Herizons Commentary

Calling Out Sexpats  by Joanna Chiu
Calling Out Sexpats

Growing up in a Vancouver suburb with a very diverse population, I remember a few racist taunts on the playground, but they were few and far between.

Ironically, it was only when I moved to Asia that I began encountering serious discrimination as well as “yellow fever” (fetishes over Asian women). When I first moved to China seven years ago, as a 23-year-old reporter, I was a target, not a peer, for some of the men in my professional network.

One evening, a fellow journalist grabbed my wrist and dragged me out of a nightclub without a word. I was clearly too drunk to consent; it was a caveman approach to get me into bed while I was intoxicated. And on another occasion, in a Beijing restaurant, a Western public-relations executive reached under my dress—during a social gathering—and grabbed my crotch.

The #MeToo campaign is informing the world about the prevalence of sexual predators in North America in particular—but the behaviour of foreign men working
abroad has, in my experience, been far worse than I experienced in Canada or the United States. Fortunately (if that’s the right word) I’ve experienced this as part of the wider “expat” community and not in my own workplaces. But other women haven’t been so lucky.

This bad behaviour is part of a pattern that repeats across the world—from Tokyo, to Iraq, to Moscow— basically any place where miscreant men work far away from home. Put Srey Roth, a teacher and model in Cambodia, told me that harassment from foreign men is a constant source of vexation.

“They do have that attitude that they are better and that we are nothing, and all Cambodian women are merely objects available for sale,” she said. “They tell me that I will be on their bed.… It just grosses me out.”

Dubbed “sexpat behaviour” in the expat world, harassment and abuse are not confined to male tourists. Often the worst perpetrators are men in positions of influence in fields such as journalism, diplomacy and international business.

At the core of the problem is a lack of accountability. Behaviour that could (or should) get you fired in North America often goes unremarked in Beijing or Kuala
Lumpur, where remote foreign offices have little contact with the home base and, in some cases, no mechanisms for employees to report abuse. Even when cases are
reported, perpetrators are sometimes simply quietly transferred to another part of the world.

Matt Schiavenza, a journalist who has covered Asia for the past 10 years and has lived in China’s Yunnan province, blames a combination of factors, including relative
legal impunity overseas for sexual harassers.

“In terms of Western journalists, I think some people have this swinging-dick mentality where they’re ‘foreign correspondents’ in a James Bond sense, and [sleeping with] a lot of women is part of the cachet,” Schiavenza told me.

The problem is worsened by the unequal power dynamics in the offices of multinational companies that employ local staff to provide translation services, conduct research, and navigate complex bureaucracies, yet pay them a fraction of what their foreign colleagues earn. In China, these assistants are mostly young women. This pattern is mirrored in other countries, where the pool of those with the English-languageskills needed for the job is made up of mostly women.

Given the power imbalance, sexual harassment and gender- or race-based discrimination occurs with impunity. Even if local hires raise concerns, investigations can often prove extremely difficult over distance and cultural barriers. A process like talking about a superior’s misdeeds that is difficult even in your own country can become impossible abroad.

Without clear policies against sexual harassment, and in the absence of fairer legal systems to deal with rape, many men in overseas offices feel they can do whatever they want and get away with it.

All of this also drives women out of international careers. Besides objectification, harassment and assault, female professionals also have to put up with problems
such as unequal pay.

Today’s problems are rooted in the past. During the Second World War and the Vietnam War, female journalists struggled in male-dominated newsrooms to fight for opportunities to cover conflict. But, even after they snagged overseas posts, they faced sexual harassment and discrimination.

Working overseas comes with added challenges for women, including potentially greater safety risks. Male expats should make sure that they’re supporting their female colleagues, instead of taking personal advantage of nthe situation by harassing and assaulting women.