When Enduring Sexual Harassment Becomes Easier Than Talking About It

Maybe it’s time to reassess our definitions of 'good' and 'evil'.

We live in a time when women speaking about their most horrifying, traumatising, debilitating memories of having their bodies violated by the men around them — mentors, bosses, colleagues, friends, partners, dates — results in a rabid, hysterical screaming match about men feeling “under attack” and “confused” about what’s acceptable behaviour. And, of course, the grave, very justified concern that the #MeToo movement is going off the rails, with every bad date, every unsettling interaction being reframed to fit into the narrative of physical or verbal harassment. It doesn’t matter that an overwhelming majority of victims of sexual misconduct — both men and women — are still pensive about the implications of coming forward, not least of them being professional fall-outs, fear of re-victimisation, and the very real threat of persecution at the hands of the influential men they want to out.

mj akbar

If there was any doubt that men have elevated the transference and weaponisation of victimhood to an art form, one only has to look at the petulant responses of prominent men like Union Minister MJ Akbar and veteran journalist Vinod Dua, whose pulpits came crashing down recently. While the former has enlisted the services of a pack of 97 lawyers to clear his name, and bring a suit of criminal defamation against the journalist who has accused him of sexually exploiting young women in his employ during his days as a famous editor ; the latter has chosen to use his significant journalistic heft and the platform available to him to arrogantly mock the allegations against him as distractions from ‘real issues’, like the Rafale deal and rising fuel prices.

To Mr Dua’s mind, questions about ‘who sexually harassed whom, and how many years ago’ are of little significant at a time when the elections are closing in. But he also makes sure that he reminds us that he has been accused of ‘troubling’ a woman, not sexually harassing her. Because, apparently, our little lady brains are incapable of focusing on more than one matter at a time.

No Mr Dua, let me assure you, on behalf of the half of the population I belong to, that women are perfectly capable of asking piercing questions about corruption and inflation, even as we seethe over your attempts to sweep stalking and grabbing a cub reporter under the adorable carpet called ‘troubling’. You see, we’ve had years and decades of practice at being high-functioning adults and professionals, while quietly managing our bottled fury and pent up frustrations about our bodies being treated like toys, lest they be inconvenient to the men around us.

It took 20 well-known women journalists committing their names to paper, announcing that they would testify against Akbar, for him to finally resign, even as he pursues the criminal defamation case.While Vinod Dua has given the platform that hosts his show one week to investigate the charges against him, if they wish to, while the platform, in turn, asked the woman who accused Dua to send a formal complaint for investigation by an external complaints committee instituted by them within 24 hours or else the charges would be dismissed.

In the face of all this, I want to, in turns, laugh and then barf, in the faces of all the people who wonder why women didn’t come forward earlier, and waited so long to tell their stories. Or why they’re doing it anonymously. When each step of the way is fraught with so many professional landmines and social hostility hiding in plain sight within the brotherhood that controls most of the power in every industry, how many women are going to be able to work up the courage to name their perpetrators and subject themselves to the kind of ugly torture clearly on display?

Akbar and Dua are powerful men, undoubtedly, but the women accusing them are accomplished media professionals too, not exactly devoid of social power in their own right, even if it is nowhere close to the kind of clout that their accusers enjoy. Most women who suffer and have suffered the same indignities have far less agency, a whole lot more to lose, and not the same kind of voice and reach, than the brave women who have taken up the cudgels on behalf of women, everywhere.

Over the last few weeks, women friends across industries — startups, media, large corporate houses, even lawyers, ironically — have hesitantly told me that looking at what’s currently going on, they’re even more convinced that talking about sexual abuse is about as painful as actually enduring it. How did we get here?

It is ironic that on the heels of #MeToo, we celebrate Dussehra, the victory of good over evil. But it’s actually the celebration of a man who basically abandoned his wife due to gossip about her ‘loss of virtue’, even though he knew she was innocent. It might be worth asking ourselves today how much has changed really, if we’ve created an environment so toxic that talking about sexual assault is, for far too many, as difficult as living through it.

Maybe it’s time to reassess our definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.