December 2nd, 2013

No shame in sex talk but sexual violence is no joke

By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, AWARE

NS-uniform

Mr Chong Zi Liang suggests that a prudish drive to stamp out “lewd lyrics”, “swearing” and “dirty talk” in the military would be misplaced (“Aware missed an opportunity to engage”; last Sunday).

He might be surprised to hear that the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) agrees with him. Our concerns have never been based on squeamishness about “girlfriends, underwear, sex” or other purportedly impolite topics.

We are a strong proponent of frank and honest discussions about sexuality and human bodies; shame should not attach to these subjects.

However, we must distinguish between open (even vulgar but not sexist) conversation about sex, and the hostile and intimidating celebration of sexual violence against women.

A society where statements of intent to rape are seen as normal and amusing has profound consequences for women’s welfare and gender equality.

First, this communicates to rape victims that their experiences are merely a laughing matter. This worsens their trauma and the problem of under-reporting (“Sexual crimes remain under radar in S’pore”; last Monday).

Second, such jibes are frequently targeted at women, sending the message that they are not welcome to participate on an equal footing in social, professional and public spaces.

A society that tolerates widespread jokes about committing violence against particular ethnic or religious groups cannot claim to be truly inclusive. The same is true of gender-based violence.

Genuine openness cannot come about in social spaces saturated with bullying and discriminatory speech.

Our observations about the song Purple Light must be understood in the wider context of unwelcoming workplace environments.

We did not write to the Defence Ministry and Singapore Armed Forces about only one song. Rather, we highlighted practices and attitudes that exclude and marginalise both female soldiers and men who do not conform to narrow ideas of masculinity.

These have no place in a public institution intended for the defence of all. Singing about rape is only one piece of this puzzle.

It can be difficult for sensible people to appreciate how serious the normalisation of sexual violence has become.

At a recent forum theatre production, our student audience, far from recoiling from a scene of rape, cheered on the fictitious rapist. And opposition figure Nicole Seah revealed that rape threats are part of the landscape facing a young female politician (“Nicole Seah reveals struggles since being in political spotlight”; last Monday).

The discussion sparked by the move against Purple Light has been sorely needed.

This letter was first published in the Sunday Times on 1 December 2013.

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