The Chinese New Year celebration was coming up on campus, and I had been very excited for it. Having lived in Hong Kong myself, I was looking forward to reconnecting a little with Chinese culture. So after engaging with the various stalls, my friend and I made our way to the Alumni Auditorium to enjoy an hour of performances.
The team had put in a lot of effort to present a lively show with various acts for us. Towards the end, we were to marvel at the skilled demonstration of some martial arts skills. I have always been a fan of martial arts and its teachings. After the performance had ended, the young man guiding us through the acts addressed the audience and referred to the email regarding cases of sexual assault in Exeter.
He then asked the leader of the martial arts performance to show some self-defence tricks for women.
So he approached the martial artist and put his arm around the guy’s shoulder, laughing awkwardly, and pretended to grab his breast. The audience laughed. The martial artist used various techniques to defend himself. Since he obviously did not intend to hurt his attacker in this case, he lifted him only half way into the air and did not throw him to the ground. While his attacker was hanging in the hair, jokingly proclaiming his pain, the audience (again) burst into laughter.
I sat there quite still. My friend, who was also laughing, turned to me, puzzled by my silence.
“Why is sexual harassment funny?” I silently asked.
I found myself back in my Taekwondo studio a couple of years ago. After personal experiences of assault and abuse, I started to go to Taekwondo classes three times a week to gain control back over my body and strengthen my confidence. It was a very long and healing process which improved my strength; both bodily and mentally. In the auditorium, I thought of my self-defence classes. Surely, we must have laughed sometimes at the awkwardness of the situation during practice. Also, sometimes satire seems to be necessary to deal with unbearable news and events. Yet, that little scene stood in a much wider and different context to me.
Firstly, it was not practice or rehearsal, but a performance in front of a large audience. Secondly, they did not state that sexual assault is wrong and focused rather on the prevention of harm; much like the email by the university. Apparently, it is the victims who above all need to look after themselves. But my self-defence classes have not prevented further sexual harassment. I get cat-called in broad daylight on a busy street. Taekwondo only helped me to deal with it, but it should not have been necessary in the first place. Apparently, the university thought it to be common knowledge that sexual harassment is wrong.
Why then, did a large audience laugh at the comic depiction of assault if it is so commonly known as wrong?
Some might say that in a real situation they would not laugh, but I have seen that happening. Boys touching girls inappropriately, and it is seen as a joke.
Now, I am certain that it had not been the men’s intention to promote that message.
But, it all seems so harmless until we see how all these seemingly harmless jokes add up to create an environment where assault is acceptable and apparently even something to laugh at.
It could have been a great moment, but unfortunately it left a bitter aftertaste.