SINGAPORE: There are times when disheartening online comments make you almost want to quit social media altogether.
Thursday (Jun 13) was one of those days for me.
After the Ministry of Education (MOE) came out to underscore the severity of a case involving a female secondary school teacher convicted this week of sexually exploiting her 15-year-old male student, a similar set of disturbing comments that prompted MOE’s response in the first place started to mushroom on social media.
“What abuse? It’s enjoyment,” said a reader.
“The boy will be looked upon as a superstar,” said another.
And the verdict on these lewd reactions? It’s men just being men, a third reader said.
PROGRESS ON ONE FRONT
Thursday was also the day the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced a plan to implement recommendations from a review committee, after undergraduate Monica Baey took her grievances against a fellow student who filmed her showering to Instagram.
It was assuring to see NUS accept the need to rectify what Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung had called a “manifestly inadequate” set of penalties and get cracking on rolling out a full suite of new measures that better reflect zero tolerance towards sexual voyeurism.
Tougher sanctions and the establishment of a victim care unit will hopefully go some way to deter potential perpetrators and provide better support for victims.
But while progress in tackling one area of sexual misconduct has been achieved, comments on the teacher-student case show our overall attitudes regarding gender and sex clearly have some way to go.
TOXIC VIEWS ABOUT SEX
Some corners of our society seem to hold toxic views of masculinity, including the idea that women are objects of conquest.
Online chatter on the case suggest the teenager had the upperhand and there was no way he had been coerced into doing something he didn’t want to.
Despite their age difference of more than 10 years, many seem to think the boy would have been able to navigate a confusing, not to mention criminal, relationship with an older woman.
If the case had involved a 15-year-old girl and a 26 year-old male teacher, we would have been up in arms. Yet because the student was male, he couldn’t have been a victim, the thinking goes in some quarters.
Some even have in mind an image of the teacher in question as a sweet, young and innocent thing, though she was the adult entrusted with the boy's care.
TRUST AND VULNERABILITY EXPLOITED
There have been scores of other cases of sexual exploitation where an adult continues to develop a relationship with a minor, offering favours and treats, brushing off the knowledge that such illicit exchanges are wrong, and coaxing the youth to get comfortable with a pat, a shoulder rub and more.
It’s even more abhorrent when the adult is in a position of authority. Students naturally look up to teachers as role models.
Sometimes, in that disorienting waft of admiration, the onset of adolescence and raging hormones can blur lines. Reverence for an adult figure whose validation is sought and who much time is spent around can be mistaken for romantic affection.
“Child sexual abuse happens when an adult exploits a child’s vulnerability … The child can’t comprehend what’s happening. They can’t give consent; they aren’t developmentally ready for it,” says AWARE’s Laika Jumabhoy who works with victims at its Sexual Assault Care Centre on the episode on The Pulse.
This recognised vulnerability of minors that cut across gender is one that changes to the Penal Code passed just last month sought to protect. Our laws have shifted - but have our mindsets?
Afterall, studies suggest girls and boys are more alike on all major psychological variables at that age than these online comments would have you believe. Some research even suggest boys mature slower.
POWER IN SEXUAL RELATIONS
To those who uphold the teenager as some sort of hero to be worshipped, can you imagine if it were your child?
Any trusting, wide-eyed youngster can fall prey to a confident, sweet-talking adult who doles out gifts and nice gestures that later turn out to be part of a manipulative predator’s toolkit only in hindsight.
It’s so much easier if sexual predators turn out to be monsters or perverts operating in the shadows who we all agree deserve appropriate punishment – like in Monica Baey’s case or that of a 28-year-old man who was sentenced (also on Thursday) for having sex with a girl half his age.
READ: ‘They don’t deserve to take so much away from me’ – how survivors of child sexual abuse find hope, recovery, a commentary
But in the figure of a 26-year-old woman, we cannot fathom her exercise of power over a boy. We still cling onto an assumed male dominance in sexual relations.
‘MEN WILL BE MEN’
Back to how readers reacted on social media, and one reader excusing others for congratulating the boy. That too is problematic.
“Men will be men” suggests men behave a certain way, are expected to be brash and unapologetic, and do not need to take responsibility for what they say or do, which is deeply troubling.
Sorting out our problematic gender relations that belie these comments is admittedly a tall order.
Instead of shock and outrage, what we need is an honest conversation about our relationship with sex and how men and women view each other.
And we can start breaking this cycle by refraining from excusing bad behaviour on the basis of gender.
“Men will be men” and “what a lucky boy” are not harmless phrases to be repeated.