RUFFA Gutierrez, a former model and actress from the Philippines made headlines recently when she reported that her daughters had been harassed by a group of “creepy, ugly disgusting men” in Sunway Lagoon, Malaysia.

The daughters Lorin Gabriella, 15, and Venice Bektas, 14, returned from a roller coaster ride distraught after some older men began taking photos of the two girls.

The group of 10 men continued to disrupt the young girls even after Ms Gutierrez had told them off. Security was eventually called to escort the group of men out of the resort.

Whilst Sunway Lagoon has immediately looked into what happened, Ruffa Gutierrez’s star status has shed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment in our society and region; an issue many continue to sweep under the carpet.

In this immensely diverse South East Asian region we stand presented with a challenge of how to perceive this issue. The wrong way to interpret what happened to Ruffa Gutierrez in Sunway Lagoon is to assume that the men’s behavior are representative of some low class mentality; uneducated on the norms of how to respect women. Perhaps these men did come from low income families. But harassment happens irrespective of one’s financial background, race and upbringing. To say that these men acted as a result of their poverty would be a grand injustice for the large number of women who have been harassed by men of comfortable and even wealthy backgrounds.

Just as sexual harassment does not discriminate between victims who wear skirts or slacks, just as sexual harassment does not discriminate between victims of different ages or skin color, harassers quite often will not look like some sort of ugly scum who crawls out of the darkness to do harm. The harasser could very well wear a suit, be cleanly shaven, and talk politely. To quote women’s empowerment advocate Gretchen Carlson, “Sexual harassment, it turns out, is not about sex. It’s about power, and about what somebody does to you to try and take away your power.”

It would also be wrong to assume—as some regional networks were trying to imply—that such incidents happen only in Malaysia.

In Singapore, amidst increasing cases of women being attacked, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) found that slightly over half of those they surveyed report experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work. The women say they receive sexually explicit messages from colleagues. Most have been touched inappropriately.

Across our region, an online poll last year found around 60% of workers from various sectors have been sexually harassed at work by a boss or someone senior.

More devastatingly, 71% of those incidents were never reported. It would be easy for us to blame status quo as the reason for the victim’s silence; that our Asian customs for politeness would overpower the need to come forward. But such an argument would be unfair for the many women who are confident, who have studied and worked hard to get into the very high offices where they were harassed. The underlying issue is more than just norms. Because even when a woman does come forward, they’re labelled as liars, troublemakers and worse, fired.

When we usually hear or read about a sexual harassment case, we immediately assume that the perpetrator was a shameless, lower class man and that the victim was a fair, young and attractive woman. In our minds, the man was all deceiving and the woman was helpless. Yet most instances of sexual harassment don’t take on such black & white simplicity.

Social psychologist Ines Hercovich calls it a “victimization of the victim. Because in order to believe she’s innocent, that she’s a victim, we need to think of her as helpless, paralyzed and mute.”

In most sexual harassment cases where the woman was conscious and aware of what was happening—whether she agreed to go on the date with the man or whether she knew she was alone in the office— the story becomes complicated. And in these blurred lines, people begin to start asking questions: “why was she wearing such a low skirt to work?” “did she not read the signs?” Because we would rather not embrace the complexity of what happened, our society begins to question whether the incident was actually a sexual harassment of whether ‘she allowed it to happen.’

The greatest deterrent for why women do not come forward—beyond having to relive and retell the experience—is the fear that her friends and family would have doubts & suspicions on what actually happened. Because their story does not suit into the “conventions” of a sexual harassment. She did not faint, she was awake. Even the slightest hint of doubt can jeopardize the woman’s relationship with the friend, lover or family. Things will never be the same.

If we continue to expect that sexual harassment is perpetrated by low-income, uneducated or unemployed rempits, and not also by men of big offices or high status, then we will not progress as a society. We won’t be able to listen.

So whilst the traction behind Gutierrez’s experience is important in highlighting the frequency of sexual harassment, it’s crucial that we also begin to look at the large majority of cases where the harassers are not “creepy, ugly disgusting men.”

* The writer is a special officer to a Malaysian politician. He voices his opinions in several English dailies about the local political landscape and general news.

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Astro AWANI.