Is sexual harassment on the rise in China?


For a long time I was under the impression that walking the streets of China is much safer than in other countries (something both New York Times and Wall Street Journal agree with). This was despite the fact that two years ago a teenage boy selling flowers but who looked high on something, walked up to me and said "nice boobs" before grabbing a feel. Hey, it was late at night, I was in a seedy part of town wearing a low-cut top. I'm not saying I was asking for it, just that I was willing to write it off as an outlier.

But then late last year a stranger on a motorcycle pursued a friend of mine, attempting to grab her off her bicycle. And just a month ago another friend was walking down the street when a man bear-hugged her from behind. They struggled to the ground as she fought off his hands, slipping further down her shirt.

So I decided to take a quick informal survey of eight Chinese girlfriends of mine living in Beijing and was surprised to find that all but one had experienced some kind of inappropriate touching in public.

Of course, this is not to say that China has a unique problem (I've been flashed at or touched inappropriately in Argentina, Italy and Australia); rather that it has the same un-unique problem other countries have.


And according to a recent survey of 1500 people conducted by the Canton Public Opinion Research Centre, almost one-third believe sexual harassment is on the rise in China, predominantly on public busses, subways or in entertainment venues. Three per cent said they themselves had been subjected to harassment in the past three years.

If it is difficult to say with accuracy that sexual harassment is on the rise in China, one can posit theories explaining why there is, at the very least, the impression that it is. Conscience raising of women's rights – including understanding what sexual harassment is and one's right to be free from the threat of it – is battling for space in China's morality wars.

This was best illustrated last year when the official Weibo account of Shanghai Subway Line 2 tweeted a photo of a female passenger in a semi-transparent dress, with the caption: "If you're going to dress like this on the subway you should expect harassment. There are so many perverts on the subway, and we can't catch them all. Girl, have some respect for yourself!"

While the tweet was hardly condemned unanimously, there was significant outrage among Weibo users that an official channel would excuse away sexual harassment. One user quoted Chinese sociologist Pei Yu Xin: "These so-called 'standards of dress' are steeped in the patriarchal control of women's bodies: You (woman), do not have the power to reveal your body, your body exists to pleasure my (man's) desire. If you refuse to abide, it is within my right to discipline (harass) you. This kind of logic used in a number of rape cases places the blame on the woman, who is forced to consider herself a kind of accomplice."

Attempts to turn around China's "blame the victim" culture become especially vital when considering sexual harassment in the workplace. Women – and sometimes men – risk promotions and livelihoods if they rebuke the advances of their perpetrators or report misconduct to management. The country's first legislation prohibiting sexual harassment of women only passed in 2005, unsurprising in a country that traditionally considers sex a private matter and whose legal system (and culture of liability) is still in its infancy. It would be another three years before a sexual harasser would be successfully prosecuted, despite figures from a 2010 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences survey placing the portion of sexual harassment victims as high as 40 per cent of female employees at joint venture enterprises, and more than 70 per cent in the service industry.

In 2010, Chinese-American Joy Chen, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and best-selling writer in China, blogged about her own experiences of sexual harassment by the CEO of a former workplace. "Whenever he saw me alone, he would come up from behind me and start kissing and licking my ears and neck. Just the memory of that still makes my skin crawl," she wrote.

According to Chen, the decline of workplace harassment in the United States – and the critical missing link in Chinese legislation – happened when liability fell not only on the perpetrator's shoulders, but on the company's as well. This gave businesses a financial motive to ferret out any cultures of abuse.

For several years now, women's rights organisation Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Centre has been calling for new legislation that holds employees responsible and recently met with victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Director Wang Xingjuan told state media: "The sexual harassment made them give up jobs and led to misunderstanding from the public, even their families, which has affected their daily life and damaged their mental health." Wang also said that Chinese employers usually terminated women's contracts, and used settlements to resolve disputes.

Although not without struggle, overall the status of women in China continues to rise. Yet there remains people – particularly among the older generation – who are shocked that as a woman I go out drinking in bars, travel on my own and dare to walk the street at indecent hours (behaviour I admittedly modify place to place). They often say to me, "you're so independent!" in a tone that always leaves me unsure if it was a compliment or an admonition.

This conservatism is changing among a portion of Chinese youth who not only understand that one has the right to live without the fear of being sexually harassed, but live as if this is already the case. After all, change never happened without some calculated risk-taking.


  • I know I'll get flamed for this by all the liberals, but before you do, consider that I have two young daughters who mean everything to me, and I wouldn't want anything to happen to them. Sooooo....

    Whilst I'm certainly not advocating that the victims deserve it (please re-read that), what I would say, is that there are a minority of crazies out there, who will trespass on peoples rights to dress how the wish. Whether this is right or wrong isnt the point. Just like murder is illegal, it still happens. Its no good clinging to your rights, if you wind up in a morgue. I got the same type of arguments from my wife about my motorcycle riding days, which are now behind me (yes, yes, grow a pair, whatever).

    But what I'm saying, is that if you put out an advertisement, why would you genuinely be surprised that it gets a response?

    Equally, I wouldn't send a child out to play on a freeway and then be surprised said child gets run over and killed.

    As I said before, I'm not talking about whats right or wrong, but looking at this from a common sense point of view. Crazies are out there. If you must dress that way, fine, go for it. I personally have no problem with that. BUT, IF something should go wrong due to having attracted unwanted attention, I'd be curious to know whether that attention would have occured if a less flashy outfit were worn.

    And as for my kids, I would encourage them to dress a little more modestly, but then I guess I'm just a fuddy duddy?

    Date and time
    April 22, 2013, 9:22AM
    • "But what I'm saying, is that if you put out an advertisement, why would you genuinely be surprised that it gets a response?"

      And what makes you think that the way a woman dresses should be interpreted as a sexual advertisement? You protest a lot, but you're basically supporting the idea that sexual harassment is justified if a woman dresses in a way that you personally find to be appealing. You're still placing the blame on women, and the onus of change on the victims instead of the perpetrators.

      In any event, considering the epidemic of sexual harassment in Egypt and Syria, including targeting women who wear niqabs, you don't have a leg to stand on.

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 9:39AM
    • Fine, I'll bite.

      A freeway has defined edges, and the dangers are obvious. And apply to both genders.

      I have large breasts, should I have a breast reduction so that if I am raped, at least I can say it wasn't my fault? Don't answer that. :P

      I am regularly harassed walking out my front door, in my work clothes (loose trousers, blouse and cardigan). Do I deserve to be harassed? If I leave the house with a skirt on, do I deserve it more?

      I suspect you're a troll, but I couldn't help telling you anyway. You're wrong. You should expect more for your daughters than "You have a vagina, you will never be safe anywhere, and it's your fault. Have fun!"

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 10:04AM
    • @Red Pony - In India there have been a string of cases ion recent days where infants have been raped. They weren't even playing on the freeway as far as is known. The parents of those kids should have just covered them in more clothing, if we extend Rob's case, to assist innocently lustful males to control their urges.

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 10:38AM
    • Rob, if children, nuns, the elderly and modestly dressed girls and women didn't get sexually harassed and raped you might have a point. But they do, so you don't have a leg to stand on. Do you want to tell your daughters they're to blame for the violence of men or do you want to help create a society in which your daughters' bodies will be respected by everyone? I'm teaching both my son and my daughter to own their bodies, respect others and keep their hands to themselves REGARDLESS of ANY circumstances.

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 11:58AM
    • A woman has the right to dress to be sexually provocative in public. It's an unassailable human right. However, China used to have a very conservative culture with an emphasis on sexual modesty. I can understand how women dropping their modest behaviour in such a culture would lead men (some men, at least) to drop THEIR modest behaviour. It may take a while before these men fully understand that the expectation of "modesty" still applies to them but not to women.

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 12:11PM
    • BC - An unassailable human right? There are very few human rights. Most are privileges given to us by virtue of living in an advanced society. Dressing provocatively is one of that latter. I support that privilege (wear what you like) but it's not a right.

      Rob - Having two girls of my own (and some of my best friends are gay...) I totally understand that your attitude comes form wanting to protect them. As many have already said, dress actually makes little difference. Deviates are more likely to target an isolated individual (male or female). A group of girls wearing hardly anything would still be safer than a girl walking alone late at night in overalls.

      I have a theory on why people like to blame the way girls dress. Men and women that have been brought up to dress conservatively restrict their own choices based on what they consider appropriate. People naturally resent other people that don't impose the same restrictions. They justifiy their own restrictions by thinking things like "I won't get harrassed if I am careful with what I where", so therefore people that don't do the same are not protecting themselves and deserve what they get. It's all perfectly understandable. Not fair. Not right. But understandable.

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 1:03PM
    • "It may take a while before these men fully understand that the expectation of "modesty" still applies to them but not to women".

      Keeping you hands to yourself and not sexually assaulting people is not called "modesty": it is called "law".

      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 1:06PM
    • Men in China get away with this kind of behaviour because the law doesn't step in to tell them it's not appropriate. Same with India. Why do those men not do that kind of thing here? Because they know they will be severely punished for it. Not only by the legal system but probably by the woman herself (kick in the goolies, creepo?). Of course, it doesn't stop them ogling and leering and being creepy (been a victim of that myself quite a bit). But one withering look is usually enough to remind them "back in your box, dude".

      In civilised countries where women feel safe and men know and respect the social boundaries, women should be able to dress however they feel without it being interepreted as a come on. Of course, real men don't need to rape and molest women and we women know that. But it takes a collective effort on our part to ensure that those who would trangress are reminded of what behaviour is acceptable and what isn't, regardless of what we are wearing.

      Audra Blue
      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 1:12PM
    • Wow, really, BC? You're arguing that "modesty" and "not groping women on the street" are the same thing? I'm sorry but not sexually harassing women has nothing to do with behaving modestly. It has everything to do with not assualting people. The two are not the same.

      Date and time
      April 22, 2013, 1:32PM

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