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Trying to Make Sense of Sexual Harassment in China

May 31, 2017 By Zoe Croom , Comments (9)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Compared to many other countries, being a woman in China, I thought, is relatively safe, especially in terms of sexual harassment. Many expat women I know can't recall ever being sexually harassed in China by a stranger in public. When asked, some have told me 'Chinese men wouldn't dare.' I'm not sure how true this is. Foreign women may feel secure, but for local women sexual harassment in China is very much an issue. A recent string of reports of sexual harassment occurring on metro systems or in the street suggests that despite what I'd previously perceived, some men here do in fact 'dare to'.

sexual harassment on Chinese subway

Sexual harassment: An unfortunate fixture of life

Women worldwide cite public transport systems as spaces where they experience sexual harassment from other passengers. A 2012 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women in Britain ages 18-24 had experienced "unwanted sexual attention while on public transport". A 2000 poll showed that 87 percent of American women ages 18-64 had been harassed by a stranger, and over one half of them had experienced "extreme" harassment. With approximately 8.7 million people riding the Tokyo metro every day, research has shown that two-thirds of women ages 20-30 have experienced sexual harassment. In Delhi, a 2010 government-backed study found that almost two out of every three women interviewed reported encountering incidents of sexual harassment between 2-5 times in the past year.

Since I was about 12, I have experienced sexual harassment in every country I've been in. Walking around London, I've been both verbally and physically harassed. Besides the regular wolf whistling that women in London are subjected to I've had men whisper "you need a good fucking" as I've walked past, yell "Damn, I want to get between those thighs." When I was 14, a stranger put his hand up my skirt. I've woken up on night buses in Vietnam and Turkey with either men groping me or trying their best to. On a bus in India, the man next to me spent the whole journey rubbing his back against my chest (he timed it well with every bump in the road that I thought it was an accident, until it kept happening while we were on flat road). At the same time my friend had a man sitting next to her slowly creeping his arm around her back.

Most women have similar stories; some have worse. However, speaking to foreign women in Kunming it seems that this type of harassment from strangers is unusual. Since I moved to Kunming a year ago there have been stares and the random 'hello, hello', but traveling by myself, sleeping on night buses, being crushed into buses during rush hour and wandering home after a night out has yet to end in me being verbally or physically harassed. Perhaps comments have been made in Chinese that I have not understood but I've never felt threatened.

My personal account appears to support the idea that sexual harassment is less prevalent in China. However, being a foreigner my experience is unlikely to represent the experience of Chinese women, and recent reports indicate that perhaps sexual harassment is just as widespread in China as it is anywhere else.

Gender equality?

Understanding sexual harassment in China is difficult. There are very few published reports on the subject. 'Equality' has long been the maxim, so pointing out inequality is largely frowned upon. The 1949 "Liberation" broke women out of the feudal patriarchy of the past. Women became part of the wage earning labor force. They gained more rights and new laws recognized men and women as equal. The "iron girls" were strong, robust and able to do the same work as men. On paper things had changed.

However, according to Liu Jieyu's book Gender and work in Urban China: Women workers of the unlucky generation, the experiences of women tell a different story. Within the household patriarchic structures men were still understood to be the breadwinners and decision makers. Household work still had to be done, and women were still the ones to do it. While boys went to school, girls stayed home to help their mothers. In the workplace women often had the lowest paid jobs and were the first to be fired.

If you've ever been to a KTV and seen men with their hostesses, or been introduced to somebody's "wife" who is 30 years younger and ignored for the whole evening, you start to feel that even after 64 years, equality hasn't progressed much further than being proclaimed on paper.

Sexual harassment in private and public spaces

Despite the inconsistencies of Mao era gender equality, I believe it laid the foundations for a perception of women in public spaces. Women in China became visible earlier than their counterparts in other places. They became a part of the street, part of the foreground and their sexuality or femininity had no place. The visibility of women and their portrayal of them as 'iron girls' in government propaganda may account for some of the reasons why sexual harassment from strangers in public seems less frequent, and may also go into explaining why foreign women experience less harassment here.

In a 2005 study by the University of Chicago, employed Chinese women reported significantly higher levels of harassment than unemployed women. The women interviewed spoke more of sexual harassment from people known to them, rather than strangers. It happens in the work place, often by coworkers. It happens at dinner parties or banquets once the beer and baijiu start flowing. It happens in a bar once a friend of a friend is introduced.

It seems that sexual harassment is institutionalized in the business world, more so than it is on the street. However, a recent rise in the number of complaints of harassment from strangers indicates that either a change has occurred and public spaces are becoming less safe for women or that more women are speaking out about it. Last month a China-based research firm, Canton Public Opinion Research Centre, released the results of a survey that asked women in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou about their experiences of sexual harassment. Of the women between the ages of 16-25, 48 percent said they have faced increased incidents.

China's rapid urbanization has meant that more women are leaving their traditional communities and heading to the cities to find work. According to a pending International Transport Workers Federation report, women are less likely to own private transport due to having lower incomes than men and are therefore more dependent on public transportation. This leads to more opportunities for harassment. With no night buses and no metro system, there are fewer opportunities for harassment in Kunming. A metro is currently under construction; perhaps when it is finished women here will experience an increase in harassment incidents as well.

As well as more opportunities leading to more incidents, sexual harassment usually accompanies women's changing understanding of their position in society. Harassment occurs where society's traditions butt up against modernization. Women who violate traditional understandings of dress, women who take on more powerful positions, and women with more open attitudes towards sex are all likely to experience an increase in sexual harassment.

Trying to prevent the growth

In response to a growing number of complaints relating to sexual harassment on public transport, 15 cities worldwide now offer rail, metro and bus services exclusively for women. An increasing number of cities have implemented the pink taxi system—taxis driven by women for women clientele. Other cities' transport systems have been searching for alternative ways to increase women's safety, including more lighting on dark platforms, increased security and fines for offenders who are caught.

Chinese cities seem to be following in step. In Wuhan, subway authorities announced plans to have a designated women's only waiting area to protect against possible harassment, as well as increasing the number of security cameras. In Guangzhou after a number of fairly disgusting incidents were publicized, the metro created posters that try to teach women how to protect themselves from harassment. Some of these posters give helpful tips, some are ridiculous and some are just insulting to women. In the summer of 2012, Shanghai metro system posted a photo of a woman in a sheer dress on its Weibo account, with the line "It would be strange if a woman wasn't sexually harassed if dressed like this. There are many perverts. Young women, please cover up if you want to avoid cat-calls".

Chinese media has also weighed into the issue, with more and more reporting of incidents. Many try to teach women how to avoid sexual harassment. It is important that women know how to protect themselves, but laying responsibility with women cannot be the only answer. Reading Diane Fu's fairly damning article on the portrayal of sexual harassment in Chinese media, one starts to worry that it is less about improving women's safety and more about raising China's international standing.


Before writing this article, I'd been pleasantly surprised that I hadn't experienced sexual harassment in Kunming, and it was this that made me want to research the topic more thoroughly. Perhaps I've been lucky or perhaps foreign women are in a more secure position since sexual harassment is a persistent issue, especially for young women in the cities. The Chinese National Development and Reform Commission expects that 40 Chinese cities will have subway systems by 2020. With the number of women in the labor force increasing, it is likely that the number of women experiencing harassment on public transport will also increase. Making it safer for women must include making harassers accountable. If not it is likely that the number of incidents will continue to rise.

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Keywords: sexually harassed in China sexual harassment in China

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9 Comments ( Add your comment )


I love logic like "it hasn't happened to me, so the problem must not be that big." I had a friend with me in Nanjing. French girl. The cab driver turned around and, not knowing that I speak and understand Chinese, offered the girl 50RMB if she would give him oral sex. We got out of the taxi immediately. Yeah, foreign women are safe here. <rolls eyes>

May 31, 2017 14:19

how different is your logic 'it happened to my friend so therefore it must be prevalent' than hers which assumes if it has not happened to her it must be rare? by the way, being propositioned with money is an issue of harassment, not safety. all in all, china is one of the safest places in the world for women.

Jun 02, 2017 13:43

And your facts about safety for women comes from what source? Please provide.

Jun 02, 2017 17:04

Oh Common! The way the women dress in China! I am not surprised!

Jun 03, 2017 15:11

Most foreign women here arent worth ogling let alone molesting :P As for the locals, most girls on public transport are sweaty smelling peasants or tarted up trolls ...again, why bother?

Jun 03, 2017 16:55

"With no night buses and no metro system in Kunming... A metro is currently under construction..." Why do these feminists keep re-spamming the same post year after year? I remember reading this article 3-4 years ago, and yet it has been re-posted again here on "May 31st 2017". Comoon people, if you re-spam feminist propaganda, at least make sure you delete the parts which show you're just copy-pasting stuff from previous years. Kunming has metro system. It has been running already for few years now!

Jun 03, 2017 20:06

PS. Kunming girls are not the hottest girls in China, but compare to their western competitors they shine bright. I'm not surprised at all that the writer haven't experienced anyone approaching her romantically. Western girls here in Kunming are obese and ugly; not worth the time.

Jun 03, 2017 20:11

Be great to see what "prize" you are!!!

Jun 11, 2017 15:11

I think the generalizations in both the article and comment section are terrible! You really need to consider what you say, how can you say all western girls in Kunming are fat and ugly??? I am a western girl and I have experienced low level sexual harassment, people will dare whether they are Chinese or come from any other part of the world.

Jun 06, 2017 21:32

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