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A Matter Of Time: Why don’t more victims report sexual abuse?

As women speak up around the world, some communities are more accepting than others.

An estimated 35 per cent of women experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organization. But only a fraction actually report the abuse through official channels for fear of retaliation or backlash from their perpetrator, employers, family or community.

Those who do come forward are often discredited or criticised: South Korean Olympic speed skater Shim Suk-hee, who in January accused her former coach of sexually molesting her multiple times; political science professor Vanessa Tyson, who earlier this year came forward to accuse Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault in 2004; Christine Blasey Ford, who testified of her decades-old trauma over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last September.

In addition to potential negative reactions, the long-term psychological effects and shame that often accompany sexual abuse make it challenging, if not impossible, for many women to speak up.

Sometimes it takes a week, a month, or 40 years – a lag that can further cast doubt on women’s stories. Exploring the complicated and emotional process of going public with accusations, we spoke with three women in three different countries who share their stories about why they came forward – and what happened when they did. 

Japan: Patriarchy rules

Born in Sapporo, Ikuko Ishida is a 41-year-old photographer currently based in Tokyo. She says she was 15 when her junior high school art teacher, Yuto Tanaka*, first sexually assaulted her.

The story is disturbingly familiar: On the day before Ishida’s graduation to senior high school, the perpetrator invited her to see an exhibition with him. After she complained of having period cramps, Tanaka offered to let her rest at his house. He cooked Ishida some noodles, before taking her into his bedroom, where he pushed her onto his bed and started kissing her.

“He told me he kissed me because he liked me,” Ishida recalls. “I thought he was an interesting person because he taught my favourite subject at school. I had no romantic feelings towards him, but he tricked me into believing this was [the start of] a romantic relationship, by professing his feelings for me.”

Young and innocent, Ishida didn’t think the man’s actions were illegal. Tanaka was an authority figure – he was her teacher. In Ishida’s mind, he could never do something construed as wrong. 

“When I was younger, it didn’t even cross my mind that a romantic relationship should be consensual,” she says. He would often tell her things like: “The stronger my feelings are for you, the more I want to touch you and undress you.”

Ishida remembers trying to stop his advances on different occasions, because at times they made her feel uncomfortable, but he never listened. He continued for the following four years, until Ishida was in her second year of university. “That was when he lost interest in me,” she says.

She wouldn’t come to terms with what happened for another two decades.

In May 2015, Ishida sat in on the trial of 16-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by a staff member at a special care facility in Tokyo. She recognised similarities to her own story. “It made me realise the possibility that what I had experienced with Tanaka might have been a crime,” she says.

It made me realise the possibility that what I had experienced with Tanaka might have been a crime.

Ikuko Ishida

Ishida decided to consult a lawyer, as well as speak to an advisor from Sexual Assault Relief Centre (SARC), an NGO that offers support for survivors of sexual violence in Tokyo. It became increasingly clear to her that Tanaka’s actions had not only been inappropriate, but also illegal.

With the realisation of what had happened to her, Ishida felt compelled to file an official report. But it was more challenging than Ishida anticipated. Many didn’t believe her, and some of her friends and family told her to forget about what had happened and just move on with her life. She says the institutional sexism running deep in Japan’s society is mostly to blame.

“There’s an authoritarian mindset that Japanese men have, that they should be obeyed by women,” says Jake Adelstein, a Japan-based journalist who has extensively covered cases of sexual assault in the country. “This makes it very hard for women to be taken seriously if they have been victims of sexual harassment.”

Adelstein points not only to longheld traditions but also to current lawmakers. The largest right-wing organisation in Japan, Nippon Kaigi, has been heavily criticised for its regressive stance on women and sexuality. The organisation receives support from Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and plays a key role in influencing governmental policies.

“The group believes that women are not equal to men,” says Adelstein. “They want to restore patriarchal values and are incredibly misogynistic in their thinking.”

The notion that women must please men is so ingrained in Japanese culture that women often don’t even realise they have been victims of assault or are too scared to speak up. This trend is supported by the low number of victims willing to speak out publicly against their perpetrators.

There’s an authoritarian mindset that Japanese men have, that they should be obeyed by women.

Jake Adelstein

In 2018, Japan’s Ministry of Justice announced that there were 410 new reported cases of sexual harassment in the country – 35.3 per cent higher than the previous year, but still staggeringly low for a population of 120 million, especially when compared to other developed Asian cities.

In Hong Kong, a city of just 7.34 million, the EOC handled a total of 81 cases of sexual harassment in 2015-2016 while 967 new cases of sexual violence were reported in 2017, according to the SAR’s Census and Statistics Department. South Korea saw a total of 29,357 sexual crimes reported in 2016, including rape, indecent assault and illegal filming, according to a report titled “South Korean Societal Trends 2018” published by Statistics Korea. 

According to Adelstein, Japan’s predominantly male police force coupled with a lack of motivation and training to follow up on sexual assault cases, makes it difficult for female victims to be taken seriously.

“In Japan, less than 10 per cent of the police are female,” says Adelstein. “The [police force] is not well trained in following up on sexual assault cases; for example, collecting evidence and questioning victims.”

Moreover, Japan has a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent. According to experts, this is largely owed to low prosecutorial budgets, impelling prosecutors to bring only likely guilty defendants to trial.

“With sexual assault, it’s a lot of ‘he said, she said,’” says Adelstein. “[The police] know that prosecutors aren’t likely to take on such cases. It’s for this reason that they even discourage victims from seeking justice.”

Several other factors also discourage victims from coming forward in Japan. A 2018 survey examining attitudes towards sexual harassment in Asia, carried out by research company Kantar, revealed that 63 per cent of Japanese respondents felt there was too little focus on sexual misconduct in local news and 70 per cent felt that the ramifications for sexual misconduct are not strict enough.

Ikuko Ishida speaks during an interview
Ikuko Ishida, 41, recently came to terms with being sexually assaulted when she was 15.

Under Japan’s current legal system, there is no specific law that defines what sexual harassment is, making it difficult for victims to build a strong case. However, it is possible to punish acts of sexual harassment perpetrated through indecency through compulsion, assault and defamation.

Indecency through compulsion is widely applied to sexual harassment cases in court, which means that it is possible to consider sexual harassment with physical contact as a crime. Still, as far as the Japanese courts and the legal system are concerned, in a case of sexual assault, a victim’s “no” is only legally legitimate  if she physically resists the perpetrator’s intimidation or violence. If a victim can’t prove that they had no other option than to submit, then the case may be dismissed. This law is highly problematic, particularly since many victims of sexual violence do not fight nor run, but rather involuntarily freeze due to physiological effects.

The court experience itself also fails to protect victims. “The court makes [the female victim] re-enact their assault over and over, which can be extremely traumatising,” says Adelstein. “During questioning, female victims also get asked so many questions about their previous relationships and sexual encounters that aren’t related to the assault, in an attempt to paint them in a negative light.”

Moreover, until two years ago, the definition of rape under Japanese law described it as solely involving the “violent penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis”. This prevented many female victims of sexual assault by other methods to come forward and denied all men and boys who had been raped from seeking justice.

In 2017, parliament reformed the law, expanding the definition to include forced anal and oral penetration. It also extended the minimum prison sentence from three years to five years, and permitted prosecutors to move forward without the victim’s consent; something victims needed prior to this update.

Ishida, too, fell victim to these regressive attitudes and policies. In December 2015, she decided to meet with her old teacher, Tanaka. Upon advice from her legal counsel, she recorded their conversation to use as evidence against him.

“I wanted to see what he thought of our ‘relationship’,” she says. “Since sexual crimes are hard to prove, I needed to record him talking about the sexual acts he had done to me when I was underage.” 

The man acted nonchalantly at first, as if the meeting were a chance to reconnect. But later in the conversation, when he saw how angry she was, Tanaka apologised and talked about potentially offering her financial support for counselling. 

In February 2016, Ishida took the recordings and presented them to Sapporo City’s Education Board. The board met with Tanaka, who denied having had a sexual or romantic relationship with Ishida when she was underage. He even stated that she was “mentally unstable and delusional.” He claimed that he merely went along with her story as he didn’t want to trigger a mental breakdown.

“The board told me that, without any stronger evidence, they were in a weak position,” says Ishida. “The recording was the strongest piece of evidence I could think of, so essentially it meant that the board was unwilling – or incapable – of making a judgement.”

Fueled by their lack of cooperation, she felt emboldened to become her own advocate and tell her story. Ishida contacted multiple journalists in Japan, but many refused to write about her story. “One journalist even told me that no media outlet would write about my case unless the teacher was fired from his job,” she says.

Cases like Ishida’s are rarely made public in Japan, as young victims tend not to report them. According to a 2018 survey released by the Gender Equality Bureau of Cabinet Office of Japan, 24.1 per cent of sex crime victims are sexually assaulted in middle school or earlier. The younger the victim, the less likely they are to speak against their perpetrator, as they may feel confused or fearful.

“When I first started talking to my friends and family about what happened, many of them asked me why I was speaking up now, especially after all these years,” says Ishida. Some even told her to “forget about it.” Others told her to be “more considerate” of Tanaka’s family.

In February of this year, Ishida filed a lawsuit against Tanaka for the crimes he committed and for causing her to develop PTSD. The first court session was held on 26 April, where evidence of her symptoms were presented.  

As Ishida began her legal proceedings and shared her story on social media, many of her friends and acquaintances supported her journey. These people were mostly female. She thinks that’s because her experience is more relatable to women, as they too – in some way or another – have experienced being treated unfairly because of their gender. 

On 14 June, a judge ruled that Ishida’s evidence was sufficient to continue her case against Tanaka, who is still a school teacher in Sapporo. As of August, her case is still ongoing, and she is determined to seek justice. 

Sandrine Rousseau talking
Sandrine Rousseau says she was sexually assaulted by Denis Baupin, vice-president of the National Assembly.

France: Mechanism of power

On 8 March 2016, Sandrine Rousseau, former spokesperson of French political party Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV), stared at her computer screen in disbelief. She had just come across a Facebook post from Denis Baupin, vice-president of the National Assembly, expressing his support for women on International Women’s Day. “Even today, I cannot believe it,” she says.

Five years earlier, Baupin – a former EELV Member of Parliament – had sexually assaulted Rousseau during negotiations about shared strategies for the upcoming presidential election with Parti Socialiste, another political party.

After a particularly tense exchange, Rousseau left the room to use the bathroom. “He was waiting for me in the corridor, where he pushed me against the wall with two hands on my breasts and tried to kiss me by force,” she says. In a panic, Rousseau immediately shoved him away.

Looking at the photo of Baupin all those years later, Rousseau was more incensed than ever, and knew she had to make a statement. Her abuse was not a secret. In fact, people within the EELV knew what had happened. She had asked senior officials to take action against him, but to no avail. “Oh, we know he’s a big flirt,” they had claimed when she came forward. 

“The photo [of Baupin on Facebook] represented a moment where it was no longer possible to act as if everything was fine,” she says. “It was not possible to let him defend women’s rights. It was a provocation. It was humiliating.”

She and another woman from the same party, Elen Debost, decided to speak to the media. Debost says Baupin bombarded her with sexually aggressive text messages over a period of months in 2011. It wasn’t a decision they made lightly. “At the time, no one spoke about these things,” says Rousseau. “I had many sleepless nights; I was more scared than I have ever been in my life.”

On 9 May 2016, eight women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment and abuse against Baupin in an article published by the French investigative journalism website Mediapart. He denied all allegations and resigned his post as deputy speaker of parliament the same day.

Fourteen women in total have accused the former MP of sexual misconduct. Four, including Rousseau, filed criminal complaints against him. A nine-month judicial investigation ended without charges, however; prosecutors were forced to drop the case because it exceeded the statute of limitations.

But the case didn’t end there. In June 2016, Baupin announced he was suing the four women who had come forward publicly and the media outlets that had published the story, for defamation. His lawyers claimed that they owed him €50,000 (roughly HK$438,000) in damages.

Rousseau says she was shocked at the legal action. “He attacked us physically, and then afterwards he attacked us legally,” she says.

He attacked us physically, and then afterwards he attacked us legally.

Sandrine Rousseau

The case was widely seen as a test of the #MeToo Movement in France. If Baupin won, advocates feared, harassment victims would be intimidated into silence once more. But, in a judgement released in April 2019, Baupin lost his case and was ordered to pay damages to the defendants. Rousseau described it as a victory for women who speak up.

According to Cecile Andrzejewski, a French journalist who covers sexual violence and harassment, media outlets in France have traditionally let sexual harassment cases go unreported.

“Before #MeToo, it was difficult to get articles published about sexual harassment,” she says. “It was not considered as ‘real’ or ‘important’ by editors.”

She adds that in France, most editors are men. “A lot of times, the editor would question the victim coming forward, saying things like ‘maybe she provoked him’ or ‘maybe she didn’t make herself clear enough’.”

In 2007, for example, journalist Tristane Banon accused former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn of trying to rape her in 2002, no one believed her. “We laughed at her,” says Rousseau. Then, in 2011, Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper in New York. He was indicted on charges including attempted rape, but the case fell apart and Diallo was crucified for making the allegations. 

“We have a complicated relationship with people of power,” says Andrzejewski. “Like they deserve special treatment, different from the everyday folk.” What’s more, she says that many political journalists knew that a number of women considered Strauss-Kahn to be a threat but chose not to pay much credence to their fears out of “respect for his private life.”

She adds that, many would make jokes about “how lucky” his victims were, that a person with power and money would make sexual advances towards them. In France, there are activists on both sides of the argument. Some feminists have accused the country of being slow to wake up to the problem of sexual harassment and assault. However, when the #MeToo Movement launched, a group of women who opposed the concept started their own campaign.

In an open letter, published in January 2018 by French magazine Le Monde, 100 French women (including the well-known actress Catherine Deneuve) described #MeToo as a “purificatory wave” that “seems to know no limit.” It states: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirtation is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.”

Rousseau disagrees. “We have something called ‘French seduction’,” says Rousseau, referring to the country’s famous culture of men actively pursuing women for romance.“This ‘seduction’ is not ‘seduction’ at all. It’s rudeness, it’s aggression, harassment or rape… People are very attached to [France] being the ‘country of romance,’” she adds. “There’s a real misunderstanding about what love actually means in France.”

Sandrine Rousseau on stairs
“This ‘seduction’ is not ‘seduction’ at all. It’s rudeness, it’s aggression, harassment or rape…

Andrzejewski agrees: “Sexual harassment is a mechanism of power. It has nothing to do with being seduced… It’s easier for harassers to hide behind this notion. But in my opinion, people are mixing two things that don’t have any link with each other. People need to understand that sexual violence is about domination.”

Andrzejewski, who published a book on sexual harassment in French hospitals, presents an example: “For years, surgeons, mostly male, would make lewd jokes to nurses, mostly female,” she says. “This was truly considered part of a culture that you just had to accept.”

She says that when nurses did take a stand against such behaviour, they received backlash and were accused of “breaking tradition.” On the rare occasion nurses tried to sue their harasser, many were fired from their jobs and told: “We need more surgeons than we do nurses.”

Adding to the problem, there are many misconceptions that pervade French society. A 2019 survey by the Ipsos Institute reveals that 37 per cent of French people believe that it is common for a person to accuse another of sexual harassment and rape out of “jealously” or “revenge.”

In addition, 90 per cent of respondents of the survey think that rape convictions have increased over the last 10 years. The opposite is true:  A 2018 survey from the Ministry of Justice showed that this number had dropped by 40 per cent over the same period.

Andrzejewski believes that while #MeToo brought awareness to the general public about sexual harassment and violence, victims still chose not to come forward because of backlash. What’s more, in the rare situation that the case goes to court, the prosecution places blame on the victim: “either she was drunk, a witch hunter, or appeared ‘easy’,” says Andrzejewski.

The law defines sexual harassment as the act of repeatedly imposing on a person sexually, or behaviour that is offensive to their dignity. Andrzejewski calls it confusing at most, and Rousseau agrees: “Today, we have a judicial system in France that does not work for victims of sexual violence.”

Disillusioned with how her party had handled cases of harassment and abuse within its ranks, and determined to do something to help other survivors, Rousseau left politics and founded Parler, an NGO that helps women talk about their experiences of sexual violence. Also the vice president of the University of Lille, Rousseau believes that if women don’t speak against their perpetrator, it is “because they are scared of complaining.”

Women like Rousseau, and others that have come forward and spoken against their abuser, have made it easier for other victims to speak up. “A woman who speaks is actually 10, without knowing. Because a woman who speaks will trigger other words,” Rousseau says. “There is a chain effect that will save 10 other women. So we have to do it.” 

Hong Kong: where sex is taboo

In November 2017, Hong Kong athlete Vera Lui Lai-yu broke her silence against a coach who she says sexually assaulted her 10 years prior. In a lengthy Facebook post, the then 23-year-old hurdler described how her coach – whom she only referred to by his first initial – had invited her to his home for a sports massage. “I was just a secondary school pupil. I trusted him as a respectable coach,” Lui wrote.

According to Lui’s post, the man proceeded to remove Lui’s jeans, then her underwear. Lui lay prone on the bed, unable to move or respond, as her coach – someone whom she trusted – began to inappropriately touch her. Lui was just 13 at the time.

Lui’s bravery galvanised other victims of sexual assault to speak up. But in a relatively sheltered city where sex remains a comparatively taboo subject, many were subject to their fair share of public doubt and dismissive comments after coming forward.

This is something one postgraduate student from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Natasha Chan* experienced first-hand.

Chan started a postgraduate course at the Prince Philip Dental Hospital, under HKU, in November 2015. During the three years she studied there, she suffered from ongoing verbal and physical harassment by her perpetrator, a part-time tutor referred to in a detailed Facebook post as Dr R. 

According to Chan’s account, Dr R made inappropriate physical advances towards her, including leering at her chest, touching her arms, shoulders and back. “There was a lot of self-blame,” says Chan. “I wondered if I overreacted, or if it was my fault. Why didn’t I tell him to stop?”

Dr R verbally abused Chan too, repeatedly telling her that she had a submissive character, and once told her to look for rich married men, instead of single men. On top of that, Dr R repeatedly made lewd remarks about her clothing, telling her to wear “dresses more often” as he liked the way they looked on her. “I felt like he got more daring as time went on,” she says. “Not only was I humiliated by being harassed, I was deeply ashamed for not standing up for myself.”

Vera Lui shares her story on Facebook
Using the #MeToo hashtag, Vera Lui shared her story of sexual assault on Facebook.

These thoughts are common among most victims of sexual abuse and assault. According to Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist Dr Tess Browne, who specialises in treating trauma and post-traumatic stress, a person asks questions such as: “Why me?” and “How could I have prevented this?” to try and make sense of their experiences in the aftermath of trauma.

“The urge to try and understand the answers to such questions, can result in erroneous conclusions,” she says. “Hindsight bias is the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to have predicted an outcome that could not possibly have been predicted.” Browne adds that it leads people to draw incorrect conclusions about their behaviour, as it did with Chan and her feelings of being responsible for her harassment.

While Chan came forward about her abuse  three years after it began, this isn’t always the case for victims in Hong Kong. According to Linda Wong, the executive director of RainLily, a Hong Kong-based NGO that provides free crisis support and counselling for victims of sexual violence, the delay in help-seeking is “common and severe.”

For the cases the NGO handled between 2000-2018, the average time span between when the incident happened and the request for assistance was 1,389 days (roughly 3.8 years). Of these cases, over 10 per cent of survivors waited over a decade before seeking help. The longest a victim waited was 58 years.

“Every survivor is different when it comes to coming forward about their experience,” says Wong. “Some victims and survivors seek help immediately, because they have the encouragement and support from family and friends. But when it comes down to it, I think a lot of survivors come forward because they are all driven by the search for social justice.”

For Chan, the issue culminated when Dr R walked towards her with a red packet in his hand during Chinese New Year, and deliberately placed it on her arm, with the edge of the packet poking her breast. He nudged forward, intentionally touching her breast with the packet. It was the ongoing indiscrete and suggestive actions that prompted Chan to file a complaint.

She first reported the man’s actions to a female tutor, who told her that “cultural differences” meant that Dr R possibly thought of her as a daughter, and probably had made these gestures in a “fatherly manner.” When she took it to her course director, he scoffed and told her that he wouldn’t consider Dr R’s actions to be harassment.

Eventually, Chan was removed from Dr R’s class, though he continued teaching at the institution. Staff hadn’t followed up with Chan either, or asked how she was coping with the incident – something that hurt her deeply, causing feelings of further isolation.

In May this year, Chan took to social media to share her story. “The response I received was generally supportive,” she says. Besides friends and family, she received messages from strangers who had experienced similar situations in their workplace or teaching institution.

But she also encountered some backlash from netizens online. “LMAO [Laugh my ass off] that is some serious sexual harassment…,” says one commenter. Another dismissed her points, pinning them down to simply being an aspect of “Asian culture.”

Chan’s story was picked up by Hong Kong-based media outlets, such as the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Free Press. “I’m hoping for more coverage and awareness on how effectively sexual harassment policies are being implemented in teaching institutions,” she says.

A survey released by Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in 2019, shows that almost one in four Hong Kong university students have been sexually harassed. Of this number, fewer than 3 per cent filed complaints.  The survey results also revealed that most of the perpetrators were the victims’ fellow classmates, tutors, lecturers, and professors; and the most common form of harassment was casually making sexual comments or jokes.

According to a 2018 research paper by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, deviant sexual behaviours such as sexual harassment, sexual abuse and violence are rarely included in sexual education classes. Moreover, sex education is not discussed at all in certain Hong Kong schools where abstinence-only approaches have been adopted.

In a city that is still influenced by Confucian values, Hong Kong makes it difficult for victims to take a stand against harassment and assault. Confucianism has been the dominant school of ethical thought in traditional Chinese culture for more than 2,000 years. This has permeated through all aspects of society – politics, economy and social customs.

The guiding principle when it comes to gender perceptions, is that the male is superior to the female. Traditionally, women were expected to preserve their chastity; remaining a virgin until marriage was considered sacred, and women were required to remain faithful to their husbands, even after death.

“Indeed, traditional conservative Chinese culture continues its domination in mainstream conception towards sexual and gender-based violence in Hong Kong,” affirms Wong. “These mentalities affect how Hong Kong still views sex as a topic of taboo; and it is true that in many households, one’s experience of sexual violence can still be considered very shameful.”

Wong adds that women in Hong Kong are expected to demonstrate that they are reserved, and not outspoken about their sexual needs. “This perception easily reinforces indifferent attitudes towards the female expression of ‘no’,” she says. “It can lead to a lack of consent during social and sexual interaction.”

Hong Kong’s confusing legal system also makes it difficult for a victim to report their harassment. In the city-state, the EOC is responsible for handling complaint cases related to sexual harassment. The victim must lodge the complaint within 12 months after the incident if he or she wishes to take any legal action.

“If a victim wishes to claim compensation through civil action at the District Court, the current procedure  is very complex, time-consuming, and unaffordable for most,” says Wong. “The government should consider making cases that involve equal opportunities more user-friendly.”

The EOC made a submission in 2009 recommending that government address these issues by establishing an Equal Opportunities Tribunal, but it was considered unnecessary by the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau.

In November 2014, an amendment of the District Court Equal Opportunities Rules came into effect to help expedite the processing of equal opportunity claims and encourage more people to come forward by making the forms to submit pleadings (written allegations) more approachable and less technical. 

“Coming forward is not easy,” says Chan. “But speaking with survivors who have been through the same thing keeps me going. It’s reassured me that it’s all worth it.” n

Additional reporting by Tomomi Kikuchi in Japan and Megan Clement in France.

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.