Groping is no jokeAs the Korean media unravel the unfortunate incident involving a 21-year-old female intern in Washington and the presidential spokesman who allegedly groped her, I couldn’t help but notice how many people felt it was OK to make light of the story by cracking jokes. As someone who draws parallels in her own experience, I can tell you that groping is not, and shouldn’t be, a joking matter.
I, too, was an intern at the Korean Embassy in Washington in my early 20s. While I suspect internship duties vary during a presidential summit, my experience was nothing like what is being described in the media or by an anonymous former intern on a recent MBC radio interview. In fact, my internship in the summer of 2008 was more than fulfilling. I briefed the ambassador with daily media reports, edited articles and conducted research.
The more compelling reason I empathize with the victim - to the point of experiencing a visceral reaction - is because I was once groped by an older male coworker. I understand all too well how surprisingly frightening and disorienting the experience can be.
I am a professional in my late 20s, the age when knowledge of the real world should have hardened me and armed me with the unfazed poise to scoff at inappropriate male advances that came my way. Yet, that evening, I was in a cab crying and scared.
Although I did scold my coworker and leave the scene immediately, I’m not proud of my actions that followed: I didn’t call the police or report to my superior. The fact that the man was also leaving that company around the same time made my decision to keep mum an easier choice.
In times when heinous sexual crimes make headlines, a simple grabbing of the buttocks may sound innocuous enough for those who haven’t experienced sexual assault. However, the chilling psychological effect was potent enough to change my perception altogether toward male colleagues thenceforth and how I viewed work-related social events. I began to avoid them like the plague. All the hours I committed to working with a sense of camaraderie and solidarity were made a mockery of my naivete. It was long before I could regain my usual mellow disposition at work, having made peace with the demoralizing realization that certain changes in society just can’t come soon enough.
I’m not by any means disabled by the experience. I lead a happy, productive life. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stand idly by when people make jokes on the matter of groping. For me, they can trigger creepy flashbacks.
What happened to the intern and myself happens to other women more often than we are led to believe. A culture that plays down the seriousness or makes light of a sexual assault is one that is complicit in abetting that very practice. The responsibility for change in that culture should be borne by everyone belonging to it, not just the victims. And to all those jokers, they should be reminded that those victims they’re laughing at are someone’s mother, sister, wife or daughter.
*The author is a copy editor at the Korea JoongAng Daily and a writer for Groove Korea magazine.
By Ara Cho