‘I am not alone’: Victims of ‘hidden’ sexual violence on Hong Kong’s streets find solace in sharing, mutual support

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‘I am not alone’: Victims of ‘hidden’ sexual violence on Hong Kong’s streets find solace in sharing, mutual support

Charlene was gripped by a mixture of confusion, fear and shame at Hong Kong’s busy Wan Chai MTR station last July when she suddenly found her trousers were wet. 

“Was it a kid accidentally spilling water? I turned around… Everyone was busy shuttling past me in the station. I couldn’t see any suspects,” she recalled.

Charlene, who was reportedly harassed last July in Wan Chai MTR station when an unknown liquid was splashed on her trousers, in February, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

She immediately ducked behind a pillar. “Even my underwear was wet. It felt so shameful and disgusting… I couldn’t understand why there was water. Then I thought: was it sexual harassment?” 

She reported the incident to police based in the station but they said it would be hard to catch a suspect without CCTV in the area, Charlene, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told HKFP in Cantonese. 

“It was like being hit with a hard blow, but you don’t know who hit you, how they hit you. And no one helps. The matter was left unsettled, and it lingered, ” Charlene said.

Sexual violence, street harassment, women, gender
People walk in the Hong Kong’s bustling Mong Kok district in March 2023. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

More than six months later, she saw a video online posted by another woman whose bum had been splashed by an unidentified liquid in Mong Kok, and decided it was time to speak out. 

Two days later, she set up an Instagram page entitled “Pissed-us-off,” sharing her own trauma and appealing to others with similar experiences to speak up. 

To Charlene’s surprise, within just a month she had received 150 reports from people – 99 per cent of them women – who had been splashed in crowded areas like streets in Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, an escalator at Lam Tin and a bus terminal at Tung Chung. 

The earliest case dated back to 2004 and nearly all victims had been splashed around the buttocks. While some said the liquid was water, others reported the smell of urine and some feared it may have been semen. 

The incidents triggered public attention. In late February, a 56-year-old man was arrested and accused of pouring unidentified liquid on a woman in Causeway Bay, before being remanded in a psychiatric ward. In 2008, a 40-year-old man with the same name was convicted of indecent assault for spilling semen on a woman’s bum in public.  

Police at the time said they had received nine reports between January 20 and February 18 from women aged 16 to 32 who were splashed with liquid in Mong Kok. One woman’s trousers were soiled twice in one hour.

escalator, public space, MTR, street harassment, sexual violence
People at Admiralty MTR station during in the evening rush hour in March 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In response to HKFP, the police said they had included courses on sexual violence in the curriculum of the Police College and its Detective Training Centre, touching on topics such as “psychological techniques for dealing with victims” and “empathetic listening.” Officers were also provided training to improve their sensitivity and communication skills when handling cases of sexual violence.

Charlene said catching one suspect did not bring the issue to an end. “I hope society will become more aware of sexual violence,” she said, adding that the issue should be tackled jointly by the media, the police and the government.

Hidden victims

Ruby Lai, an assistant professor of Lingnan University specialising in gender studies, has been studying the liquid-splashing cases. One of her friend’s, Lai told HKFP, had encountered this kind of sexual harassment twice.

Ruby Lai, assistant professor at Lingnan university, gender, sex
Ruby Lai, assistant professor at Lingnan University specialising in gender studies, on March 4, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“This is a kind of sexual violence classified as ‘street harassment.’ All around the world, reported rates of street harassment are low as the attackers can flee easily, and society hasn’t developed a clear awareness of this type of sexual violence. It therefore takes a lot of time and effort to report a case,” Lai said in Cantonese. “Many victims just bear it.” 

Nicole, a medic in her 30s who asked to be known by her first name, told HKFP that she now felt uncomfortable every morning when walking to the bus terminal in Tung Chung after being splashed with an unknown liquid while there twice.

The first assault was on May 11 last year. “Suddenly I felt my butt was warm and there was some liquid wetting me from outside to inside… I was too scared to look back at that moment. What if there was some pervert behind me?” she said in Cantonese.

sexual violence, women, gender, liquid splashing, street harassment
Women stand on the street in Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“I thought of reporting it to the police. But there were no CCTV cameras at the bus terminal and I did not see any suspect.” 

She became suspicious during every morning commute, paying close attention to the people behind her at the bus terminal. But in August, she was assaulted again. 

“That day I was a bit relaxed and I was looking at my phone while I walked. As soon as I got on the bus, I found my butt was wet,” Nicole said. “It was so disgusting.”

She considered reporting the assault to police but did not do so in the end. “I was very cowardly… I felt scared until now. And you can’t do anything except check who is behind you, ” she said, bursting into tears.  

Sexual violence, street harassment, women, gender, Charis
A woman walks up some steps in Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A feeling of fear still lingers for Charis, who told HKFP she encountered the same kind of sexual harassment in 2016.  

“I was hanging out with my cousin in Mong Kok. While we were just about to cross an intersection with the crowd, I suddenly found my buttocks wet and warm,” Charis who only offered her first name told HKFP in Cantonese. 

Confused and not sure what had happened, she did not report the incident to police. “But it haunts me. To this day, every time I pass the intersection, I put my hands behind my back to cover my buttocks.”

It’s not my fault

Lily, an office clerk, was harassed at the same intersection in Mong Kok at around 6pm on February 4. The episode haunts her. 

She remembered reading an online post about a similar sexual harassment and returned to the scene the next day, taking a short video about her ordeal and uploading it to Instagram with an appeal to watch out for suspects.

Sexual violence, street harassment, women, gender, Lily
Lily, a victim of liquid-splashing sexual violence, reveals her experience online with a video on February 5, 2024, one day after she was assaulted in a busy street in Mong Kok. Photo: Kyle Lam/ HKFP.

Lily struggled with her feelings before uploading the video. “I was afraid others might say: why were you targeted, was it because of what you did, like what you were wearing on that day?” She soon decided she should not blame herself. “It’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the pervert,” she said.

It was Lily’ post that encouraged Charlene to go public. 

“It’s hard for one person to take action,” Charlene said. “I would have felt scared. But now I am not alone, I am [backed by] a group of people. We’re a collective able to face the issue. That made a difference in our power.”

street harassment, sexual violence, victim Lily, liquid splashing
Lily, a victim of liquid splashing sexual harassment in Mongkok on February 4, 2024, takes a picture of herself soon after she is harassed. Photo: Lily.

Responding to Lily’s video, 56 people left comments saying they had experienced the same kind of sexual harassment. 

More victims came forward, sending messages to the Instagram page or filling in online forms. Charlene studied characteristics of all the cases, published a map of “black spots” and rolled out guidelines for victims and witnesses. 

She avoided blaming the victims. “The page is not asking women to be more careful. That’s not reasonable. The responsibility should be borne more by passers-by. When you are in some hot spots for sexual harassment, can you put down your phone and notice your surroundings? Could you offer some help if someone encounters a liquid-splashing assault?”

Soon after Charlene launched her page, Nicole and Charis sent messages sharing their long- hidden trauma. “It still felt hard bringing up the incidents, but we need to stand up, ” Nicole said. 

A ‘neglected’ type of sexual violence

“While the general public still considers sexual violence as limited to rape and indecent assault, various types of sexual violence have long existed in daily life,” Florence Tsang, a social worker of the anti-sexual violence NGO RainLily, told HKFP. 

“Like image-based sexual violence, and the splashing of liquid on women’s intimate areas, they have been neglected. It was not until recently, thanks to the concern page, that we recognised such a social problem,” Tsang said in Cantonese. 

RainLily, Florence Tsang, sexual violence, gender, women, sexual harassment
Florence Tsang, social worker and service manager at the anti-sexual violence NGO RainLily, on February 26, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The gender studies scholar Lai said liquid-splashing, as a type of sexual violence, had its roots in pornographic videos usually tagged as “cum on women in public” or “ejaculation in the streets” on Chinese and English online porn platforms. 

HKFP found many videos apparently shot on mobile phones and uploaded to porn sites. They usually showed a man following one or more women in the streets, through shopping malls or up escalators. Often, the man appears to ejaculate onto the women without their knowledge. 

MTR sexual harassment traffic
People line up to enter the train during Hong Kong’s rush hours in March 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The BBC last June investigated a criminal group led by a Chinese national which organised a team of 15 people to grope women in public areas in China and to film the process. The group then sold the videos online for huge profits. 

“The criminals are smart – they know semen will contain DNA, therefore they turn to warm water or other unknown liquids,” Lai said. 

Tsang said attackers were not only seeking sexual release. Such incidents were more about demonstrating their power to manipulate and threaten women. 

News reports in Chinese show that liquid-splashing sexual assaults have been reported not only in Hong Kong, but also in cities in Taiwan and China. 

MTR station, Wan Chai, police, street harassment
Policemen in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai MTR station. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to a search by HKFP, from 2007 to 2023, at least eight male suspects were arrested for splashing semen, sputum or unknown liquids on women in Taipei, New Taipei and Kaohsiung. 

In Guangzhou, a man was arrested last October for spilling unidentified liquid on a woman’s buttocks on a train. 

A grey area in laws

Hong Kong’s laws against sexual offences have not been updated to cover evolving types of sexual violence.

Lai said that while the offence of indecent assault criminalises touching without consent, and the Sex Discrimination Ordinance tackles sexual harassment in the workplace or educational institutions, no laws cover sexual harassment in a public place or sexual assault which does not involve direct touching. 

The 56-year-old  man arrested in Causeway Bay in late February was charged with outraging public decency, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

In early January, a 37-year-old man was arrested and charged with loitering after following a woman and splashing unidentified liquid on her. 

gender, women, sexual harassment, sexual violence
People pass by a women clothing boutique in Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“The problem is, if they are not charged with sexual offences, their names will not appear in the Sexual Conviction Check Record even if they are convicted,” Lai said.

The Law Reform Commission has been reviewing legislation on sexual violence since 2006. In 2012 it proposed replacing the offence of indecent assault with a new one of sexual assault, which would cover behaviour such as ejaculating onto others or emitting urine or saliva. 

It also sought to broaden the definition of touching to include touching with anything or any part of the body. However, there have yet to be any reforms. 

“Our society has not been updating different types of sexual violence,” Lai said, adding that apart from updating the offence of indecent assault, Hong Kong could also learn from the UK, which last October passed a new law to protect against sexual harassment in public.

It criminalises behaviour such as catcalling, following someone and sending sexual images to others via Bluetooth, with a maximum penalty of two years in jail. 

Watch out for each other

The move to set up a concern page, to connect with other victims and to speak up online and to the media has helped heal Charlene after her ordeal. 

“Initially I felt scared, trembling, thinking I can’t change anything. Now as we have taken action, I have fought back a bit. I am not sure whether it will work, or whether people will forget about [the issue] very soon. But at least I feel a release,” Charlene said. 

women, gender, sexual violence, sexual harassment

Apart from the liquid-splashing, Charlene and Lily have long felt unsafe in public areas. They said they had encountered sexual assaults on buses and trains, when men had rubbed against them with their penises. 

Charlene twice reported such assaults to police but the cases remain unsettled. 

Speaking up over the past month has helped her shed her feelings of helplessness. She hopes the concern page will help other victims vent their feelings.

“People might think I am surrounded by negative emotions from lots of people after receiving messages from other victims. Actually, I felt love – I talked with everyone who sent messages to me. We’re supporting each other,” Charlene said. 

 “We don’t have eyes in the back of our heads,” she said, stressing the need for mutual support to stop sexual violence. “If everyone is watching out for everyone else, keeping an eye on those ahead of you, we won’t need to worry so much about what happens behind us.”

💡If you are suffering from sexual or domestic violence, regardless of your age or gender, contact the police, Harmony House (click for details) and/or the Social Welfare Department on 28948896. Dial 999 in emergencies.

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