At the end of May 2023 Chen Chien-jou (陳汘瑈), a former staff member of Taiwan’s incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), made a post on Facebook that went viral overnight. In it, she spoke of her sexual harassment at the hands of a film director hired by the party, and the DPP’s subsequent failure to address her complaint.
When she told Hsu Chia-tien (許嘉恬), DPP Deputy Secretary General and head of the Woman Affairs’ Committee, what had happened, the response she got was "So what? What do you want me to do about it?”
Over the next few days, three more women came forward sharing similar stories of sexual harassment within the DPP and the dismissive responses to their complaints.
In one case, the victim was accused of leading the perpetrator on by rebuffing him and she was forced to apologise to the offender. In the following days came apologies from the President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and Vice President William Lai (賴清德), the DPP’s 2024 presidential candidate.
Lai promised that the party would have ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual harassment and announced new party reforms to combat and address the issue. Any staff member found guilty of sexual harassment would be fired.
Hsu Chia-tien, as well as another staff member, resigned from their positions in response to their mishandling of the complaints.
Taiwan is gearing up to go the polls in 2024 to vote in the national election. In the build-up to such democratic rites of passage it’s easy for things to be made political, all the more so when it involves the party currently leading the country. But the problem is not confined to the DPP, nor just to politics.
In the weeks that followed the initial post more and more women came forward, this time describing assaults that took place within the Kuomitang (KMT) party, Taiwan’s main opposition party. And despite levelling criticism at the DPP’s handling of the situation, Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), presidential candidate for the Taiwan People’s Party, is well known for making disparaging and sexist comments about women.
Allegations have also emerged against several high-profile singers and actors, as well as figures within China’s exiled dissident community in Taiwan. Professors at some of Taiwan’s leading universities are also implicated.
It’s been dubbed Taiwan’s #metoo moment, but this is not the first time that allegations like this have surfaced. So why has the response has been so overwhelming this time?
The outrage and outpouring of stories can partly be attributed to the impact of the Netflix show “Wave Makers.” The Taiwanese made series follows a fictional political party in the build-up to an election, with sexual harassment and the abuse of power by men in prominent positions strong themes throughout.
In a bizarre case of life imitating art imitating life, the fictional party also tries to sweep two different incidents of workplace sexual harassment under the rug, choosing not to punish the offender. It’s his word against hers. But one female boss is not willing to let him get away with it. The now infamous line from the show “Let’s not just let this go” has become a symbolic phrase for many women sharing their stories, and was quoted in the original post by Chen Chien-jou.
Sexual harassment is not just a problem for the workplace. Even before they walk through the door people can be subjected to inappropriate behaviour.
A recent poll found that 30.2 percent of recent graduates seeking jobs have been victims of verbal and physical sexual harassment. This includes groping, caressing and trying to hold their hands, as well as being asked to join the interviewer for a drink.
Some were asked questions about their periods, their height and weight, their relationship status and plans for marriage and children. A quarter of respondents felt they had been discriminated against because of their gender. In one extreme case, a man was recently charged for posting fake job advertisements in order to lure women and under girls to job interviews where he sexually assaulted them.
Not speaking up when someone uses sexual innuendo or makes advances towards you in Taiwan is referred to as 吃豆腐 (Chī dòufu). Literally translated as eating tofu.
Sexual harassment on the job is commonplace and attempts at complaining to higher ups often amounts to nothing. Some have been told that it’s simply generational and how older men like to show their affection. Many feel they have to ignore it or laugh it off. But the response to recent events shows that many Taiwanese can no longer stomach this kind of behaviour.
Women coming forward and sharing their stories is an important first step. But it’s what comes next that really matters. How agencies or employers respond to allegations, how they treat the victims, what support they offer, and what changes, if any, are made - all hold weight.
The idea of the ‘perfect victim’ – one that cries or doesn’t wear revealing clothing – discriminates against those who don’t appear to fit such an acceptable stereotype. Women that do come forward have been asked why they didn’t scream or run away. The old victim blaming rhetoric more often than not rears its head.
In many cases, action has only been taken once the victims have gone public with their experience. They all seem to tell a familiar story of bosses or HR not acting on the complaints, brushing them aside, more concerned with the optics of the allegations than the needs of the complainant. It should not require victims taking their stories to the most public of forums, sharing their trauma to the world, before organisations see fit to address the issue. By that time it seems more like damage control than genuine remorse.
This time the response does appear to have moved things in the right direction. The Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) recently made changes to three different pieces of legislation, the Act of Gender Equality in Employment, the Gender Equity Education Act and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act, which include, harsher punishments for perpetrators and companies that fail to act, mandatory reporting requirements for allegations, and rules governing relationships within educational settings.
Women’s groups have argued that it doesn’t go far enough. More emphasis should be placed on supporting victims with the impacts of sexual abuse, as well as aiding those who wish to take legal action. Taiwan has strict slander and libel laws that can serve to silence victims. While some offenders have admitted wrongdoing and apologised, others, with the money and means to do so, have sued their accusers. To combat this city councillors across different jurisdictions, as well as a coalition of legal and women’s groups, have offered free legal counsel to victims facing the threat of legal action.
It’s not just the law that needs to shift, but society as well. Taiwan is fairly progressive compared to many of its neighbours but, by and large, the culture is still patriarchal, and sons are often valued more than daughters. Things are starting to change, though, for the younger generation. Despite this, there is still a long way to go. In the last year alone, 2999 cases were reported after the passing of the Stalking and Harassment Prevention Act in June 2022, with women making up 90 percent of the victims.
When the stories of harassment first hit social platforms and the mainstream media, they generated a lot of sympathy and attention. But as the news cycle churns onwards the focus has abated. With Taiwanese law makers ushering in legislative change, it’s crucial that momentum around the issue is sustained.
Abuse thrives on silence, shame and indifference. More than 78.79 percent of women harassed at work never file a complaint, fearful losing their job or how they will be treated. In many cases the offenders are supervisors, or people in more powerful positions.
There are layers of silence, and many ways people are made to eat tofu: societal attitudes, workplace cultures where harassment is something to be endured but not challenged, fears of damaging the reputation of an organisation, not wanting to damage their career, and always the thought they may not be believed. This is why survivors may wait years or even decades before they are able to come forward and disclose their abuse, often long after the statute of limitations for the crime committed against them has expired.
That’s why movements like #metoo can be so powerful. Because they can create an environment where survivors feel less alone and feel safer coming forward. Perhaps that’s why the quote “Let’s not let this go” has become its own “#metoo” slogan. It represents a refusal to stay quiet and maintain the status quo.
Hopefully, lawmakers, politicians and wider society will also take up the challenge not to swallow the issue of sexual harassment but instead push back against the silence.
- Asia Media Centre