#MeToo in Taiwan: Why public opinion matters

While it is easy for public commentators to lash out at perpetrators and victims alike in #MeToo cases, the psychological factors behind each case are complex. Would angry bashing tamp down our empathy for the afflicted in rooting out the underlaying issues behind sexual assault?
Taiwanese host Mickey Huang is facing sexual assault allegations amid a #MeToo wave sweeping across Taiwan. (CNS)
Taiwanese host Mickey Huang is facing sexual assault allegations amid a #MeToo wave sweeping across Taiwan. (CNS)

A wave of #MeToo allegations is sweeping across Taiwan. Observers are keenly following the news, from the frequent outbursts of sexual harassment complaints within the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to famous Taiwanese host Mickey Huang’s scandal of forcefully kissing and taking nude photos of a young girl.

In Singapore, another typical Asian society, will a #MeToo wave unfold one day too? No one knows for sure. But the trend certainly merits taking a closer look at not only ethics and punishment but also the key tenets of society and human nature.

Throughout various levels of public opinion, one can find polarised views that are often superficial and prescriptive. While some may sympathise with the victims, others may attack them for trying to gain sympathy or fame. While some perpetrators may apologise for their behaviour, others may shirk responsibility or put others down in a destructive manner. It appears that the #MeToo wave is drifting further and further away from its original intention of self-empowerment.

People wait for transport at a bus stop during morning rush hour in Taipei, Taiwan, 10 April 2023. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
People wait for transport at a bus stop during morning rush hour in Taipei, Taiwan, 10 April 2023. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

While one may achieve some self-satisfaction by taking the moral high ground, the joy of “schadenfreude” (taking pleasure in someone’s misfortune) and hitting someone when they are down, actually buries empathy for victims and perpetrators and reflects naive one-way thinking. This is also the reason why a new #MeToo wave rises before the first one subsides. Perhaps we can try to understand the nature of the problem from a psychological perspective in order to “prevent” future #MeToo waves.

... children become curious about sex from the age of three, and parental behaviour during this sensitive period can affect their child’s sexual development.

Looking at underlying psychological issues

Firstly, many perpetrators cite being sexually abused at a young age or being exposed to pornography as the source of their “cognitive distortions” or “psychopathy”. Taiwanese psychiatrist Yang Tsung-tsai pointed out that children become curious about sex from the age of three, and parental behaviour during this sensitive period can affect their child’s sexual development. 

A US survey estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. It is thus necessary for society to strengthen sex education and prevent child sexual abuse. But the problem is, are cognitive distortion or psychopathy valid reasons to reduce punishment? The answer is not so straightforward. 

A survey conducted by Macquarie University in 2013 found that psychopaths are actually unable to treat their victims as “human beings”. For example, when humans kill an ant and a person, they are often hit by different degrees of guilt. However, although some psychopaths do have a conscience, they are unable to distinguish between human and non-human moral responsibility. If their perception of morality is different from the general population, it may be difficult to apply the same moral standards.

Sometimes, victims are accused of having bad intentions or even “seducing” or goading the perpetrator into committing a crime.

Children cool off in a water fountain amid an orange alert for heatwave, at a shopping area in Beijing, China, 22 June 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
Children cool off in a water fountain amid an orange alert for heatwave, at a shopping area in Beijing, China, 22 June 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

But I must emphasise that victims are certainly innocent, and perpetrators must take responsibility for their actions by apologising to the victim or undergoing psychological treatment. While blame-shifting is often a self-protective psychological response, it could also be a symptom of a personality disorder. Hence, it is impossible to define an individual’s “nature” through simple observations.      

Difficulties in speaking up   

Secondly, after “cross-examining” the perpetrator, bystanders often point the finger at the victim. Sometimes, victims are accused of having bad intentions or even “seducing” or goading the perpetrator into committing a crime. We must refresh our understanding that the rise of the #MeToo movement is to empower victims and support them in overturning power imbalances and injustices in society.

In recounting their experiences of sexual assault, victims are in fact reliving the fear and pain that they experienced. So why do victims not speak up or stop the assault as it is happening? Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) found in a survey that over 54% of employees (mostly women) have experienced workplace sexual harassment, while 12% had received threats of termination if they did not comply with the requests of the sexual harassers. 

... victims are often trapped by power imbalances at the workplace and kinship at home — it is not that they do not wish to seek help. 

Among victims of child sexual abuse, 30% to 40% were abused by family members while another 50% were abused by friends or relatives known to the family. Observably, victims are often trapped by power imbalances at the workplace and kinship at home — it is not that they do not wish to seek help.

People walk towards the entrance of an office building during morning rush hour in Taipei, Taiwan, 10 April 2023. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
People walk towards the entrance of an office building during morning rush hour in Taipei, Taiwan, 10 April 2023. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

In a traditionally male-dominated Asian society, politicians and celebrities may sexually objectify women and use their power and fame to exploit their victims. Complex interpersonal relationships in the social system often lead to unacceptable behaviour at home and work being enmeshed with other issues. Thus, victims are more concerned about the impact of speaking up and find it harder to do so. As such, those in power can easily exploit the imbalance of power to conceal their evil deeds or even take advantage of the concerns of their victims to do as they please.

Public opinion is a galvaniser of change, not necessarily the arbiter of right and wrong.

It is clear that perpetrators and victims are in fact trapped in a dangerous social system. Some may think that perpetrators are driven to commit crimes because society did not provide them with an environment free of pornography and sexual harassment, and that even wrongly worships male dominance and the sexual objectification of women. 

Yet we cannot stop ourselves and others from pointing out the rights and wrongs of the perpetrator and the victim. So who’s wrong? Public opinion is a galvaniser of change, not necessarily the arbiter of right and wrong. While society abides by a set of moral standards, perpetrators must be punished and counselled, while victims should be given the right and freedom to speak up. While bystanders enjoy gossip, as soon as they pause a moment to reflect, think deeper and reevaluate the original intention of #MeToo, society may indulge less in schadenfreude and be kinder.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “性侵犯的伐罪难题”.

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