A Bit of a Touchy Subject

I have something serious I want to discuss, but before I do that, I want to mention that I added another Chinese language learning resource on my Chinese learning page. It’s the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which maybe everyone else already knew about, but I just discovered and I love it. I’ve been reviewing the basics and re-solidifying my foundation in basic grammar.

Ok, so the thing I want to talk about today is sexual harassment, specifically in China. Like I mentioned in my post yesterday, lots of things change very quickly in China and I think that the nature of sexual harassment is one of those things. During my first time in China from 2003 through 2005, sexual harassment happened, but it wasn’t a regular thing that happened every day the way it seems to be now.

Just to be clear, I am not one of those overly sensitive types who thinks that any guy who says anything or looks at me is sexually harassing me. Like most women, I have way too much experience with the real thing and am very clear on what sexual harassment is. I’ve been sexually harassed in almost every country I’ve visited, so this isn’t anything unique to the Chinese either. I know the difference between a Chinese man looking at me because I’m a person who just happens to be in his field of view and people are naturally interested in one another, or a person who’s maybe just looking to see what I’m wearing, or a person who is simply curious or surprised to see a foreigner. I know what that kind of staring or looking is, I know what it feels like. What I’m talking about is the long, up and down gaze that rests too long on the breasts or butt, sometimes accompanied by a lecherous smirk and/or unnecessary commentary. Some men have gone so far as to touch me without permission, follow me, or even just straight up ask for sex. Just a couple days ago, I ventured outside of central Shanghai and was followed down the street by a man who was commenting on how pretty I am and how big my breasts are, while trying to make me look at him. I went into a subway because I knew there would be security guards down there and he followed me until I passed through the gate (I guess I wasn’t worth the 3 kuai ticket) and he stood outside watching me until I couldn’t see him any longer. It made me nervous and I felt very unsafe. We’ve all seen those videos of horrible things happening to people in China where no one helps other than to record the incident on their phone. What if that guy had decided to attack me right in the subway? Would anyone have helped me? I don’t know, but the fact that I even have to wonder if anyone would help me certainly doesn’t make me feel better about those situations.

I was talking about this with some friends the other day and all of my western female friends had similar stories. Our male friends were incredulous, even a little suspicious that we were exaggerating or somehow misunderstanding the situations. Their reaction, to be honest was a little hurtful. I’ve asked a number of female Chinese friends about these situations and they’ve all said the same thing – that nothing of the sort has ever happened to them, that they’ve never heard of it happening to any of their Chinese friends, and that they didn’t think most Chinese men would behave that way to a Chinese woman. There are probably several reasons for that. So why us Western ladies then? Why do we have to put up with harassment all the time? I’ll tell you why I think it is. We’re probably all thinking the same thing by now, which is that Westerners have a reputation for being “more open” than Chinese people. Western people have sex all the time with whoever they want without any social or emotional consequences. We’re all pretty slutty. How do we know this? From movies and TV, of course! If it happened in Sex and the City, it has to be real, right??

(Sidebar – Many English teachers in China encourage their students to watch American TV and movies to “learn about the culture.” This is a great idea, but only if the student has the ability to think critically about what they’re seeing and interpret it. For example, many Chinese people have the mistaken idea that life in America is like the Die Hard series, everyone has guns, we’re all running around shooting everyone and blowing everything up. Combine that with Sex and the City and we’re doing all of that in Christian Louboutin stilettos. The real take away from American TV and movies is that yes, we’re more open to the idea of seeing violence and sex on screen, but really we just love a good explosion and watching ridiculous high rollers living it up in NYC because most of us will never do that. It’s fantasy!)

However, in spite of the unfair conclusions drawn from American media about how slutty I am, I think there is at least one more culprit. In 2003, it was very fashionable for any and all companies to use white people in their commercials and advertisements. It didn’t matter what the product was, white models were required. There were white people in ads for cars, clothing, restaurants, all varieties of products. Now, I think that many Chinese brands have shifted towards using Chinese models because of pride in their product, pride in their country and pride in Chinese beauty. Obviously, I think this is great. I think it sucks that the whole world seems to be leaning towards one standard of beauty – white, tall, slender, blonde, etc that nearly no one in the world can attain aside from those with Northern European heritage. Anyway, so now that more and more Chinese brands are using Chinese models, more foreign brands have even started to as well. I think that fewer and fewer Chinese are willing to accept the message that “white people like it, so should you!” However, the ads that almost exclusively still use white women and not Asian women are ads that are related to anything of a sexual nature‚Ķlingerie or condoms, for example. I was in a store the other day and I noticed that the posters and displays around the store used Asian models, except for the lingerie department where the ads featured white women. I saw a commercial on TV recently that struck me as odd from the beginning, but I couldn’t say why. It showed a white couple in their house, she was making dinner and he was reading the paper (very 1950s, I know) and they sat down to eat, but suddenly, the woman ripped her clothes off (at this point the commercial no longer seemed weird), jumped on the man who then lead her into the bedroom. The commercial turned out to be an ad for Jizbon condoms. What seemed weird was seeing a white woman portrayed as a wholesome housewife, but it quit feeling weird when she was being portrayed the way I was used to seeing white women in China. (Of course, women are also objectified and sexualized in American ads too, but we objectify ALL women, not just white women, which of course, doesn’t make it ok.)

I realized that I had somehow subconsciously become used to seeing white women portrayed only in a very sexual light. If that way of thinking could be unknowingly taken on by me, someone who had only really been subjected to these differences for two years, then how does that affect the attitudes of Chinese people, specifically men towards white women? I’m going to guess that perhaps that subconscious relating of white women and sexuality is much stronger. You know what? I think that really sucks. Not just because now I get to walk around being treated like nothing but a one dimensional sexual being (by some people, not the majority, but enough to make me uncomfortable on a fairly regular basis), but also because these ads criminalize sexuality and sexual behavior. They label it as something “foreign,” “not for Chinese” and thereby take away the right of Chinese women to be overtly sexual if they chose to be without being unfairly labeled in the same way that I am. I believe that a person’s sexuality is theirs and theirs alone to decide when to turn it off and on and how they want to embody it or display it. They should get to do this without judgement and without preconceived notions about how sexual they are or aren’t, or how sexual they should be.

I suppose I live in a fantasy land because as of yet, I don’t know of a single country where this is reality.

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13 thoughts on “A Bit of a Touchy Subject

  1. I have only been followed once when I was in China, and I believe most of the stares where because of my foreigness (?) and not of my body, but that might be because I was wearing my school uniform almost 24/7. That said, I had classmates (16 years old c.a) asking me how many of my friends got an abortion, if I ever got one, how many of my friends were virgins etc. etc. so it makes me think that they are kind of “born” with the idea that foreingers are very open when it comes to sex, even if they don’t necessarily demonize it or try to take advantage of it. Which is…still not good, because it’s a stereotype and a possibly negative one that we must fight. I don’t want any more questions about my virginity >.<

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    • Those are some awfully personal questions for people to be asking! I’ve been asked the same questions in addition to how many partners have I had and how old was I when I lost my virginity (a guy guessed that I was 11). Last week a friend of mine was asked by a taxi driver how many orgasms she had the night before, quickly followed by a request for sex. It’s truly disgusting. I doubt that your outfits had anything to do with it, because I’m not exactly walking around wearing revealing clothing or anything and this stuff still happens routinely. I don’t think it’s possible for Chinese people to just somehow innately have the idea that westerners are sexually promiscuous – it has to come from somewhere and I really think the media paired with the inability or unwillingness to critically analyze what is being seen is the culprit. Students that young are possibly just operating off of what they’ve heard their friends or family say. I agree with you about this being a stereotype that needs to be countered. When people ask me inappropriate questions I respond with something like “I’m sorry, but in my culture it’s impolite to ask questions like that and I don’t think it’s any of your business.” Seriously, why would I tell a stranger how many men I’ve slept with?

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      • I agree with you, what I wanted to say about the uniform thing is that it indicated I was a high school student and some people even thought I was half chinese (because foreigner students don’t exist, right?) so they might have seen me less as a foreigner and more as a random student.

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  2. Lately I have read several accounts of Western women talking about harassment in China and I have to say I was surprised. Nothing like that has ever happened to me, so either I’m very lucky or I’m just not the perverts type! How horrible and scary that someone would follow you!

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    • I’m happy for you that you haven’t had to deal with this crap. I’ve noticed a huge increase in harassment over the last couple weeks since coming back to Shanghai and I think it’s because I go most places alone. My friends all have jobs and I don’t live in a dorm anymore where it’s easy to find friends to run out to get something to eat with or run to the grocery store. I think being alone makes it easier for people to perceive me as an easy target.

      Sent from my iPad

      >

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  3. I usually don’t get bothered by Chinese men. Maybe I’m not their type, maybe because I dress like a slob, or maybe because I’m often with my husband? I don’t know. But I have had a few very bizarre situations happen over the years. I’ve been humped on the bus, my husband and I have been followed, and one time I woke up on a sleeper train to find a man on top of me (and I was on the top bunk!!!).

    I agree that we are portrayed very poorly in Hollywood. I have had a lot of issues in some countries, particularly traveling in India, and I think a lot of it comes from how western women are sexualized in the media. It sucks because it has made me feel very unsafe in some places.

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    • That’s so terrible!! You really just have to wonder what goes through someone’s head when they do something like that! It’s almost as if they think western women are SO slutty that there’s simply no way that we’d reject their sexual advances for any reason. Or that because we allegedly give ourselves so freely to other men, that they are also entitled to us. Ugh. That is some seriously creepy stuff. I’m sorry you had to deal with that.

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  4. I have to ask if your experience was a particular region of China, say Shanghai specifically or Beijing? I am not surprised by this type of behavior from any man regardless of country. My wife is Chinese, the type of guy who harassed you was guai shu shu which is parlance for “dirty uncle.” My wife tells me about people who gawk or stare in the manner you describe, and although these rarely result in a physical assault, I completely understand why they would make you feel unsafe especially when they follow you. I’m from USA myself, I understand sexism in our own culture. However, and maybe it’s a good thing, your particular experience isn’t common. Foreigners in general are leered at quite frequently especially western women. I think it’s their attitude of foreign women, and although Chinese women seem sexually repressed, they for the most part don’t take offense to it, rather preserve that image of virginity even if its not true for themselves.

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    • I actually don’t think this type of experience is uncommon at all! Every one of my female western friends has had experiences like this. I didn’t even write about the some of the worst things that have happened to me. I was physically assaulted in Xi’an by a masseuse, again by another masseuse in Shanghai who both took liberties with their positions. I’ve been physically assaulted by another man in a small town in Yunnan. Once, a man in Guilin followed me for an entire day and even tried to get in the elevator with me to go up to my hotel room. I’ve been groped on buses and subways in Beijing and Shanghai, etc. the list goes on! What makes it different from how american men harass women is that american men are usually drunk and it’s usually just words, rather than actions. The times I’ve been harassed or assaulted in China far outnumber the times it’s happened in the states. I don’t think that Chinese women deal with this type of behavior to the extent that most western women in China do because Chinese men respect them more and regard them as pure or chaste, whereas the “Western whore” is merely a sexual object. If you think this type of experience is rare then either you don’t have many western female friends or they aren’t telling you about this stuff, which is understandable because many women feel embarrassed and/or blame themselves when stuff like that happens

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  5. I think sexual assault and rape may happen more often to Chinese women in China but they will never admit it to anyone, even friends. This is a face culture. They are too embarrassed if they say anything. They’re worried that people will think they are “damaged” and “deserved” it by “slutty” behavior. They also worry that something terrible might happen to the assailants. If they go to prison or get beat up, the victims might feel guilty for what happened or get harassed by friends and family members of the perpetrators.

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    • I agree with you that it certainly happens more than people let on (in any country). I think what I failed to make clear is that what I think happens to Western women more frequently is the extremely straightforward manner in which Chinese men will assault or harass us. Touching us or saying things in broad daylight in front of other people is very common, whereas I think that with Chinese women it tends to be more behind closed doors.
      The other comments you made are also dead on I believe. I conducted a small research project when I was in grad school on this very topic and the data I gathered backed up exactly what you said about victims being afraid to come forward. Another interesting thing that I learned from that study is that Chinese people are more likely to sympathize or believe that an assault was not the victim’s fault if they didn’t know the victim. If the victim was a friend or family member then they were pretty quick to blame the victim for the crime.

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  6. Pingback: China – Not As Safe As You Think | Two Americans in China

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