The Issue Of Sexual Harrasment And Victim Blaming In China

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According to the ecological framework proposed by Bronfenbrenner (1979) and later developed by Belsky (1980), sexual misconduct occurs due to risk markers that lie at multiple levels of the victim’s environment, which they divide into several levels: the ontogenic, the microsystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. However, only microsystem and macrosystem will be discussed here as the causes of sexual harassment mentioned by WeChat users lie at these levels.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) defines the microsystem as a pattern of interpersonal roles, activities, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person within any given face-to-face setting. At this level, groups and institutions that directly impact the individual, such as family, play a crucial role. Allucia L. Shokane et al. (2018) define risk factors at this level as negative or ineffective parenting styles and neglect of family issues. A study conducted by Adams-Curtis and Forbes (2004) showed that a history of neglect from parents or caretakers was associated with sexual coercion in the dating relationships of students.

The macrosystem represents the broadest level and reflects sociocultural influences including factors that maintain gender inequality, gender role norms, and pro-violence societal norms. Since the claimed causes of sexual harassment in China according to posts analysed in this study largely lie on the macrosystem level, this section will specifically explain how its corresponding factors arguably work in a distinctive Chinese environment.

Cultural and social acceptance of women’s subordination is considered a vital factor contributing to violence against them (Liu, 1999). Furthermore, patriarchal forms of authority and strong beliefs in patriarchal gender relationships have significant correlations with sexual violence (Chan, 2009). The patriarchal social order and family system which have been a long-entrenched pattern in Chinese society, have hence reportedly resulted in the subordination of women and thus in violence against them (Chan, 2009).

Moreover, sexual misconduct on the macro level reflects culture-specific features in the patriarchal social order. Cultural aspects may intensify social shaming and dangers for the victim. For example, Ho and Kwok (1991) detailed how features of the Chinese pattern of child upbringing, from the principle of filial piety to that of unquestioning obedience, may facilitate the use of children by adults as sexual objects.

Victim blamers as offenders

The literature on sexual harassment emphasises the importance to distinguish between different types of perpetrators (Lucero, Margaret A ; Middleton, Karen L ; Finch, Wendy A ; Valentine, Sean R, 2003). Some studies suggest a typology according to demographic variables including marital status, age etc., while others define different types of perpetrators by their actions. One potentially surprising action that is particularly relevant to this study is victim blaming as a sexual offense.

Victims of sexual harassment suffer from a range of negative physical and psychological effects including post-traumatic stress, reduced productivity, and greater levels of stress (Rosenthal et al., 2016). Whereas most of these harmful consequences stem from the act of sexual harassment, they are also exacerbated by victim-blaming which relates to beliefs that women are at least partly sexually harassed because of their provocative behaviour towards men (Smirles, 2004).

Existing theory and research suggest that people’s negative attitudes towards stigmatised or disadvantaged groups – including the likelihood of blaming women for being sexually harassed – can be explained by the lack of empathy for victims due to a failure to consider their perspective (2009). Several theories are trying to explain the motivation for blaming victims, societal-level factors including the role of cultural structures, beliefs and practices as well as varying definitions of sexual harassment may contribute to victim blaming attitudes. Since these themes were discussed in the previous subchapters already, I am going to mainly focus on the way they are linked to victim blaming in Chinese society. I will start with the societal and institutional factors.

Institutional and societal level factors refer to broad cultural influences such as gender roles, media, and rhetoric surrounding sexual assault that contribute to an overall environment promoting victim blaming. As far as gender roles are concerned, researchers have suggested that patriarchal environments are particularly likely to promote sexist attitudes and behaviours and may facilitate greater risk of victim blaming (McCray, 2014). In such environments, men are socialised to be the sexual initiators and may be encouraged not to take a woman’s reluctance seriously. Hence, sex is often viewed as a challenge, and women in such an environment become sexualised objects to conquer (Warshaw, 1994). These sexual scripts dictate token resistance from women and persistence by men and also vary in what is viewed as sexual harassment and assault. Acceptance of such scripts may also influence the perceivers’ evaluation of sexual harassment victims. Indeed, Edwards et al. (2020) conclude that endorsement of gender inequality and traditional gender roles is associated with victim blaming.

Another mechanism leading to victim blaming are attitudes towards the appearance of women who were subjected to sexual harassment. Parish et al. (2006) who researched sexual harassment of women in urban China claim that in transitional societies women who violate traditional norms regarding dress or behaviour may be disciplined via verbal comments. In other words, since old patriarchal norms about women’s behaviour begin to change, women who violate traditional norms are punished through verbal harassment, such as victim blaming.

As noted earlier, varying definitions of sexual harassment constitute another factor contributing to the prevalence of victim blaming. Individuals are more likely to label a situation as sexual harassment when it conforms to stereotypical views about what it should be. This includes situations in which forced sexual intercourse is explicit and also when it occurs amongst strangers (Franiuk, R., Seefelt, J., Cepress, S., & Vandello, J., 2008). Hence, when the situations do not fit this paradigm and appear to be much more ambiguous, people are potentially more likely to start blame a victim instead of a perpetrator.

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Several studies on the attitudes towards victims and harassers in Chinese society in particular were conducted. For example, Sun (2019) examined MeToo related comments of overseas Chinese on wenxuecity.com and found that users questioned the credibility of women who spoke out about being harassed and also blamed victims for “wearing a miniskirt” or “taking a train at night”. Apart from this, the author found in the users’ comments “the undertone that only physically attractive women can be harassed, and sexual harassment is a compliment to a woman’s beauty” (Sun, 2019, p. 8). Victim blaming it seems is hence a phenomenon also visible in Chinese online space.

The #MeToo movement in social media

I am now turning my attention to general information about the MeToo movement and online space with emphasis on China. Thereby this chapter delivers background information necessary for understanding the MeToo movement in China.

The #MeToo movement started on Twitter, but was not limited only to this social platform and soon after the outbreak of the movement in October 2017 expanded worldwide. The #MeToo movement inspired discussions that appeared on other American social networks including Facebook and Reddit. As the movement extended to other countries and continents, the online discussions also appeared on other countries’ social platforms.

The digital nature of the #MeToo movement has created a large online corpus of texts on sexual harassment which are now available on different social media platforms. The broad range of topics discussed by the members of different online communities includes sexual abuse, victim blaming, support of victims and many others. These online discussions serve as valuable primary source for scholars who study the #MeToo movement and e.g. analysed the attitudes of users of different social networks towards the #Metoo movement (Caple, 2019), the topics which were most often raised by the members of different online communities and whether there was a difference in a way male and female users addressed the same issues (Sun, 2019). Yet, as the focus of this research paper lies on the development of the #MeToo movement in China, I will review literature which concentrated either on the analysis of the Chinese social networks or on those non-Chinese websites where the #MeToo movement was discussed by the overseas Chinese.

MeToo related discussions on different online platforms as a source for scholars. The #MeToo movement which started in October of 2017 provoked an international debate on sexual assault, abuse and harassment on public social media sites. Much of the early conversation took place on Twitter, where the social movement began. Various studies acknowledged the utility of Twitter for raising awareness concerning the sexual violence and creating the space where users can share personal experience and trauma, provide support and connect to other people with similar problems (Daughton, A., Benis, A., Modrek, S., Chakalov, B. & Eysenbach, G., 2019; Bogen, K. W., Bleiweiss, K. K.,Leach, N. R., Lindsay, M. & Orkhowsky, L.M., 2019). Apart from that, various authors stated that the tweets shared over Twitter provide us with important data that we can use for understanding the nature of sexual harassment (Spezzano, F., Chen, W. & Xiao, X., 2019), people’s concerns and emotions (Tahamtan, 2019) and also for learning more about different types of supportive messages the users tend to post (Hosterman et al., 2018).

There were various studies that pointed out that the format of each social network influences the way the online discourse is shaped (ref). Some of the social networks have limitation of the posts’ length and it may often influence their posts’ content and the users’ posting habits. One of the examples is the difference in the content of posts on sexual harassment as Reddit and Twitter. The content analysis of the posts on Reddit and Twitter showed that Reddit allows the users to share their stories on sexual harassment in depth and the posts are generally more negative. The reason for this is that there is no limitation in the number of words in each post on this social platform which allowed users to share more details and reveal real feelings, while the Twitter due to its format did not allow the users to expose the details and they mainly used it for supporting the victims of sexual violence by posting the relevant hashtags (Manikonda, L., Beigi, G., Liu, H. & Kambhampati, S., 2018). At the same time, Kimberly et al. conducted the content analysis of Twitter posts and found out the users preferred Twitter to other social networks. In particular, they admitted that they chose to tweet their #MeToo experiences as they did not feel comfortable posting disclosure within a Facebook friend group (2019).

The #MeToo movement in China, unlike many other countries, from the very beginning lacked any other forms of people’s engagement except for the digital networked movement due to such factors as the government’s heavy crackdown on women rights activists who are deprived of the opportunity to participate in any forms of onsite activism (Fincher, 2018). Hence, one of the factors which defines and influences the engagement of the Chinese people in the #MeToo movement in China is that the digital networked movement cannot transcend the digital space into physical space through various forms of collective action (Zheng, 2019). This peculiarity makes the online discourse around the topics of sexual harassment, violence and abuse on the social platforms especially valuable material for scholars who used this data to learn about the attitude of the Chinese people towards the #METoo movement (Sun, 2019), the most often raised topics and role of different social actors in shaping the discourse (Caple, 2019). I am going to give an overview of how different scholars approached the #MeToo movement in China using various methods, paying close attention to the studies whose authors used qualitative methods.

There are several reasons why the digital engagement against sexual harassment in China gained much attention of various scholars. First of all, there are more than 802 million internet users in China, and as the #MeToo movement is a global initiative, looking at Chinese social media can provide us with new data. Another reason is that learning about Chinese people’s engagement in the #MeToo movement online provides general knowledge about peculiarities of the environment of a socialist one-party state where digital activism faces various threats and challenges as public discussions on what is considered to be sensitive topics are under strict control. Hence, it is interesting to find out what kinds of topics “survived” the censorship. Apart from that, the Internet provides space for moral discussions where Chinese people can raise culturally important issues, and act as conscious collective actor (Castells, 2012).

There has been many studies emphasizing the importance of social media activities for exploring how Chinese people are empowered and how they participate in the #MeToo movement (Lin, Z. & Yang, L., 2019; Wang, B. & Driscoll, C., 2019). Researchers Zhang et al. study the ways in which Chinese diaspora has gotten involved to promote the spread of the discussions around such topics as sexual misconduct in China (2019). They applied network and semantic analysis of Twitter data corpus and studied 1500 tweets between April, 20 and December, 10 2018 to explore the ways the Chinese diaspora examined the #MeToo movement. They found out that avoiding media censorship exposed on Chinese websites allowed overseas Chinese to express critical views in freer environment where they largely supported the domestic victims (Zhang, J. & Caidi, N., 2019). Okay, but how does this relate to your research?

Analysis of user comments makes it easier to understand resistance to and support for the issues discussed in the public sphere and how the topics that did not receive enough media attention can be elevated through online discourse (Cranmer, G. A. & Sanderson, J., 2018). Sun highlights the importance of close studying of zealous arguments the #MeToo movement generated on the uncensored social media site wenxuecity.com for understanding the debate around the issue of the sexual harassment (2019). This study adds to the understanding the nature of social behavior in online communities, in particular, the reasons behind the cyberbullying and prevalence of negative comments with harsh words. The author concludes that exchanging the accusatory language in online discussions appears due to anonymous identity of users. Hence, there is no perception of relationship to the anonymous person leads to conflict styles of outgroup members who do not keep traditional Chinese harmonious and face-saving relationships. Apart from this, the analysis of wenxuecity.com posts showed the prevalence of patriarchal sentiments among the users. In particular, some women were eager to stand on the side of patriarchal male discourse instead of supporting other women.

Despite of being useful in terms of understanding the peculiarities of the online discourse o the #MeToo movement by overseas Chinese and adding to the research previously conducted on social movements and online activism, this study has some caveats. First of all, the author chose for analysis only thirteen posts within the period of time between October, 2017 and February, 2018 which is not enough for representing the opinion on sexual harassment related issues of all overseas Chinese. Second, there is very little information available about the users’ identities which makes it harder to judge whose exactly opinion the study represents. In particular, it is known that roughly sixty percent of users reside in the USA and approximately twenty percent live in Canada, there is no possible way to verify the information on the geographic locations of the users as the demographics are self-reported. It implies that the conclusions about the opinion on the #MeToo movement of Chinese diaspora are very broad and it is impossible to make any judgements on regional difference within the attitudes of Chinese diaspora residing in different countries on the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment related issues.

Online movements bring the opportunity for civil society to expand online over the culturally important issues, raise societal concerns and moral discussions. However, there was not a big number of studies looking at how the online discourse on sexual harassment and abuse which appeared on various online social platforms due to the #MeToo movement brought the opportunity for people to go beyond the initial concerns and delve into deeper issues such as, for example, the moral shortcomings of society. Indeed, Caple concludes that netizens propel the #MeToo movement through discussing a needed reassessment of societal values (2019). Caple conducted a qualitative content analysis of the most popular #MeToo related questions posted between spring 2017 and February 2019 which gained the biggest number of comments on Zhihu (Chinese social media site) to learn about the insights #MeToo related social media posts can give into feminism and gender dynamics in China. One of the findings of the research shows that the netizens found the rural-urban and poor-rich divide of Chinese population an important topic of discussion in relation to #MeToo movement. In particular, the users of online social network raised the question of differences in treatment of sexual harassment and assault related problems in China’s rural and urban areas. Hence, this study illustrates how the #MeToo movement created discussion brings the opportunity to know more about the Chinese society and concerns of people through the lens of online discourse. Apart from studying Zhihu posts, the author also provided a summary of the content of two Western (BBC and NYTimes) and two Chinese (中国妇女报 China women’s news and 腾讯网 Tengxun wang, Tencent holdings website) newspapers articles on #MeToo in China related issues to learn what they can add to the #MeToo discussion in China. This is problematic because in China there are several different kinds of newspapers. Some are controlled by government more strictly and others are more liberal. Studying the content of these articles may bring totally different results and this is why it is especially important to identify and understand the difference between them.

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