Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sex Crimes

As my wife and I entered the subway carriage I was so wrapped up in role-playing my impending potential immigration interview that I paid no attention whatsoever to my fellow passengers. The upshot of this was that when she asked me about the man and woman sat opposite us I actually had to look to understand what was going on.

A young woman wearing quite high-cut shorts was facing me with her legs crossed away from a man around the same age who was staring straight at us with the same type of vacant yet menacing eyes which witnesses often attribute to the perpetrators of mass shootings. But it was the placement of one of his hands which had drawn the attention of my wife - it was at the side of his leg, on the seat, in the place the woman's bare flesh might have been if she hadn't had her leg raised and crossed over the other. The man's hand was, as a consequence, slightly under her leg, though not touching it.

"I don't think they're together" my wife stated, to which I replied after another glance that they must be, surely. I've had a lot of Japanese friends over the years and you hear about things that go on their crowded trains, but the idea of something happening so blatantly in front of me - in Korea - never seriously crossed my mind, even if they did introduce women-only carriages in Seoul a few years ago.

My wife was convinced his hand was moving closer to her but short of staring at him and his hand - which could be incredibly rude if they actually were together, I didn't detect any movement as I stole glances. Finally, his apparently fixed yet slightly spaced-out stare, which had quite possibly never deviated from us, provoked me into staring back at him and his hand - now I was sure his hand was getting further under her leg. My wife was beginning to mutter abuse while giving him increasingly dirty looks said that if the woman moved, then our suspicions would be confirmed.

The woman got up and moved to a seat further down the carriage, while the man remained impassive and emotionless, confirming our worst suspicions. Then we were both free to stare at the man more obviously. He got off the train a couple of stops later, looking for all the world like any other normal university student or young professional. But, after all, 20% of sex criminals in Korea are college graduates, so what does that prove?

It's easy to look back in retrospect and think of all the things we could have done or said, but we couldn't be certain there was anything improper taking place until the woman moved. My wife felt that after we sat down the man had actually touched the woman but stopped when we started to look. It's a pity the woman didn't make a scene because she would have had two willing witnesses, and someone I'm convinced was seriously mentally disturbed beneath an otherwise disturbingly normal façade could have been taken to task.

What was rather chilling about the whole affair was the number of people sat in the carriage even before we entered - the seats weren't full but it was far from empty, and yet in full sight of everyone he did what he did. If he'd been an old Korean man - not that this excuses it (unless you're a Korean judge) - you might have put it down to alcohol or simple desperation, but the fact that this was a young guy in his early twenties suggested to me - coupled with the look on his face I'm not going to forget in a hurry - that he has a promising career as a serial killer in front of him.

So after almost three years of riding the Busan subway this is the first time I've seen anyone being sexually harassed - in fact it's the first time I've seen any kind of harassment taking place, and it's a shock. But it's not as though there aren't a lot of sex crimes taking place in Korea, because there really are according to official figures, especially against children, and one suspects the figures would probably be much higher if women were prepared to call it out when it happened rather than being burdened with hundreds of years of cultural shame in such situations. Unfortunately even though 76% of Korean women have been sexually harassed in the workplace, 55% of them did nothing and just put up with it, according to a recent survey.

3 comments: said...

Playing Devils' Advocaat, what would calling him out on it do? He'd stop, and just leave the carriage anyway. Maybe he'd be too scared to do it to the next lady - but if he's willing to do that blatantly in a carriage full of people, I doubt it.

Nowhere near the same thing, but I once saw a chap on the tube reading the latest BNP newsletter, on a tube headed to Tooting - not exactly the whitest of areas. No-one ever acknowledged that. Public transport is ironically one of the safest places to do something unsavourary in full view of the public.

Reise ohne Ende said..., it may not seem like it, but calling out a harasser can actually have a pretty big effect. Not only does it have the (albeit potentially slim) chance of embarrassing the offender/warding off future attacks, but it shows the victim some solidarity. Many women who are the victims of sexual harassment are socialized to believe that it's all in their heads or that they're making a big deal out of nothing. The fact is, nobody deserves that kind of treatment, and having a stranger stick up for you can do a lot for your self-esteem.

Mike, I haven't followed your blog before, but I'm going to have to start! I live in Busan too, although I've only been here for 6 months, and I feel lucky that I've never witnessed such an incident. In that situation, I think you did the best you could have. It's possible that calling attention to something that minor (not to diminish its wrongness, just saying that the woman was *probably* not anything more than a little uncomfortable) might have embarrassed the woman more than the man. But regardless, I think you and your wife sound like really kind-hearted people and it makes me feel safer to know there are people like you living in my city. :)

Mike said..., you're right - it probably wouldn't change anything, but you know we have to keep trying :-) And that BNP incident in Tooting sounds almost like an attempted suicide!

Reise ohne Ende - thanks for your comments, and welcome to Busan! I think this kind of incident is rare. If anything it felt as though the woman walked off with an air of contempt so I can only hope that she wasn't too upset by it.

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