Why we need a different approach to sexual harassment cases in Asia

As part of Mumbrella Asia’s ongoing examination of sexual harassment in the region's media and marketing industry, Phuket-based Digital Conversationalist founder Andrea Edwards shares her own personal experiences

In the weeks following the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the viral #MeToo campaign and Cindy Gallop’s call to name and shame sexual harassment perpetrators in advertising, I’ve been giving the subject a lot of careful thought.

For me, it’s felt like a watershed moment – one where real change is possible. An opportunity to move humanity forward and for all of us to up our game in denouncing oppression. It’s a time for us – women and men – to claim our voice.

A personal story

My first job after university was as a musician in the Australian Army. It was a very interesting experience. Towards the end of my service, I experienced two inappropriate incidents over a period of months with two senior men. Because I was in the military, I was powerless. 

After deciding to move away from them into a new role in the Defence PR department, I was asked to handle a sexual harassment case that was getting a lot of media attention. A female Private claimed a colonel was harassing her. She lost the case, and with it her career.

The challenge for me came when I was taking calls from the media. It was awful. I knew the Private and knew the background. And that was a real eye-opener for me. Generally, it seems that sexual harassment victims are badly dealt with both publicly and privately. And the perpetrator is almost always believed and supported.

I learned to fight

Almost all women have these types of experiences so when I look back over my early career, plus some horrendous experiences of being molested while travelling in Egypt, I think I’m lucky. The reason? Because it made me strong. I learnt to be tough and to take no nonsense.

I never remain silent if I see anything untoward happening. No one has the right to mess with another person or use their power over a junior. No one. How those people are given the opportunities and space to rise so high in the first place is beyond me. But then again, someone capable of that is always very sly and careful in how they go about it.

Which is why we need to make sure there is the space to speak up, so we can identify the perpetrators and make sure they don’t harm anyone else. Such deviants are always manipulative and know how to keep their victims within their control.

But it is always devastating to someone on the receiving end.

The problem in Asia

After the army, I worked in PR in the Australian aerospace industry, and then tech PR in the United Kingdom and the United States – where clients tended to be the biggest issue rather than colleagues. But I could handle it. After that, I moved to Asia to work in marketing services, which evolved into content marketing. And throughout, I haven’t experienced anything bad here.

And yet while I have been lucky so far in Asia, I know abuse is happening more than it is acknowledged. Too many Asian female friends have told me stories specifically of men harassing them, which disturbs me.

I’m not talking about misinterpreted behaviour. I’m talking about leery and unwanted approaches. The men in question are often the type of guys that would never get away with such bullshit in their home countries – which is probably why they are in Asia. They are predators after all.

But it is not just Asian women who have told me these stories in this region. All races of women have told me stories of things going on here. 

While most men I’ve worked with have been awesome, I’ve had knocks on hotel doors during business trips; married men hoping for some action while away from home. The difference for me is, I always felt in control. Not everyone has that. Many have never been encouraged to develop it.

So what can we do about it?

Based on these conversations, I keep thinking – should I have done more? I often wasn’t even working with friends who spoke to me about bad experiences. And as a rule, most of these women did everything they could to get themselves out of compromising positions – including leaving jobs, which is not the solution. So we must stop these people.  

We need to listen more. Women always share with each other who these men are, so we can all avoid them. Perhaps that is what we must pay attention to? Think of it as the female version of ‘locker room talk’. Sometimes we even laugh it off together. Why wouldn’t we? We’ve been laughing such stuff off for so long.

But it is the ones who don’t talk about it that we should be most concerned for. I believe this is especially critical in cultures where shame is attached to anything considered sexually inappropriate. They are the ones in real danger, because how can they ever speak up for fear of the shame it will bring upon them? We must think of these women; whose greatest fear is that of shaming their family and community. 

But remember the perpetrators are weak and pathetic. So if you feel safe enough to do so then stand up to them, embarrass them and publicly shame them. Let go of the polite girl inside for once. 

In fact, perhaps the hashtag #IGotYourBack should identify us. We have different challenges in Asia for sure and we must be cognisant of that. It’s hard enough for Western women to speak up – which is apparent by how Roy Moore’s accusers are being treated – so we must acknowledge that it is even harder in this region, and because of that, it needs a different approach.

I don’t want a witch hunt, I just want to cleanse our ranks of these arseholes, so the rest of us can get on with being awesome.

Please, don’t stay silent. Because, you know, #MeToo.

Andrea Edwards is the founder of consultancy The Digital Conversationalist and the chairwoman of the Asia Content Marketing Association 


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