The piece is a part of a collaboration between Breakthrough India and Youth Ki Awaaz for the #StandWithMe campaign. Join us as we seek to get conversations going around how we can create gender inclusive safer spaces. #StandWithMe, Be my safe space.
The Vishakha Guidelines, on the basis of which the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill was passed in 2013, define sexual harassment as unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) including physical contact or advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Shiv* had experienced workplace harassment at the hands of his boss’ secretary. It started with casual sexually coloured remarks on his sex life, unwanted flirtations, general remarks on his body, and eventually inappropriate touching.
Since there were no office policies or laws that protected him, Shiv never spoke up. He “felt helpless, and vulnerable” and couldn’t approach anyone due to social stigma, and because he would be perceived as weak. Unable to work in this environment, Shiv eventually found the only way out; he left his job and sought employment elsewhere. Unlike Shiv, many men cannot leave their jobs and start afresh. They remain stuck in this abusive environment.
The Economic Times-Synovate Survey (2010) queried 527 people across Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune. The survey found that 19% of men had faced harassment at the workplace, and another 38% said that men were vulnerable in such situations. 66% of men in Delhi had been approached by their bosses for sexual favours. City wise, in Bangalore 51% has experienced harassment, 28% in Hyderabad, and 31% in Delhi.
Cases of harassment are also prevalent in the often perceived safe environments, such as schools. Rohan* went to an all boy’s boarding school where he was subjected to harassment by a senior. He didn’t approach school authorities as the chances of getting taken seriously were slim and because he believed he was “old enough to handle the situation on his own.” In his words, this prepared him to be able to stand up to abuse in the future.
Chetan* was 17 when he was assaulted by a shopkeeper who sat outside his university campus. The shopkeeper, who was in his 30s, sat beside him in an auto, and for a while, things were okay, until he started to move his hands on Chetan’s thighs. After repeatedly asking him to stop, Chetan resorted to violence and beat him up. Why didn’t he make an official complaint, or take him to the authorities? “What would I do filing a complaint? Waise bhi kya karega police?” (What would the police do anyway?).
Verbal or physical confrontation might have helped Rohan and Chetan. Most of the time however especially if the victim is a child, they are rarely able to stand up to their perpetrators or seek help. To be subjected to such a situation in one’s childhood can lead to many serious mental health issues later on in life unless proper help is sought. Sometimes, school going kids are unable to report such issues due to fear of social stigma. From a young age, these boys are instilled with toxic masculinity that tells them that to be a victim, or be in a situation where they might be perceived as weak is “unmanly.”
Another survey conducted by Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in 2008, found that out of 500 respondents in 92 companies, 21% of men had been victims of harassment.
Arjun*, a performer, has experienced sexual harassment many times at the hands of spectators and clients. According to him, this happens every 15-20 shows, where women start to grab his behind or push themselves against him.
On being asked why he’s never said anything about it, he said “Because it wouldn’t be taken seriously, would it? If I were a woman it would have been a major issue, but if I told anyone, other men would say ‘Why are you complaining? What’s wrong with you?’ I try and give people the benefit of doubt, but it happens too many times for it to be a coincidence. Just because I’m smiling and being friendly doesn’t mean I’m okay with being touched without consent.”
Most people mistakenly believe that sexual harassment is limited to women as victims. This view is reflected in India’s laws as well. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, just as the name suggests, only answers to the grievances of women.
The sections of the IPC that deal with harassment, assault, and rape also address women as victims and men only as perpetrators. In the case of a woman on man harassment, there is no legal reprieve. Only in the cases involving men on men assaults can section 377 be evoked, which in itself is problematic.
Another problem that stems from the belief that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment is that sometimes, even the perpetrators don’t recognise their actions as harassment. For the purpose of writing this article, I put up a status on Facebook inviting those who felt comfortable enough to talk about their stories. I was alarmed by the number of responses I received. While anonymity was guaranteed, most did not feel comfortable seeing their stories in an article, just in case someone figured out their identity.
Some were even afraid that their abusers might read the article and connect the dots. I figured that maybe after keeping it to themselves for so long, they just needed a safe place to talk about their experiences. Most had never spoken about it to anyone, not even close friends, families, or even their partners.
Arjun* puts it across as, “I’m out there in the public eye to entertain you, and as much as you own me at that moment, you own me as the part of the entertainer that I’m playing with you. You own my mind and my time, not my body. I’m happy to click 5,000 pictures and stay two hours longer, but not on this condition.”
The idea of seeing women only as victims and men only as harassers comes from the belief that women are the weaker sex and men can only be the perpetrators, and never the victims themselves. Those who do manage to speak up and report harassment are often subjected to ridicule.
A just society addresses and acknowledges injustices regardless of gender, and we have a long way to go before we can achieve that. The Indian parliament has repeatedly resisted changing the laws to more gender neutral tones. How can a man, who has been assaulted hope for justice in a country where the laws are decidedly written against him?