Attitudes and Practices towards Sexual Harassment in Beirut


This study conducted by Harasstracker over the course of 6 months in Beirut was funded by the KIP project in AUB.

 

  • This baseline study focuses on literate, adult men and women working and /or residing in Beirut, in an attempt to examine their attitudes towards sexual harassment: their understanding of it, experiences and instances that they have witnessed, and the impact it has had on their daily practices as they start their careers. It aims to understand their readiness to report it and the social environments that empower them to confront it, as well as their knowledge and use of existing legislation and tools. 

We examine the following issues about sexual harassment in Lebanon:

  • Understanding and conceptualization of sexual harassment in Lebanon; and awareness of/around it
  • Normalization, sense of (in)validity of discomfort
  • Self-assessment of perpetrators
  • Direct reactions, need for reporting tools

 

Major findings of this research were as follows:

 

  1. The existence of varying terms for sexual harassment; and different scales/meters to define it

 

The language of surveys affected the results: Arabic survey respondents were less likely to consider comments such as “شو هل سحبات” “Nice legs!” as sexual harassment (48% in Arabic vs 56% in English). 2/10 Arabic respondents suggested their own terms to describe the situations.

تلطيشتحرش “, تحركش“  were examples of terms used to invalidate or downplay the feeling of being sexually harassed.  

 

  • In deciding if an incident is sexual harassment or not, participants take into account the degree of sexual explicitness/immorality (إباحية/قلة أخلاق):

 

In focus groups, both men and women differentiate in theory between verbal comments and catcalling based on their level of sexual explicitness (إباحية). However, while men accepted being labeled as harassers (عم يتحرش) when using explicitly sexual terms despite admitting that even non-sexual compliments aim at sex;  women only call it verbal sexual harassment if loaded with explicit sexual terms, even though they report feeling humiliated, bothered and insecure from comments that are not explicitly sexual.

 

  • In deciding if an incident is sexual harassment or not, participants juxtapose the perpetrator’s intention versus the receiver’s sense of insecurity:

 

Men, across all focus groups, admit that the goal is sex (طبقا، شيلا، نام معا), while women think intentions matter more than the receiver’s experience or feelings. They do not presume bad intentions in cases of catcalling for example, despite feelings of discomfort.

It follows that the perpetrator’s intention, for both men and women, overshadows the receiver’s sense of insecurity.

 

 

Street Harassment
  All Male Female
1.1 – verbal 280 (52%) 135 (47%) 145 (58%)
1.2 – pursuit 480 (90%) 250 (88%) 230 (92%)
1.3 – exposure 496 (93%) 256 (90%) 240 (96%)
1.4 – physical 500 (94%) 263 (93%) 237 (95%)
Workplace Harassment
  All Male Female
2.1 – verbal 235 (44%) 101 (35%) 134 (53%)
2.2 – physical 366 (68%) 179 (63%) 187 (75%)
2.3 – demands 488 (91%) 257 (91%) 231 (92%)

 

The breakdown by gender of all those who categorized a scenario as sexual harassment

 

 

 

  1.  A striking detachment and dissonance between theoretical understanding of sexual harassment and the language used by activists and the media on one hand, and the lived experience and the general public’s attitude towards it on the other.

 

People identify sexual harassment in theoretical or mediatized scenarios naming it as such, but hesitate to use the term when talking about their own or their surroundings’ similar experiences.

52% of the respondents identified comments such as “Nice legs” – “شو هل سحبات” – as sexual harassment in the survey’s theoretical scenario. Yet, in personal situations discussed in focus groups, most participants agreed that it is probably not harassment, in absence of physical contact, and hence does not need to be reacted to. This has hence revealed that there is a certain kind of conditional validity of women’s reactions to sexual harassment.

48% of those who identified catcalling as sexual harassment in theoretical scenarios responded as having never or not knowing anyone who was verbally sexually harassed, and this was strongly reflected in focus groups.

The focus groups also showed that instead of the term “sexual” for instance, respondents related more to the notion of the body and unapproved contact with or allusions to the body.

 

     

 

«بس لو دأرني يمكن كنت صرخت» – “If he had touched me, I would have maybe screamed”

*Female focus group participant, age 20-25

  1. The notion of consent exists as a signifier of harassment (تحرش) – retrospectively

 

For the men in focus groups, all relations or sexual encounters start with sexual harassment. If the woman ends up agreeing to have sex with them, then it wasn’t harassment.

Even if she regrets the sex, was at first saying no, or cries, it’s still her responsibility and thus not harassment.

If the woman doesn’t respond positively, then it was harassment but it doesn’t really matter.

Two conclusions follow this line of thought; that the low probability of men’s success in having sex outweighs the women’s feelings and sense of insecurity and discomfort; and that in all interactions in public spaces, men’s desire is central.

 

  1. Women delegate sense of bodily discomfort and ownership to community and family

 

Input from the women participants in focus groups indicated that women tend to trust the assessment of their families, often fathers, more than their own in deciding if an incident was sexual harassment; or if their sense of discomfort is valid.

Women also expressed not trusting witnesses to stand by them if they relay their sense of insecurity following an incident of sexual harassment. They fear being blamed and shamed for the said incident. It is hence easy to infer the same conclusion revealed by the second finding above, and it’s the existence of a conditional validity when it comes to women’s reactions to sexual harassment.

 

  1. Pervasiveness of insecurity

 

Focus group discussions revealed that the conceptualization of sexual harassment in both men and women, but mostly in women is rooted in sensationalist stories in the media; stories that lack a constructive approach, miss the structural conditions and reasons, and adopt an intimidating tone, loaded with unsubstantiated claims and focusing on the logistics of the incidents without suggesting any concrete solutions or vision.

This unconstructive and intimidating approach to sexual harassment stories contribute in the creation of a chronic sense of insecurity for women. This sense of insecurity is pervasive, not only because of the media’s sensationalist approach to sexual harassment, but also as a result of personal experiences or that of acquaintances, though said experiences were not explicitly labeled as sexual harassment.

The pervasiveness of this sense of insecurity leads to limitations of movement – of self and children, such as avoiding elevators, unlit streets, empty areas, neighborhood shop, etc…, and missing out on opportunities of employment and/or study.

On a related note, and in terms of reporting this sense of insecurity, respondents at every level of the street scenarios of the survey were more likely to report the incident through an electronic tool that guarantees their anonymity rather than to the police. The women focus groups confirmed by reports from the map indicated a lack of trust in the police forces and a feeling of insecurity around them.

 

  1.  Responsibility: Men’s selective responsibility, women’s conditional responsibility

 

From the notion of retrospective consent, it follows that men do not take responsibility for a sexual harassment incident when it is considered “wrong”, or when the receiver clearly and explicitly voices objection or discomfort.

Most men participants and some women – especially older, married, unemployed women with children – typically blame the woman for the incident of sexual harassment that she is subjected to.

Some women however, place a particular conditional responsibility on the woman: if a woman is mature enough (واعية), and if a woman is not a child – a minor – then she is considered responsible for the incident and it is no longer considered sexual harassment.

 

  1. Pathologizing sexual harassment

 

Men pathologize the men who don’t engage in sexual harassment or don’t harass women in the streets, while women pathologize men who do. It is interesting to note that both men and women, met in separate focus groups, used the same mental condition – “autism” – to describe the men who harass (women) and the men who don’t harass (men).

 

 

«انسان مريض»، «عندو توحد»

 

 

 

 

  1. Othering sexual harassment: It is never “us”

 

  • Blaming the immigrants for perpetrating sexual harassment

 

Women blame Syrians for harassing women, even though male focus groups gathered Lebanese men living in Beirut, and the striking majority admitted to sexually harassing.

Women in focus group discussions explicitly assumed that since Syrians are foreigners, they care less about what they do in this country, as it’s not theirs.

 

 

“It feels like they come here and exploit everything, the land and the women; it’s not theirs they don’t care”

 

“The Lebanese man has a sister, or a mother. Or he might be in love with someone. He won’t do it”

 

*Female focus group participants – unemployed, age above 30

 

 

  • Blaming the media for teaching and promoting sexual harassment

 

Across focus groups, participants repeatedly mentioned figures like Myriam Klink – a pop culture icon taking ownership of her sexuality with provocative music videos – and shows like “Take me out” – an entertainment dating show that features a group of men, who must score a date with one of the 30 women present in the studio – as examples of how the media promotes sexual harassment.

In the focus group of uneducated men, aged 20-25 for instance, some used Nizar Qabbani to justify catcalling.

  • Blaming society: Harassment as a “societal problem”

 

Both men and women see harassment as a “societal” problem/syndrome. But while men see it as a societal syndrome because Arab/Lebanese society gives them no other option to seek sex, women perceive it as a social problem because society will not believe them and will question them when they report being subjected to sexual harassment or when they talk about it.

 

  1. Conclusion  

 

This research started out to explore the general public’s conceptualization and attitudes towards sexual harassment in Beirut, and to eventually serve as a baseline study for the HarassTracker initiative that serves at anonymously documenting sexual harassment in Lebanon.

Though the findings revealed some of what was already known and previously confirmed in feminist research and literature, such as the centrality of men’s desires and interest in interactions in the public sphere, it has also outlined key issues that require further refining and nuancing, and necessitate action.

One of those findings that signal the need for action is the dissonance between the theory and the lived experience when it comes to talking about sexual harassment. The research revealed that the universal sense of insecurity and discomfort that women reported feeling in public spaces due to unwanted attention is not reflected in the way sexual harassment is discussed within the circles of activists and professionals working on this issue. This clear disconnect between women’s sense of insecurity and the language they use to talk about it, hints to the need for feminists working on the issue to develop a more accessible and relatable lexicon that would enable all women and survivors of sexual harassment to talk about their experiences, without resorting to intimidating language.

Other findings such as placing responsibility for sexual harassment on women, limitations to their movement, pathologizing sexual harassment and men’s conviction that all interactions with women start with sexual harassment and their dismissal of the notion of consent, all signal to a striking misunderstanding of the issue. This also indicates a significant degree of unawareness of women’s sexuality, the notion of consent, and mental health issues; and in turn alerts to the media’s role in addressing these issues more thoroughly and responsibly, and in providing clearer more constructive, and more methodical analysis of sexual harassment stories in the news.

In brief, the findings of the research put together constitute a comprehensive roadmap to tackle sexual harassment, paving the way for developing concrete suggestions to the different stakeholders involved in women’s safety and security in public spaces.