The invisible ways we experience sexual harassment

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Sexual harassment takes place daily, in every corner — the workplace, school, the streets, neighborhoods, and even within places presumed to be safe, such as the household. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Sexual harassment happens everyday, everywhere, to everyone. It is sad to think that it may be as common as the cold. The virus of this crime comes in many forms — sexism, power relations, psychological factors, moral and cultural values — and depends on each situation. Each case is nevertheless a violation of human rights.

Philippine law fleshes out the definition, parameters, and penalties for rape, in the form of The Anti-Rape Law, but is yet to provide a bigger blanket for the more invisible problem of sexual harassment.

We have the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, which penalizes against sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, but our policies have yet to catch up to a kind of problem that encroaches every corner of the country, and even, the world.

Women are the most frequent targets of sexual harassment. Former president of Chile and inaugural executive director of UN Women Michelle Bachelet wrote in The Guardian: “Whether walking city streets, using public transport, going to school, or selling goods at the market, women and girls are subject to the threat of sexual harassment and violence. This reality of daily life limits women's freedom to get an education, to work, to participate in politics — or to simply enjoy their own neighborhoods.”

“Yet despite its prevalence,” she adds, “violence and harassment against women and girls in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to address it.”

Harassment on social media: In November 2016, Anti-Marcos protesters online were viciously attacked. The comments against the female protesters — mostly in their early 20s — were lewd, sexually graphic, and life-threatening.


Three in five women have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime, according to a survey conducted in 2016 by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), as part of UN Women’s Safe Cities Metro Manila Programme.

Of the 800 respondents from two barangays in Quezon City, one in seven women experienced sexual harassment at least once every week in the past year, while one in seven men have admitted to committing an act of sexual harassment at least daily in the past year. Seventy percent of these harassment incidences happen during the day.

Three in five women have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime.

Eighty-eight percent of women who are 18 to 24 years old have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime. The SWS survey classifies these instances into: wolf whistling, lascivious language, stalking, voyeurism, groping, rubbing or touching, catcalling, indecent gestures, exhibitionism and public masturbation, sending of pornographic pictures or videos, and cyberviolence.

Every woman has something to share: a catcall from a driver, a massage involving groping, a random “Hi miss!,” an uncomfortable stare from a stranger. Girls know this all too well, and most of these instances usually find their way on social media, where they air their frustrations, at which their friends comment in disgust.

Contrary to the victim-blaming mentality, instances of sexual harassment have nothing to do with how one looks or dresses. Girls fully covered in school uniform, for instance, have been harassed. It’s sad that once a person becomes a victim in these situations, she is suddenly made to think about her looks or choice of clothes, and as an effect chooses to fully cover up her body as preventive measure against the harasser who thinks that a show of skin is an open invite. It’s even more sobering to think that these men are aware that what they’re doing or have done is wrong, and is an act of harassment.


The Philippine Statistics Authority defines sexual harassment as “an act or a series of acts involving any unwelcome sexual advance, request or demand for a sexual favor, or other verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, committed by a government employee or official in a work-related, training- or education-related environment.”

The policy against sexual harassment provides that it “will not be tolerated as it violates the dignity and human rights of a person.”

In a school or a workplace, there are two kinds of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment.

The first one is more obvious, involving a reward or benefit given by a superior (a boss or a teacher) to his subordinate (an employee or a student) in exchange for sexual favors. The second involves factors that create an unsafe and offensive environment for the subordinate, such as sexual jokes, display of obscene or inappropriate materials, and unwanted pervasive interactions, such as asking for dates persistently.

While company policies should prevent occurrences of sexual harassment, to report such instances is still not the norm, according to Atty. Amparita Sta. Maria of the Urduja Women’s Rights Desk. “When you feel uncomfortable, you’re torn between [thinking] … am I gonna be the odd one here, the party pooper, or the one who’s not one of them? Titiisin ko na lang,” she says.

There is a greater tendency for those with limited employment opportunities to sit sexual harassment out. “Hayaan mo na lang, itawa mo na lang, hanggang ma-rationalize mo sa sarili mo na, I should [not] make a fuss about it, because it’s really nothing,” adds Sta. Maria.

But “sexual harassment may also occur outside the workplace and/or outside working hours,” according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) policy on harassment, sexual harassment, and abuse of authority. It happens as often, if not more, on the streets.

According to the SWS survey, 58 percent of sexual harassment are experienced on the streets, major roads, and eskinitas with majority of physical harassment happening in public transport vehicles.

Most academics and activists label it as “street harassment” but there is no standardized term or definition for it yet. The global non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment’s working definition of gender-based street harassment is: “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”

Every woman has something to share: a catcall from a driver, a massage involving groping, a random “Hi miss!,” an uncomfortable stare from a stranger.

Because some of these incidents are usually difficult to document, offenders often think they can easily get away with them, and so victims usually don’t report the harassment at all, and simply brush it off. In the survey, one in two women did nothing after they were harassed, with the biggest reason: “What happened was just minor or negligible.”

How we perceive sexual harassment affects our perception of safety. One in two respondents in the survey are not sure whether or not their city is safe. So many of harassment instances happen under our noses, and they are further reduced by victim-blaming, or a lack of reports.

Hostile environments also exist online, or through electronic devices. After a wave of misogynistic posts and comments were directed at anti-Marcos protesters on social media, Sen. Risa Hontiveros filed the Anti-Gender Based Electronic Violence Act, which aims to combat obscene, misogynistic, or homophobic posts made through social media, text, and email, unauthorized sharing of photos or footage showing the victim’s naked body, and cyberstalking, among others.

For some, harassment takes place where it’s least expected: in one’s home.


In the same way that anyone can experience sexual harassment, anyone can be the offender. Harassment is a manifestation of societal discrimination such as sexism, homophobia, classism, racism, and wherever else an oppressor and an abuse of power exists. This is why harassment is usually a form of power play.

In quid pro quo harassment, for instance, a boss would sometimes threaten his employee with a punishment or by firing her, if she denies the sexual favor.

The SWS survey says that 70 percent of sexual harassment incidents come from a complete stranger. Though both males and females can either be the victim or offender, men largely dominate the offender side, and, according to the survey, commit sexual harassment regardless of their educational background or employment status.

Around 86 percent of the respondents do not think that sexual harassment is committed by men because of their natural sex drive. This mindset exists even within households, a supposedly safe place for women and children.

Contrary to the victim-blaming mentality, instances of sexual harassment have nothing to do with how one looks or dresses. Girls fully covered in school uniform, for instance, have been harassed.

According to UNICEF, one in five children below age 18 have experienced sexual violence while growing up. “Common perpetrators of sexual violence are brothers or cousins. Among males who experienced sexual violence, frequent perpetrators are cousins, fathers and brothers.”

Sexual violence also exists within marriages and relationships. The Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act protects spouses and their children against “physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering, or economic abuse including threats of such acts, battery, assault, coercion, harassment or arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”

Besides the fact that “more women than men think that it is the woman’s fault why she gets harassed (27 percent of women and 21 percent of men strongly agree on this according to the SWS survey),” the conservative family-oriented culture of Filipinos prevent the victim from voicing out the harassment incidence.

The harassed woman keeps silent, for fear of being hurt or abused again if she reports against her husband offender. The harassed child keeps silent because she or he is unaware that what her father or brother is doing to her is wrong. There are instances where the child would report to her mother, who would sometimes deny the incidence, or just keep silent, again because of the stigma or fear. Because of this, victims in households usually experience the harassment more than once.

clothing; a rape incident makes her ashamed of herself, at her stolen dignity — both are as heavy in perpetuating a system of oppression. The victim is scarred for the rest of her life, and the pain affects her loved ones. Acts of sexual harassment may seem “minor” or “negligible” to others, but these are the very things that give permission to graver crimes against dignity, or humanity, for that matter.

For some, especially the child victims, the sexual harassment experience is only realized in retrospect, or once they have grown up. This is the first step. The second is speaking up. A sexual harassment victim who takes the courage to speak up regains power over her offender; she becomes a survivor.

Editor’s note: Aside from the cited sources, this article is informed by real anonymous experiences of sexual harassment, from a survey conducted in June 2016 by Trisha O’Bannon, a spoken word artist. The survey is a result of an open call, posted on social media, to share personal experiences of harassment. The survey has 108 responses.