Time to stop stigmatising rape

Annie Chan says for all the progress Hong Kong women have made, our culture continues to see them as sexual objects and stigmatise rape

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 5:59am

The gang rape and subsequent death of the 23-year-old student in New Delhi last month sparked large-scale protests in India and outrage elsewhere. The widespread discrimination and violence against women and girls in India, the world's largest democracy with a growing economy, is appalling.

In Hong Kong, we tend to assume violence against women is not a serious problem, as we often hear officials boasting about the narrowing of the gender gap in employment, pay, and social and political participation. In the first 10 months of last year, 101 cases of rape were recorded by the police. Surveys of the victims of crime, who do not all report the crime, indicate a different picture. A survey of crime and its victims in 2005 by the Census and Statistics Department shows that indecent assault and blackmail were two of the most under-reported crimes (no cases of rape were reported in this survey, which in itself is telling).

A survey by the Association for the Advancement of Feminism in the same year found that 15 per cent of the women respondents had had sexual intercourse against their will and 45 per cent had suffered indecent assault. Only 5 per cent of the 4,000 cases of sexual assault handled by concern group RainLily over the past two years have been reported to the police. In a culture that stigmatises rape victims as "damaged goods" and thinks a woman must have done something to "deserve" being attacked, in the way she dressed or behaved, or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is little wonder that victims hesitate to report the crime.

Rape is unlike other violent crime. In some cultures, its victims suffer the stigma of "sexual contamination", which has serious implications for the woman's future. It is common practice for defending lawyers to call upon the victim's sexual history and relationship with the accused as a means of establishing consent to sexual intercourse. This puts pressure on the victims who seek justice after their ordeal.

The lack of sensitivity towards the victim during trial (for example, in Hong Kong, testifying behind a screen is an arrangement that is subject to the judge's approval) is another reason that reporting rates remain low.

Fantasies about rape are also commonplace, perpetuated as much by mainstream media as by the pornography industry. One example was some viewers' keen anticipation, fuelled by the mass media, of rape scenes featured in a number of television dramas recently aired on TVB. In one episode, viewers complained about how the much-publicised rape scene was too short, failing to live up to expectations.

It is the "normalisation" of women as sexual objects and the regular presentation of women's bodies as being "up for grabs" that underlie such repellent attitudes towards rape. We must condemn cultural attitudes that encourage us to see rape as trivial, as entertainment.

Annie Chan Hau-nung is chairperson of the Association for the Advancement of Feminism, and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University. This article is part of a series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation