Back Society » With the End of the Tuoi Tre Rape Allegation, Vietnam's #MeToo Sizzles Out. What Now?

In April this year, a sexual assault allegation surrounding a female intern and a Tuoi Tre editor made national headlines and prompted an outpouring of discussions that paved the way for Vietnam's #MeToo movement. After five months of investigation, the police concluded that the case will not proceed due to lack of evidence.

Many cases of rape and sexual harassment have been covered in media outlets over the years. In 2017, a woman penned a letter to authorities asking to go to prison after her rape case was dropped by the police on the grounds that the intercourse was deemed consensual. This was because she had a chance to run and didn't. The woman reported the rapist threatened her with a knife while her two daughters were present at the crime scene. Several children rape cases have been extensively detailed by the media as well.

These stories are only the tip of the iceberg and often selected purely for their ability to go viral. While largely ignored by legal authorities, the rest of the iceberg remains unreported on which renders it invisible to the public eye. This stops the majority of victims from getting help or seeking justice while toxic behaviors get normalized and excused, often with the help of socio-cultural norms of gender relations and the ambivalence of organizations and criminal justice institutions.

To unpack the intricacies of this topic, we need to dispel the notion that victims have free will to speak out against injustice and instead look at the interwoven network of power that stops their words from getting out.

Sexual harassment does not happen in a vacuum; it is an ugly manifestation of a reality we've helped cultivate and naturalize over the course of human history. In her essay Sexual Harassment, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed argues that sexual harassment incidents are not merely bad behaviors but the result of a "web of influences; a set of practices that we are supposed to accept as how things are because that is the way they were." Untangling this network allows us to imagine a better reality for victims.  

Naming the Behaviors

A lack of vocabulary to name and discuss the problem contributes to the perception that one doesn't exist. The term "sexual harassment" was first used with this in mind. Lin Farley, a journalist, coined the term in 1975 to put a name to the experience many women in her classes knew too well — being forced to leave their jobs after rejecting the sexual advances of a supervisor.

The New York Times reported on the public use of the term in April 1975. I will use  "sexual harassment" as an umbrella term in this piece to include verbal, non-verbal, and physical acts that are sexually charged, which include even low-impact behaviors such as catcalls, lewd jokes and higher-impact behaviors such as inappropriate touching and rape.

In Vietnam, according to Khuat Thu Hong, the Vietnamese term for "sexual harassment," quấy rối tình dục, entered the public discourse after 1986. Only after 2012 did the term make it to a Vietnamese legal document inside the revised Labor Code. Despite its recent entrance into the lexicon, sexual harassment is an ancient phenomenon. As Khuat Thu Hong illustrates in Sexual Harassment in Vietnam: A New Term for An Old Phenomenon, there is no term that can convey the full range of behavior that constitutes sexual harassment.

Terms such as chọc ghẹo (teasing), ve vãn (wooing), sàm sỡ (lascivious), (pervert), yêu râu xanh (pervert), khiếm nhã (impolite), might have been used to describe types of sexual harassment, yet these terms downplay the seriousness of the actions to victims, removing the victim's agency and softening the perpetrator's crimes as only minor mischief.

The existence of a term doesn't guarantee a widespread consensus of the definition of such term, however. Misconceptions and myths are still prevalent among many individuals, Hong's research found. In 2016, an ActionAid survey shed light on this problem — the research found that many equate sexual harassment with only rape. Unwanted and unsolicited sexually-charged behaviors are often understood as teasing and an inherent trait central to masculinity and manhood.

Even journalists are confused by the term. According to research announced at a seminar on gender issues in media conducted by Vietnam Women in Journalism (WeNet), Fojo Media Institute and the Center for Media and Development Initiatives (MDI), many journalists still have misconceptions about what kind of behavior constitutes sexual harassment.

The lack of terminology to describe the many facets and types of sexual harassment and the impact they have serves as a barrier limiting victims ability to vocalize their experiences, especially among those from less-educated and underprivileged backgrounds.

Gender Relations and Familial Kinship

A strict dichotomy between femininity and masculinity, the stigma against non-heterosexual relations, and familial kinship also create a wall of silence around victims of sexual harassment and assault.

According to Harriet Phinney in Objects of Affection: Vietnamese Discourses on Love and Emancipation and Esther Horat's Rearranging Care, Reconfiguring Gender: Family and Household Business in Post-Đổi Mới Vietnam, the shift to the global market economy post-Doi Moi made building the nuclear family a central strategy for economic growth and nation building. The state did this by revising the Law on Marriage and Family and introduced a family planning campaign across the country. This period helped shape our contemporary mentality on gender relations.

Women who were before encouraged to participate on the political front for the liberation of the country were pushed back to the domestic sphere and encouraged to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers. Men were expected to be the pillars of the family. Within the purview of the state, the feminine subjects and the masculine subjects were specifically defined and naturalized with certain expressions and behaviors prescribed to each. Deviations from this framework are therefore unintelligible and not recognized. 

These dichotomies are not only unscientific but also more harmful than beneficial. Viewing gender as a strict dichotomy results in the view that males are active and women are passive, which thus rationalizes harassment behaviors as part of male nature. By creating the idea of a "correct" form of femininity and masculinity, it's easy for many to shift into a victim-blaming mindset if a victim expresses an "incorrect" form of femininity or masculinity. An example of this is the good girl-bad girl dichotomy, which is often used by the media to frame many rape case.

Men who are sexually harassed have a hard time reporting and disclosing their experience because of the threat of scrutiny. Before 2018, laws about sexual abuse only refer to female victims. As the works of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, a non-profit organization working on children's issues, have illustrated, sexual abuse towards boys are also widespread but often go under the radar. Male-on-male rapes and female-on-female rapes are often understudied and less talked about.

As mentioned before, the media is also heavily influenced by these ideas and helps to perpetuate them. In Whose Weapons? Representations of Rape in the Print Media of Modern Vietnam, Huong writes that one-sided framing can shape misconceptions about sexual violence and shift the blame, or at least some of it, to the victims. 

Take Tuoi Tre's reporting on the investigation result of its own sexual assault allegation, where this line can be found: "In addition, according to the letter of denunciation, the incident happened on December 3, 2017 but it was only on May 7, 2018 that T. reported the case." Many pointed out that the inclusion of when the victim reported the alleged crime is an example of victim blaming.

Bui Thu, a vocal proponent for the #MeToo movement in Vietnam, penned a post regarding how the framing of the story is biased: "This point from the author unintentionally (intentionally) makes readers question the victim's authority with a familiar question: 'Why wait half a year to report?' It's a common victim-blaming technique we see in incidents related to sexual harassment and rape."

Societal factors are one factor and so is familial kinship. The under-reporting of rape, according to gendered violence researcher Nguyen Thu Huong, is influenced by the post-rape management within a family. In Rape Disclosure: The Interplay of Gender, Culture and Kinship in Contemporary Vietnam, she argues that disclosure of rape "is inextricably bound up with ideas of family honor, kinship, social belonging and shared responsibility in a collective society such as Vietnam."

Family negotiations can stop reports of sexual harassment from being disclosed to the public and legal authorities. To be vocal of rape is also to invite stigmas and attention to one's family and extended family, in which can threaten a family's image.

Institutions and Organizations

When victims decided to speak out and seek legal address, they meet obstacles from public and private institutions as well. Informed by ideas of social mores, institutions are often inadequate in providing justice for the victims. This is why it's problematic to take many sexual harassment investigation results and police decisions at face value without considering the criminal justice system in Vietnam.

According to research conducted by Eileen Skinnider, Ruth Montgomery and Stephanie Garret and backed by UN Women, UNDP, and UNODC titled The Trial Of Rape: Understanding the criminal justice system response to sexual violence in Thailand and Viet Nam, it is very common for sexual harassment cases to fail to proceed within the justice system.

"Women reporting cases of rape in Thailand and Viet Nam [sic] encounter significant societal, legal, and institutional policies and practices that act as barriers to justice. These barriers, in turn, can inhibit the reporting of sexual violence and reduce the likelihood that a woman will persist in seeking redress through the criminal justice system," state the research findings.

The research also emphasizes that court proceedings often focus on physical and forensic evidence instead of considering the lack of consent. The police's failure to conduct investigations, inadequate investigations, lack of women-friendly facilities in police stations and medical centers, limited access to knowledge and information about women's rights, deep-seated misogynistic social and cultural values, limited data and analysis mechanisms and limited referral networks within the justice system all contribute to the obstacles met by women seeking justice from sexual harassment and violence. 

Infographic via UNDP.

Organizations also fail to protect their employees from harassment. While there exists  a 'Viet Nam Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace' compiled by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2015, its application is lacking. The above-mentioned WeNet report highlighted that 27% of 247 Vietnamese women journalists from eight focus groups reported having been sexually harassed inside and outside of the newsroom.

Fifty-six percent of respondents who said they had been sexually harassed listed their harassers as co-workers or supervisors. "Harassment" includes verbal harassment, inappropriate touching and rape. Most newsrooms don't have a policy in place to address the issue.

One-third of the respondents said that despite sexual harassment having a detrimental impact on them, there is no existing policy that can resolve the issue.

Having a policy in place is not enough because as Sara Ahmed reminds us, it can simply make it so a problem has the appearance of having already been addressed without it really being dealt with. Toxic practices can sneak their ways around rules and regulations without breaking them.

As many narratives from sexual violence survivors involved in the #WhyIDidn'tReport hashtag have illustrated, a society in which women can seek justice without having to relive the trauma or be subjected to emotional repercussions is still far-fetched.

Despite the facts and insights provided by the above scholarship and recent talk about gender equality in Vietnam, the sexual assault allegation at Tuoi Tre is on the verge of being another example of sexual harassment report that falls through the justice system unresolved.

On this note, I argue that in order to address the problem of sexual harassment, changes need to happen on a deeper and more intersectional level that encompass organizations, criminal justice institutions and socio-cultural mores. Adjusting policies and criminal procedures can lessen the impact but will not guarantee a change in practice.

Many have also called for the victims to speak out against toxic behaviors, which could help shed light in the seriousness of the issue like the #MeToo movement have demonstrated. However, it is important to note that it is unfair to place the burden of being the agent of change on people who are already on the receiving end of the current state we're living in; the society has to do better as a whole to improve the situations of people whom we have failed to protect.

[Top photo via Today Testing]

Related Articles:

Vietnam's #MeToo Movement Begins With Sexual Assault Allegation at Tuoi Tre

Sexual Assault Allegation Against Former Tuoi Tre Editor Dropped Due to Lack of Evidence

Misconceptions Surround Sexual Harassment, Abuse in Vietnam: Survey

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