Confronting sexual abuse
The redressal of historical sexual abuse enters the grey areas of legality and ethics.
Sexual abuse and harassment faced by women is an open secret. Whether at the hands of a relative, or strangers on the bus, or seniors in the profession, most women have been victimised all through their life. Sexual abuse and harassment have been the most topical subject in the last few days, starting from Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to India's own beleaguered list of academics, started as an editable Google doc by lawyer Raya Sarkar. The recent #metoo campaign that urged women to speak openly and fearlessly about sexual abuse also made headlines. Empowering women with the strength and courage to speak about some of their darkest memories is indeed commendable.
But I do not participate in campaigns such as #metoo. I am cynical about the effectiveness of any social media campaign, to be honest. Social media activism is the new rage because it is easy to vent on your timelines while doing nothing to change things on the ground. A hashtag here and a change of profile picture there is doing nothing to change the reality. While such campaigns do generate awareness on the magnitude of the problem, they offer little in terms of redressal. In most instances, redressal is not the sole purpose behind naming the alleged perpetrators. But what are women to do? When they faced the abuse, they may not have had the courage to protest. Today, some have found that voice of outrage. Good on them. But what now?
Sexual abuse, especially child sexual abuse, is a cross that many of us bear. It took me years to finally tell my parents that a distant male relative tried to grope me on several occasions on the pretext of allowing me to play with this mouth organ. I was eight and fascinated by the musical instrument; the relative, of course, had another kind of instrument in mind. I knew it did not feel right, and I would hide when that man visited us. I did tell my mother, but it was only years later after watching 'Monsoon Wedding' (I can be dramatic, yes); I called up my parents and demanded that he be stopped from ever stepping foot into our house. I was 24 then and not even living with my parents in the same city.
If journalists had to compile a list like Raya's, then it would not be limited to just 70 names. Lots of top editors, senior journalists (both male and female), and technicians would find pride of place. A bureau head who would tell me that he enjoys porn or marvels at my choice of transparent nail polish, or an editor who would send messages late into the night asking me to decide if I wanted to progress well in my career and therefore, by association, meant that I must give in to his overtures.
Whenever I ignored these men, suddenly, I started being pulled up over my work. There were no Vishakha Guidelines back then; the only recourse was to change jobs. But not all men are sexual predators. Some believe in persuasion rather than coercion. Being a journalist opens you up to interactions with all sorts of people – politicians, celebrities, businessmen etc. – and sexual harassment is common. As an entrepreneur, you meet well-meaning investors, who try to do the same now.
But there is a problem with redressal of historical sexual abuse. Even at the cost of being hated by feminists, I will call it as I see it. The biggest issue with a list like Raya's is how it enters the grey area of legality and ethics. Here we are able to add the name of any person who may or may not have abused us. There is no need to offer proof, there is no legal case, but we have the ultimate power to name and shame our alleged abusers. Even if we are to believe that most allegations are genuine, I cannot help but bear in mind that some cases may simply amount to defamation. Sure, you can sue the person who has named you but prepare for a long-drawn legal battle, and ready to lose face and respect in society, maybe even your job.
Also, why are all these campaigns limited to women as victims only? I know enough instances of men who have been abused and harassed by male and female members of the family, blackmailed by female bosses and colleagues, wrongly accused of domestic violence by their spouses, and in many cases, I have consoled male friends with violent female partners. Sexual abuse is the same for men and women, gender must be kept aside.
Unless we are ready to seriously take up historical sexual abuse in a legal way, having a list that is open to all to vent or rage or settle an old grouse, is simply opening a can of worms. It is a double-edged sword, that will surely do more damage if not handled carefully. Some of the younger and more vociferous feminists will hate to hear these words. But it must be said: two wrongs do not make a right. Take perpetrators to task, by all means, mete out the strictest of punishments, but not a single innocent person should have to pay the price of overzealous activism.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)