What is considered as sexual harassment: Taiwanese public’s perceptions

Written by Timothy Rich and Jessica Kiehnau.

Image credit: Taipei Main Station by Andy Enero/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What do Taiwanese citizens consider sexual harassment? What constitutes sexual harassment is often unclear and inconsistent both across cultures and across generations. The #MeToo Movement in Taiwan received limited attention compared to other countries in the region. In March of 2018, a scandal emerged as a legislative assistant had for over ten years reportedly harassed seven women. Approximately 1,000 women also marched in April of 2018. In contrast, repeated scandals in South Korea, including the rise of harassment via spy cam video, led to a protest of over 20,000 in 2018. With claims that political parties as well as judges are too willing to defend alleged harassers or provide overly lenient sentences, and a string of rather gruesome murders of women in the past 18 months, Taiwan would seem ripe for greater outrage.

At the same time, Taiwan remains comparatively progressive in many measures of women’s equality. For example, females comprised 38% of legislators elected in 2016, putting Taiwan higher than the international average and with only one Asian country, Timor Leste, with similar representation. Quotas for lower level offices under the Local Government Act, Section 4 Article 33, has aided in the recruitment and the political upward mobility of female politicians. The gender wage gap, at around 14.5% is declining and various measures of gender equity have markedly improved in recent decades. According to the 2017 Report Gender at a Glance in R.O.C.( Taiwan), female labour force participation surpassed 50% in 2012. Using the World Economic Forum (WEF) index, Taiwan would rank 38th in gender equality.

Not only that, but in December of 2015, Taiwan passed the Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act. The purpose of the act is to prevent sexual assault and to protect the rights of victims. This act provides sexual assault prevention education at every level of school, provides a legally competent authority to investigate sexual assault crimes and to provide corrective measures and medical treatment within prison, and provides support for victims and appropriate punishments for offenders. For example, in 2018, the Taiwanese government deported an American man after he served five months in prison, convicted under the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act, after he groped the breasts and behinds of two women.

Furthermore, before a broader dialogue on sexual harassment can occur, we must consider to what extent males and females share a common view on what constitutes as harassment, an issue that rarely is tested empirically in Taiwan or anywhere else. For example, the 2018 American Family Survey found that a majority of male respondents did not believe asking for sexual favours is always harassment, in contrast to the two-thirds of women who responded it was.

One would expect a consensus on explicit forms of harassment, especially that which would fall under physical assault. In contrast, one may expect variation across males and females over ambiguous behaviours or actions and behaviours that in a previous era many brushed aside as “boys being boys”. That males and females could have divergent views on harassment has clear practical implications, from the effectiveness of anti-harassment efforts to whether there are clear levels of harassment and what should be the proper punishment for such levels of harassment.

Personal opinions of punishment for sexual harassment may differ depending on the severity of the act (such as rape versus groping), why the act was committed (e.g. withholding a promotion versus a random attack), and even holding people of increased influence to a higher standard. Cultural influences may also play a role, in not only tolerance (see here and here), but also a willingness to report harassment or assault.

To address perceptions of harassment, we surveyed 504 Taiwanese citizens in April via an experimental web survey conducted by PollcracyLab. Respondents randomly were assigned to receive one of seven prompts about different forms of harassment between a male stranger towards a female. The versions were:

Version 1: I would consider a male stranger whistling at a woman to be harassment.

Version 2: I would consider a male stranger commenting about a woman’s physical features to be harassment.

Version 3: I would consider a male stranger making crude jokes or sexual innuendos to a woman to be harassment.

Version 4: I would consider a male stranger touching a woman on the waist to be harassment.

Version 5: I would consider a male stranger touching a woman on the knee to be harassment.

Version 6: I would consider a male stranger brushing up against a woman’s sexual areas to be harassment.

Version 7: I would consider a male stranger grabbing a woman’s sexual areas to be harassment.

The figure below presents the percentage of respondents that stated that they agreed or strongly agreed, a 4 or 5 on the five-point Likert scale, that the action constitutes harassment. This was also broken down by gender and by version received. In four of the versions, we find marginal differences in perceptions of harassment by gender. However, in comments about features, touching of the waist, and touching of the knee, we see a gap of thirteen percentage points or more. Of particular note, women were more than twice as likely to call a stranger commenting about a woman’s features as harassment.

pic 2

The results suggest where common ground lies but also where additional work is necessary. Self-evident examples, such as touching sexual areas, almost are guaranteed to get an even response from both men and women, while less ‘clear’ actions, such as whistling, commenting about features could be mistaken to have different meanings, such as paying as a form of flirtation. We were surprised that of the verbal versions of potential harassment (1-3), that crude jokes elicited similar perceptions between males and females, suggesting that the distinction between views on harassment are more complex than simply men not viewing non-physical actions as harassment.

Admittedly, such survey work is susceptible to respondents, especially in this case male respondents, giving what they believe to be politically acceptable answers. Nor can a survey parse out abstract perceptions of harassment and actual behaviour since few if any respondents would admit to being a harasser. However, it is highly likely that many of the female respondents experienced one or more of the versions of harassment, as 81% of American women reported to have experienced some sort of sexual harassment in their lifetime, and in 2017, 14,217 cases of sexual harassment were reported throughout Taiwan, with more than 2,000 on school campuses. Furthermore, it is difficult to identify how Taiwanese men and women compare in perceptions to people elsewhere. The only similar survey work of which we are aware was our survey work in South Korea in March regarding male and female co-workers rather than strangers, finding a gap over thirty-percentage points between women’s evaluations of both complimenting and criticizing a female co-worker’s appearance compared to male respondents.

Taiwan’s gender equity laws and women’s political representation, much like the legalization of same-sex marriage highlight Taiwan’s progressiveness. However, legal frameworks alone do not necessarily change public perceptions. Nor can one expect a convergence on perceptions of harassment to develop quickly when at least in some areas, namely verbal harassment, a significant percentage of males may deny or not realize that women view such acts in a much more negative light. However, with more attention on #MeToo movements in Asian countries, not only spreading personal stories, but also showing the prevalence of harassment, attitudes on what constitutes harassment and solutions are likely to change.

Timothy Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His research interest concerns East Asian domestic and international politics, including electoral politics, diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, cross-strait relations, and support for same-sex marriage legislation.

Jessica Kiehnau is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in International Affairs and Chinese.

After a long battle, same sex marriage was finally legalised in Taiwan on 17 May 2019, and parliament was asked to pass the change within the following week. In this special issue, Taiwan Insight shares the experiences of those who witnessed this historical moment and looks at some of the driving forces that led to this momentous breakthrough.


  1. “What do Taiwanese citizens consider sexual harassment?”

    Before trying to answer this question, the authors frame the problem by lamenting (1) that sexual harassment does not get the attention of the Taiwanese its grave significance warrants because (a) the “#MeToo Movement in Taiwan received limited attention compared to other countries in the region” and because (b) a reported scandal had only “approximately 1,000 women march[ing] in April of 2018” while “repeated scandals in South Korea, including the rise of harassment via spy cam video, led to a protest of over 20,000 in 2018”, by claiming (2) “that political parties as well as judges are too willing to defend alleged harassers or provide overly lenient sentences and by pointing (3) to “a string of rather gruesome murders of women in the past 18 months”.

    On (1), could it be that Taiwanese tend to focus their attention on other forms of harassment (e.g. being harassed into doing overtime or being harassed into prioritising work over family) that they feel being more worrisome? Or could it be that their culture allows them to ‘laugh it off and take no action’ as ‘54.7 percent of female respondents said’ in ‘a survey by the Ministry of Labor’ (as reported in a Taipei Times editorial linked to in the article)? Or could it be that sexual harassment is simply not as prevalent in Taiwan as in South Korea? Or could it be that Taiwanese simply do not get as worked up by unproven claims and mere rumours as people in other cultures?

    I don’t know the answers. The authors don’t provide them either. But surely they would be more helpful than an ignorant lament. Wouldn’t they?

    So, perhaps, not only “what constitutes sexual harassment is often unclear and inconsistent both across cultures and across generations” but also what significance is attributed to sexual harassment, as well as how to best handle it when encountered, may often be “unclear and inconsistent both across cultures and across generations”.

    On (2), who is in the position to decide if judges defend alleged harassers instead of trying them? Higher level courts are, when rule of law is taken seriously. Mere claimants are not. The same is true for the perceived leniency of sentences.

    So, please note, claims cannot replace proper judgments in court.

    On (3), what connects “a string of rather gruesome murders of women” to sexual harassment? Murder, gruesome or not, is murder not harassment. Obviously, there is no connection but such a statement is useful as a frame for making the reader “ripe for greater outrage” and to insinuate in his/her mind that victims of sexual harassment are not just wronged, but horribly wronged, and that they are female and, by sloppy deduction, the perpetrators are always male.

    However, an article in a research magazine should provide rational insights and sound arguments. Stirring up outrage and other blind emotions is unhelpful in such a context. Please, don’t let your activist self muddle your scholarly work.


  2. “[The Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act] … provides a legally competent authority … to provide corrective measures and medical treatment within prison, …”

    I perhaps understand the intention of “medical treatment” in “corrective measures and medical treatment” wrong. However I cannot help to be reminded of a time when it was felt to be right to have homosexuals undergo medical treatment. Such a thought makes me uneasy.

    So, let’s see what the law says:

    ‘Article 20 Should the offender fall into one of the following categories, and it is considered to be necessary after examination, the competent authority of the municipality or county (city) should order the offender to receive physical and psychological treatment or counselling education:
    1.The offender has completed an imprisonment term or rehabilitative disposition. If the offender is sentenced to community service, the implementation starts from when the community service punishment is pronounced.
    2.The offender is on parole.
    3.There is a postponement in the implementation of the sentence.
    4.There is an exemption from the penalty.
    5.The offender has been pardoned.
    6.A Court or military court has suspended compulsory treatment pursuant to Article 22-1 Paragraph 3.’

    ‘Article 22-1 Before completing imprisonment terms, if the offender has received counseling or treatment, is identified, evaluated and there is considered to be a danger of recidivism, and therefore Article 91-1 of the Criminal Code is not applicable, the prison or military prison shall submit a relevant evaluation report to the prosecutor of the district prosecutor office or military prosecutor office. The prosecutor shall file a petition to the court or military court for an order stating that the offender shall receive compulsory treatment in a medical institution or other designated places.’

    Nowhere in the act can I find any regulation that states what kind of physical treatment is admissible for what condition and which restrictions apply. It just says that treatment is compulsory when the examiner sees a danger of recidivism. Thinking of the many abuses of medical authority in prisons and mental asylums during earlier times I get even more uneasy.

    Are there any studies of how the application of this law works out in this regard?


  3. “Furthermore, before a broader dialogue on sexual harassment can occur, we must consider to what extent males and females share a common view on what constitutes as harassment …”

    Why can’t we have “a broader dialogue on sexual harassment” if we do not know “to what extent males and females share a common view on what constitutes as harassment”? I cannot see any obstacle of this kind.

    We cannot have a meaningful dialogue if participants use different interpretations of what constitutes sexual harassment, unless the dialogue is about finding consensus on the definition and classification of sexual harassment. It does not matter if the differences unfold along gender lines or otherwise. The authors’ survey shows this clearly. Even for acts that are nearly unequivocally considered harassment there are a few males and females that don’t.

    Just look at the ‘Comments about Features’ results. It has the largest difference in the perception of males and females. But still, there are more women who do not consider this as harassment than the difference between males and females who do.

    It makes no sense at all to differentiate between males and females. It does not provide meaningful insights into how to get humans to behave decent towards each other.

    Rather, segmenting society along physical features (skin colour, sexual organs, dressing, ethnicity, …) or cultural traits (faith, sexual preferences, cultural background, gender identity, …) is a step back into the realm of race politics we had not so long ago. I cannot imagine that anyone wants to return to those dark ages.


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