By Virginia Chang
One night over dinner, my friends and I started talking about sex. In particular, we started discussing the curious phenomenon – or shall I say, the socially accepted standard – of Asian women crying during sex. You know what I mean: I’m talking about the overly familiar, almost clichéd scenario of a Japanese pornstar, crying while shrieking terms like “yamatte!” (no) and “itai!” (it hurts) during intercourse.
One of my guy friends asked the million dollar question of the century: “If women are supposed to cry during sex whether they like it or not, how can you tell if a woman gave consent in the first place?” Put another way—how can you tell if it was rape?
It’s 2015, and whether we like it or not, consent in sex – or lack thereof – is a big problem in Hong Kong, not to mention throughout the world. Increasing numbers of women are embracing Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in”, and are starting to critique the different shades of “man-splaining”. Yet Hong Kong’s public discussion on sex and sexual consent is virtually non-existent.
Sex is so much of a taboo in our society that nobody really talks about it. And although rape is universally condemned, no one really teaches anyone how to give consent during sex. Worse, no one really teaches anyone what exactly rape is.
When I think about my own experience as a local student growing up, I think of my music teacher (of all people) awkwardly and clinically lecturing us about pregnancies and STDs; I think of awkward attempts at getting clues from pop culture and the media – which disappointingly seem to focus more on slut-shaming and pre-marital virginity than on giving any useful information.
Yet, not talking about a problem does not make it go away. According to official statistics, Hong Kong boasts a low rate of rape (54 and 58 reported cases in 2014 and 2015 respectively), and indecent assault (968 and 899 reported cases in 2014 and 2015). But these numbers do not accurately represent the actual instances of sexual violence against women. A survey by the Hong Kong Women’s Coalition on Equal Opportunities in 2013 found that 1 in 2 women had experienced sexual harassment; 1 in 4 domestic violence; and 1 in 7 sexual abuse. However, more than 90% of such cases go unreported.
The real numbers may even be higher, especially since many people have the wrong idea of what “rape” actually is. In 2013, the United Nations published a study that looked at the prevalence of rape in six Asian countries. To get a better idea of the problem (and since most men would be reluctant to admit committing rape), the survey intentionally avoided using the word “rape”. Instead, participants were asked questions such as whether they had ever “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend to have sex”, “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it”, or forced a partner who did not want to do it. The results were shockingly high – 1 in 4 men said they had done such acts at some point in their lives, with around 23% percent of men in China admitting to it.
Our legal definition of “rape” is also inadequate. Under Hong Kong law, rape is defined as sexual intercourse between a man and a woman without the woman’s consent. The definition of “consent” is not defined under the Crimes Ordinance. Common law points to “the minimum requirement which is evidence of actual lack of consent”, meaning that consent is presumed until a party says no.
The problem is that, given the existent cultural norms, how can anyone discern if consent has been given? In our society, women are conditioned not to give express consent during sex. Women are supposed to be sexually passive and inexperienced, while men are congratulated for their sexual prowess. Both the mainstream media and the pornography industry tell us that a woman is supposed to be ashamed of her sexuality – she is supposed to whimper and shriek and turn her head away when she feels pleasure. Women are conditioned to say, and men are conditioned to believe, that “no” means “yes”; “it hurts” means “it feels good”; and “stop” means “keep going”.
More worryingly, not having a public discourse on sexual consent means that the level of societal understanding remains appallingly immature. Take victim blaming, for example: just two years ago, Secretary of Security Lai Tung-kwok, addressing a 60% increase in rape cases, urged women “not to drink too much” (instead of asking men not to rape). Many rape and sexual violence victims are shamed and blamed by their family members and the mainstream media. A recent report by the Beijing district court even blamed women with “bad habits” – such as drinking, smoking, and staying out after 9pm – for being raped.
All hope is not lost. In 2012, the Law Reform Commission published a paper on rape and other sexual offences, calling for a statutory definition of consent whereby a person consents to sexual activity if the person (a) freely and voluntarily agrees to the activity; and (b) has the capacity to consent to such activity. This is a step in a positive direction towards affirmative consent. But there is likely to be quite some time before this definition would be enacted by the Legislative Council; and even if that happens, enforcement– which is done by individuals who likely subscribe to the current cultural and sexual norms – is an entirely different problem.
Sex, and especially consent during sex, should not be a taboo topic. It should not even be a “women’s” issue, because it affects individuals across all gender orientations. Without trying to sound clichéd, I believe a genuine and open societal dialogue is direly needed. After all, if our society universally condemns rape, then everyone should at least get to know what exactly it is, and what can we do about the problem.
Virginia Chang is a law student. She enjoys watching TV crime shows, and is a dedicated adherent to Sheryl Sandberg-style “leaning in”.