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A Deafening Silence: Male victims of sexual harassment open up about their traumas

Men around the world are opening up about their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. In Hong Kong, however, cultural taboos and obsolete laws stifle their voices.

The #MeToo Movement has become one of the most significant cultural and political phenomena of the modern era, leading to a profound reckoning that’s affected all sectors of society. While over the past three years, women have felt more empowered to speak up, an increasing number of male victims have also come forward to report sexual violence.

Research conducted by the American organisation 1in6 found that at least one in six men in the United States have been sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their life, while the largest anti-sexual assault NGO in the country, Rainn (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), reports that one in 10 victims of rape are male.

Regardless of one’s sex or gender, opening up about sexual abuse is traumatic, and many victims stay silent for decades. Feelings of shame and regret persist, and reporting incidents to the authorities means reliving the trauma for a second time.

Men face an additional impediment: deeply embedded attitudes and pervasive stereotypes regarding sex, masculinity, and male sexual orientation.

Despite the emotional and societal obstacles, drop a tipping point of sorts came in 2018. In front of a packed US Senate Judiciary Committee, actor Terry Crews testified that he had been sexually assaulted at an event two years earlier by a respected Hollywood agent.

According to Crews, the man groped his genitals twice: “The assault lasted only minutes, but what he was effectively telling me while he held my genitals in his hand was that he held the power.” Crews added: “The silence is deafening when it comes to men coming forward.”

In Hong Kong, this silence is slowly lifting with more men speaking up and sharing their stories.

Cultural impediments

One evening in the late 1980s, a 19-year-old Hongkonger named Pablo Chan* visited his neighbour – a famous singer in his 50s – for what was supposed to be a friendly catchup. But as the night progressed, the neighbour’s behaviour deteriorated. The man forced Pablo to watch a pornographic film while touching his genitals without his consent.

Frightened and shocked, Pablo tried to resist, but the perpetrator continued. After some time, the young man managed to push off his neighbour, who acted surprised that Pablo wasn’t enjoying the sexual advances. When Pablo attempted to escape, the man blocked the door; before letting Pablo go, he told him to keep quiet about what had happened.

It took another 30 years for Pablo to tell the Hong Kong Men’s Association (HKMA) about the incident, coming forward only after it was revealed that the same man allegedly assaulted several other people.
A spokesperson for the HKMA says Pablo didn’t report the assault earlier because he didn’t know the process and wasn’t confident that anyone would believe him – especially his family. In addition, the HKMA say that due to the fact that the alleged perpetrator was famous “[Pablo] didn’t want to make a fuss.”

According to Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department, less than 4 per cent of the 1,020 reported sexual violence cases in 2018 were filed by male victims. The figure for sexual harassment is only slightly higher: The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) received 310 complaints of sexual harassment between 2016 and 2018, but only 7 per cent of these were filed by men.

Similarly, there have been only a few high-profile cases reported in the media over the past few years:
in 2015, photographs circulated of seven firemen trying to force an object into the anus of one of their colleagues.

Meanwhile, in 2017, a group of Hong Kong University students poured hot wax on a male student’s genitals. In a separate incident around the same time, a student slapped another male student in the face with his penis in a hazing ritual.

It’s hard for them to express their feelings because they’re trained not to.

Kam Wing Koo

Unsurprisingly, sexual harassment is prevalent among younger people in Hong Kong. According to an EOC report, one in four university students was sexually harassed between 2016 and 2017 – the majority of whom were harassed by a classmate. The same report also found that nearly one in five male students was sexually harassed but less than 3 per cent lodged an official complaint with their university. Sensational stories generate headlines, but the vast majority of victims, and cases, remain buried.

Crystal Yeung, who is the assistant corporate communications manager at the EOC, confirms that over 90 per cent of victims take no action with regards to reporting an incident.

Kam Wing Koo, a therapist with the Caritas Family Service who provides counselling to male victims of sexual abuse, says the numbers of male victims are likely much higher:

“Men in Hong Kong don’t know how to seek help. It’s hard for them to express their feelings because they’re trained not to. If they do seek help, they’re victimised. Society doesn’t encourage men to admit that they hurt too.”

Koo says friends, family, and acquaintances all too often dismiss victims’ version of events, suggesting that they’re holding grudges or simply need to let go. Koo is adamant that we must try to acknowledge how hard it is for men to open up about traumatic experiences and encourage them to seek help.

Kam Wing Koo, a therapist with the Caritas Family Service who provides counselling to male victims of sexual abuse.
Kam Wing Koo, a therapist with the Caritas Family Service who provides counselling to male victims of sexual abuse.

Sexual taboos

Koo cites a case involving a 28-year-old man named Adam Lau* who reached out to Caritas in 2016. When he was five, Adam says his uncle made him watch pornography, groped his genitals, and forced him to touch his uncle in return.

Adam knew that it was wrong but was confused as he had become aroused during the assault; he didn’t tell his parents about what had happened for another three years. Even then, his family didn’t take his story seriously, pursuing no further action other than talking to the boy’s uncle. Adam has found it difficult to trust people ever since.

“Like Adam, many male victims feel turned on during an assault. This can lead to confusion: were they enjoying the sexual interaction? Were they actually assaulted? If the perpetrators are men, [victims] might question their sexuality,” says Koo. According to Australia’s Department of Health, erections and ejaculation are normal bodily responses to intense physical stimuli and cannot be controlled.

Despite this, Koo says Hong Kong society often ridicules men who experience sexual assault, especially homosexual men, which makes it hard for victims to speak up: “I try to help victims clarify their sexual orientation and separate arousal from consent. We can’t help feeling a certain level of pleasure when we’re touched physically, but we shouldn’t confuse that with consent.”

Henry Chan, the HKMA’s chief executive, highlights another pertinent issue that is often not taken seriously: women assaulting men. The problem, Chan says, is that people think the victim is just bragging about having sex.

The HKMA highlights the case of an 18-year-old Catholic student who was forced to have sex with his female supervisor during a trip to China in the 1980s. The victim eventually told his classmates, but instead of encouraging him to report the incident to the police they teased him for “showing off.”

Established in 2010 as an off-shoot of Hong Kong Man Power, a defunct organisation that focused on men’s rights, HKMA, for its part, is trying to change the conversation. One of its founders, Leung Chi Keung, is adamant about educating the general public about men’s struggles after nearly being sexually assaulted on the street when he was 11 years old.

Leung recalls a man in Sham Shui Po trying to touch his buttocks, before Leung’s mother intervened. “Although the incident didn’t traumatise me, it did make me pay more attention to male issues and how men can also be victims,” Leung recalls.

The organisation had planned to set up an emergency centre for male victims of sexual violence but couldn’t secure enough funding. Instead, they shifted their focus to providing emotional support and promoting awareness. Leung says they’re still hoping to collaborate with women’s groups to promote gender equality and address common issues of sexual assault and harassment.

In 2013, HKMA launched a hotline called Hard Men which provides a platform for men to talk about their issues, offering assistance in cases of sexual violence, domestic violence, and emotional issues. Between July and December of that year, HKMA received a total of 158 cases, 5 per cent of which concerned sexual violence.

“We listen to the men and provide emotional support. If their cases are substantialised, we’ll put them in contact with EOC counsellors for a follow-up,” says Chan.

Leung Chi Keung co-founded the Hong Kong Men’s Association in 2010 to support men who have been sexually assaulted.
Leung Chi Keung co-founded the Hong Kong Men’s Association in 2010 to support men who have been sexually assaulted.

Legal Barriers

Aside from sexual taboos and cultural stigma, another major obstacle for male victims is the law, particularly, the government’s definition of rape. According to Section 118 (3a.) of the Crimes Ordinance, only women can be rape victims. Specifically, a man commits rape if he “has unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman who at the time of the intercourse does not consent to it.” There is no mention of men being raped.

Angeline Chan, a spokesperson for the Progressive Lawyers Group, says the current law inhibits men from coming forward as victims of rape, although men can press charges against women for sexual assault.

“It is outdated,” says Chan. “Legislative provisions overlook the possibility of male victims.”

Chan argues that the government should redefine rape so that it includes penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth. However, Chan believes it’s not just the law that needs to change, but the existing culture and people’s entrenched attitudes.

Koo of Caritas wholeheartedly agrees: “Men have the right to feel pain, and we mustn’t forget that they’re human beings too. As a society we need to find the space to talk about sex and gender issues. Only then will we be able to talk about sexual abuse.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.

Where To Find Help 

Caritas Family Service
Provides counselling services to sexual abuse victims.
+852 2474 7312

Hong Kong Men’s Association 
HKMA’s Hard Men hotline provides support for men.
+852 5402 3333

Hong Kong Family Welfare Society 
Supports men on marital problems via classes and workshops.
+852 2527 3171

Harmony House
Offers counselling services and assistance to male victims of sexual abuse.
+852 2295 1386

Po Leung Kuk: Family Crisis Support
A 24-hour hotline that provides emotional support and relevant information for men in difficult intimate or family relationships.
+852 2890 1830