Hong Kong women may face more online harassment

Updated: 2014-11-18 09:13

By John Jamison(HK Edition)

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This year we've seen online harassment of women reach a fever pitch with the "shame flame" of Zoe Quinn, a successful game designer and businesswoman. Could professional women in Hong Kong be the next target for this kind of "shame flame"?

The barrage began in July when Quinn's ex-boyfriend decided to get his revenge on her by posting online allegations of everything from unfaithfulness to ethical misconduct in her online game design business. The allegations swept through the online world where it's become known as "Gamergate", a torrent of online trolls trashing her in forums, threatening her physically, harassing her family members and hacking her personal files in search of anything that would incriminate and shame her for doingwhatever.

"Flaming attacks" are not limited to women, but women are some of the most frequently and aggressively attacked. As Quinn wrote in a recent blog, "This can happen to anyone, but it helps if you're a woman."

A report released by Pew Research last month shows that women are twice as likely to have experienced online sexual harassment as men. They are almost three times more likely to have been stalked online.

These attacks on women are nothing new for the internet. Only last week Twitter announced plans to work with feminist group Women, Action and the Media (WAM!) to tackle an ongoing stream of "misogynist abuse that an increasing number of the social network's users are subjected to".

But it appears that most reports of these types of "shame flame" activity come from the United States and the United Kingdom. Is there any chance that this kind of "shame flame" could be used on Hong Kong women?

To answer this question, we should first look at the type of sexual harassment that is and isn't already happening in Hong Kong. A recent government survey found that 50 percent of Hong Kong women surveyed complained of sexual harassment. And this is not only career women; another study published by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) last year reported that about half of all students from as young as primary four age, through university have also experienced sexual harassment.

This appears to be a huge number, but many women have begun accepting it as a matter of course. Perhaps these feelings of resentful acceptance are part of the barrier that stops many of Hong Kong's harassed women from taking responsive action. While studies show that half of Hong Kong women have experienced sexual harassment, the EOC received only 114 official complaints in 2012.

So are Hong Kong women a likely target for the next "shame flame"? I believe such a nuclear attack is unlikely in Hong Kong where there seems to be more widespread public acceptance of women business leaders than has been demonstrated in cases such as Quinn's. While certain types of harassment are still uncomfortably common, Hong Kong people have demonstrated a level of acceptance of female leaders that would likely keep a trolling attack from reaching the critical mass of a true "shame flame".

But there is still cause for concern for the uncomfortably common harassment that Hong Kong women are reporting. The constant tabling of anti-harassment laws such as those that would address stalking, is unacceptable in a society that values its female citizens. Legislation protecting women from harassment would be a strong step forward for Hong Kong and could be a good win for the Chief Executive (CE).

Yet such legislation has been delayed by successive CEs for later governments to deal with. Along with legislators, at least part of this holdup can be traced back to media outlets which have actually opposed such protective legislation in order to maintain their ability to stalk celebrities for the sake of their gossip magazines.

Finally, as is demonstrated by the absurdly low number of official complaints, women need to feel empowered to speak up when harassment occurs, even if not through formal channels. It's common for women to feel isolated and unsupported when harassed. But support during times of harassment is often much stronger than we would have expected.

As a positive show of support to Zoe Quinn, for example, a broad mix of preeminent industry superstars from leading companies have gone on record in her defense. As Quinn optimistically writes, "Eventually things will move forward, and you'll still have your friendssometimes you even make new ones you wouldn't have expected."

The author is a communication consultant based in Hong Kong.

(HK Edition 11/18/2014 page1)