After K-pop singer Lalisa Manoban, better known as Lisa, of the famous girl group Blackpink visited MQQN Cafe in Bangkok, its owner thought everything she touched would turn to gold. He started posting photos of Lisa on the cafe’s Facebook page, bragging that someone wanted to buy a sofa on which the sexy star sat, before saying he in fact wasn’t satisfied with the price offered. Then he joked about selling other things Lisa used during her visit, such as a glass, a spoon, a napkin and even a toilet seat.
Last month, fans of the K-pop singer expressed their fury as they thought the comments posted by the cafe owner were inappropriate and were considered cyberbullying and harassment. The fans attacked the cafe on Facebook and created a Twitter trend, #LowClassMQQNCafe, which was used worldwide. The owner decided to post his apology to Lisa’s fans while also telling them to calm down and that he didn’t harass Lisa at all. After his ignorance, the cafe’s Facebook page received lots of criticism. He eventually accepted his guilt and apologised to Lisa and her fans. The cafe has reportedly shut down indefinitely since the incident.
This is just the latest case of sexual harassment that happens in a patriarchal society where many people — including the MQQN Cafe owner and his friends — don’t even realise their actions constitute sexual harassment. This happens in part because Thai men have grown up with the attitude that they can express their sexual desires openly, said Jaded Chouwilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation (WMP).
“Men are allowed to go to prostitutes when they have sexual desires. They haven’t been trained to restrain themselves from their sexual drives and it becomes a problem. As boys, they like to lift the skirts of girls and tease them. When they grow up, they like to tease and wolf-whistle pretty women, and think it is something normal,” Jaded said.
In terms of international law, Jaded said that sexual harassment is a significant issue.
“Sexual harassment starts with whistling, staring, leering and unwelcome verbal conduct. Some men have the misperception that if he keeps approaching a woman, she will like him. There are cases of men getting closer to women to make plans to rape them,” he added.
With this kind of attitude, lots of Thai women have encountered sexual harassment. According to a 2017 survey of about 1,600 public-transportation passengers by the Safe Cities for Women Network, one in three people experience sexual harassment while on public transport. Women, who accounted for around 45% of respondents, were harassed the most. LGBTI was the next group, followed by men.
The unwelcome conduct that victims experienced most was looking under skirts or staring at their breasts (18.8%). Touching, leaning and cornering victims took second place (15.4%). Next was whistling at victims (13.9%). And uninvited or unwanted flirting was fourth (13.1%).
Unfortunately, only 28% of the sexually harassed reported it to the police, while 12% chose to ignore the situation and walked away.
Since we live in a male-dominated society, sexual harassment is treated like it isn’t a serious issue. It is a misdemeanour charge. Asst Prof Tanawut Wonganan from the Faculty of Law, Valaya Alongkorn Rajabhat University under Royal Patronage, mentioned the case of Lisa on his Facebook page. He posted the definition of sexual harassment provided by the Royal Institute Dictionary’s Psychology Vocabulary, saying it means any actions including leering, unwelcome sexual statements or other harassment that troubles, annoys or causes psychogenic pain.
Tanawut posted that sexual harassment has a misdemeanour charge according to an amendment to Section 397 of the criminal code.
“Any actions that tend to be sexual harassment shall be liable to imprisonment for not longer than one month or a fine not exceeding 10,000 baht, or both,” he posted.
When it comes to sexual harassment, unwelcome verbal conduct or an unwanted action can be interpreted several ways. Naiyana Supapung, director of the Teeranat Kanjanauksorn Foundation (TKF), which promotes gender equality, explained that sexual harassment cases are different from others.
“When looking at a criminal case, we focus on the intent of an attacker. In a sexual harassment case, we concentrate on what a person who is harassed thinks or how a victim feels. In one case, a female bus conductor wasn’t comfortable that a bus driver liked to slap her butt and make a dirty joke about her body. He claimed he did that to other bus conductors and nobody complained. Yet what he felt didn’t matter. What mattered was how the conductor felt,” the TKF director explained.
“Sexual harassment is about a person who has power harassing someone who has a lower status. We don’t see a male employee harassing a factory owner or a daughter of the owner.”
Fighting sexual harassment isn’t easy. When someone faces sexual harassment, what should she or he do?
Jaded suggested that victims need to collect evidence. And it is difficult to file a lawsuit if a victim is harassed by unwanted staring or unwelcome verbal conduct.
“Many victims who were harassed by leering or inappropriate comments didn’t complain. They think if it wasn’t a touching case, it would be difficult to make a case because we need clear evidence. Yet anyone who needs legal advice can come to WMP,” Jaded said.
“There are counselling services available at the Department of Mental Health Hotline, 1323, the Department of Social Development and Welfare, 1300, and organisations helping women,” Naiyana suggested.
And if a victim can express her feelings to harassers, she should do so.
“A confrontation in a public place such as a workplace can make a harasser feel embarrassed and stop harassing. A harasser keeps harassing a woman because he knows that she is afraid of speaking up or thinks it is something normal,” Jaded said.
Naiyana echoed the idea.
“A person who can speak up must have had experience of power gender imbalance for a while. Thirty years ago, I felt that guys had power above me. A victim must know what she can do and what consequences will occur afterward,” said Naiyana.
Improving the unbalanced power structure in a male-dominated society, both Naiyana and Jaded believe, should start at the family level. The idea that sexual harassment isn’t something normal should be implanted early.
“Don’t think harassment is a normal practice,” Jaded concluded. “Don’t get used to sexual harassment. When men have harassment ideas, they think about sex. If we don’t change this action, it will be more violent or lead to a rape. Our education is also a failure. In textbooks, we have images of women as housewives who behave conservatively. The education system oppresses women and LGBTI, especially in a patriarchal society. We should learn about gender equality, and every gender is entitled to equal respect.”