visibility of the issue. “I think there are more people who encounter sexual harassment,” she explained. “Because the police aren’t trusted by certain individuals—like me—people who are thinking about it [committing sexual assault] may think we won’t report it even if we’ve been harmed, so they may not suffer any consequences.” She was, therefore, worried that the problem would grow worse.
Wong suggested that the government should increase the penalties for crimes committed in MTR stations and that non-profit organizations could post flyers and signs encouraging children to speak up and ask for help immediately if they suffer abuse. In her experience, Wong said, she had felt that there was nothing she could do about it after being harassed.
"Sexual Innuendo + Reluctance = Sexual Violence"
The Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women, or ACSVAW, is a non-governmental organization based in Hong Kong that, for 23 years, has been dedicated to raising awareness of sexual violence against women and promoting a gender-equitable environment.
A recent online survey conducted by the Gender-friendly Environment Group documented 419 verified incidents in which individuals had experienced or witnessed sexual violence in the MTR over the past three years. Among the 72 percent of respondents who had experienced sexual violence—including being unnecessarily touched or rubbed—over 90 percent said that the incidents had occurred on the train.
“There is often the demand in society that these victims immediately speak up and call for help from those around them, but the fact is that they may have been unable to resist because of the immense fear they felt,” said Oskar Wan, the group’s community organiser. “The key, therefore, is for bystanders to be able to step in and intervene, which is the quickest and most effective way to help.”
Wan observed that the MTR Corporation had not attempted to promote or educate the public about the “active bystander” initiative, leaving a gap that urgently needed to be filled. “Such advocacy can lead to the creation of a positive atmosphere of mutual help and assistance in a kind of socio-cultural transformation,” he added. “Some countries that have made efforts in this regard, such as Japan, are excellent role models.”
In a similar survey conducted by the Gender-friendly Environment Group in 2012, about 13 percent of the 537 respondents reported having witnessed a woman being sexually assaulted. Of these witnesses, fewer than a third, or 4 percent of the total respondents, reported having notified MTR staff at the time, and this statistic has remained essentially unchanged, being 3.6 percent in the most recent results. Wan attributed the low figure to bystanders’ concerns about being perceived as nosy and their uncertainty about whether an assault had actually taken place. “The predicament reflected [in these statistics] is that bystanders are unsure how to define sexual violence or to determine whether others are being harassed,” he explained.
The ACSVAW has worked in recent years to promote a safe environment in MTR stations (Credit: ACSVAW)
The formula “Sexual Innuendo + Reluctance = Sexual Violence” is prominent on the ACSVAW’s website. “Any intended or planned offense by an individual in terms of an act, language, or attitude with a sexual connotation regarding another person’s body that, irrespective of any prior relationship or the place in which it occurs, causes a feeling of fear, being threatened, or insulted constitutes an act of sexual violence,” the accompanying text explains.
Wan suggested that the MTR Corporation could make some improvements to remedy passengers’ lack of knowledge of these issues. For instance, MTR conductors could discuss the prevention of sexual violence during announcements on trains. “Diversified options for support are also necessary, as the current single way—of waiting for the train to arrive at a station and then going to a customer service centre to ask staff for help—is inefficient,” Wan added. “The MTR could try opening up avenues of help for sexual violence in the MTR mobile app, which is already widely used.”
He then quoted a source that he considered reliable: “The MTR station area is a ‘hard-hit’ area for sexual violence cases in Hong Kong, accounting for 14 percent of all indecent exposure cases and 36 percent of clandestine obscene filming cases, according to police data from 2017 to 2019. Even though the status quo is severe,” he concluded, “the MTR Corporation has not responded positively to our proposal. But the ACSVAW will maintain focus on these issues and give voice to the community, including in necessary communication with subcommittees of the Legislative Council.”
Legislation is required to prevent sexual harassment in public places.
Many acts of sexual harassment in public areas are not outlawed under the current sexual discrimination ordinance, which applies only to educational institutions, workplaces, and places where services are provided.
“Technically, sexual harassment can only happen in these three contexts. The law covering sexual harassment does not cover a place like an MTR station,” said Annie Chan, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University.
The sexual discrimination ordinance does not cover the MTR station, explained Professor Annie Chan (Credit: Lingnan University)
Since the MTR station is a public and usually somewhat crowded area, it can be challenging for victims to identify the perpetrator when they experience sexual harassment or assault.
“A lot of women, when they experience sexual harassment, their default response is that they are suspicious of themselves. By the time they realize it has happened, it’s already too late,” Chan continued. “It is difficult to prove sexual harassment if it didn’t involve physical harm.”
“Some victims think that it is not worth reporting such incidents because they have to convince people that this [sexual harassment] happened, and they might be seen as the person who is making a fuss,” she reasoned.
In many cases, those who experience sexual harassment are responsible for being vigilant and reporting the incidents.
“Instead of telling a woman not to tolerate sexual harassment, it is important to encourage bystanders to report the incident if they witness it,” Chan asserted.
In any case, the type of harassment that occurs in MTR stations would be more apparent if it were a violation of criminal law. The citizens of Hong Kong need to be educated so as to understand that sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence.
According to figures provided by the HKPF Railway District, reports of indecent exposure and upskirt photo-taking on MTR stations have remained fairly frequent over the past seven years, with the average number of incidents per year ranging from 109 to 147.
However, victims often find it difficult to tell others about experiences of sexual harassment. At the beginning of the interview with her, when asked why she was willing to share her story, Winnie Wong Wai Yin revealed that she had been inspired when she saw that someone else was willing to speak up publicly and share her experiences on social media, namely Ho Ka Yau.
Ho Ka Yau, 22, an activist and social worker in Hong Kong, was a member of Demosisto, a pro-democracy organisation that disbanded in June 2020. She has also been actively involved in raising awareness of sexual harassment in Hong Kong.
In October 2019, Ho shared her experiences of sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, on her Instagram page. She stressed that all people, including women, have the right to walk down the street without fear of sexual assault.
Q: What was your first experience of being sexually assaulted?
Ho: The first time I remember it happening to me was in Form 2. During the rush hour after school, I was riding the subway when I felt a boy my age touching my upper body and buttocks. Since it was the first time it had happened to me, I was shaking with fear and got off the train early, but I didn’t pursue it after that.
I once questioned myself whether I needed to scream for someone to help me at the time, for I was worried that people would challenge me because I didn’t have any proof that he had actually touched me, and I was even afraid that others might doubt that I would be sexually assaulted because I wasn’t pretty.
Q: Based on your experience, do you think there is a lack of awareness of the problem in this society?
Ho: I think so. I don’t think people are really aware of sexual assault and sexual violence. When the boy touched my chest and butt, I wondered if it was sexual assault and was unsure whether this was intentional or an accident. I kept looking at a woman sitting across from me, hoping she would help me. Though the lady saw what was going on, she didn’t say anything.
[The problem is] not only bystanders’ attitudes but that they are also not aware of what is happening. They may not know what sexual assault is and that accosting someone can be a type of harassment. Many bystanders may not know the proper way to handle it. Therefore, you [the victim] are challenged to follow up. If you didn’t stop him or her [the perpetrator] at that moment when he or she was touching you, it is also difficult for bystanders to do anything.
The news content related to sexual harassment in three major Hong Kong media outlets increased over the period from 2016 to 2018, with a total of 471 such stories published in 2018, and then began to decline somewhat.
Q: Do you think that so few victims seek help because people are in general reluctant to contact the police, or is the concern that victims will be blamed when they ask for help?
Ho: I talked to people about what I faced when I was in secondary school, as I experienced quite a lot at that time. I conversed with my relatives, friends, teachers, and classmates. People often responded to me by asking how I dressed, how I acted, and whether I gave a wrong signal to others—and I didn’t understand how I could give a wrong signal to others. Most of them didn’t believe me. Even my closest friends and teachers challenged [my claim about experiencing sexual assault], so I think it is more difficult for bystanders to believe those who experience sexual harassment on the street.
If I shouted out immediately when I was touched, maybe people would act and think the same way. If nobody helps me, it is difficult for me to stop the perpetrator from escaping. The system does not protect victims who are seeking help. Even if the victim calls the police, the police have to let the offender go if there are no witnesses [willing to come forward] and [no clear] evidence. So, I don’t think it’s useful to call the police; and bystanders’ lack of awareness of sexual assault makes it challenging for victims to seek help. The victims may be challenged by others, too.
Q: Do you think the attitude of people has ever changed from time to time?
Ho: I think it will take some time to motivate change regarding the concept of victim-blaming. As sexual violence implies various underlying issues, including gender…there are many aspects we can address, like changing the image [of sexual assault] on the part of the public—for example, raising awareness of what sexual assault is and not “blaming the victim.” Second, educate the public about what bystanders can do. There is much more to change in the public’s mind. Everyone can change and do something to help. Third, I think there is a need for the system to help follow up on these proposals.
Sexual harassment is not, of course, limited to MTR stations; nor are all of the victims female. Thus, one male college student, who wished to remain anonymous, described his experience of sexual harassment in another public place, bars.
The victim described suffering physical and verbal sexual harassment, including unwanted attention in the bathroom. (Credit: Data Story)
“One of the unspoken rules of homosexuality is that you expect to be touched and flirted with by others,” the anonymous victim said in a self-deprecating manner after smoking. “I believe this is not only happening in some bars, but society as a whole.” This touching can involve the penis and buttocks; the accustomed response to such attention for someone who is not interested is to hide his hands but not to seek help.
The anonymous individual interviewed for this story indicated that the reason for submissiveness in these situations is that the victim does not want to create strong memories of the abuse. Usually, victims are frightened when first encountering such behaviour and do not know how to react. However, when they seek help from a social worker or teacher, they are always asked to provide details. Then, in the process of recalling the assault as best they can, they experience secondary victimization.
The anonymous victim expressed the opinion that Asian culture discourages sexual assault victims from speaking up. “Girls must be pure and truthful; if they are sexually harassed, they are contaminated,” he explained. Similarly, “Boys are masculine, and they should not be subjected to sexual harassment. To maintain a good image, they will not try to seek help.”
He cited these as his reasons for not making his name and identity public and suggested that the parenting style in Hong Kong also contributed to this culture of silence.
He mentioned verbal sexual harassment as well at bars. For example, passers-by asked, “Do you want to go to the bathroom [with me]?” or “I have a hotel room tonight; do you want to join us?” Such people usually gave up, he said, and went looking for the next target and the next victim.
The anonymous victim had even encountered sexual harassment involving no physical or verbal contact, when a man followed him into the bathroom and, as he urinated, stood close to him, in defiance of the custom that men keep their distance at the urinal when possible. Glancing in the mirror as he washed his hands, he saw that the man had begun masturbating and, shocked immediately exited the bathroom.
Another form of sexual harassment that the anonymous victim decried was the posting of “sneak pics” on social media: “It’s disrespectful and violates people’s privacy.” These surreptitious photos of private body parts may end up online without the victims even knowing that their privacy has been violated. “It’s inevitable,” he lamented.