Harshad is a crime reporter. His job involves dealing with everything from white-collar crime to plain ol’ garden-variety murder. He writes three or four copies a day and pounds the streets of the national capital chasing stories, talking to the police and lawmakers, criminals and victims. A man like that should be able to handle anything on his plate. Except, apparently, sexual harassment directed at him.
He usually ignores messages from women in his Facebook ‘others’ inbox (“Heyyyy geeky journo! U hav sxy [sic] smile”), does not mind the occasional longer-than- appropriate stare from a member of the opposite sex, and finds the rare, sexually inappropriate comment from a female colleague only slightly discomfiting.
However, what really got to him was the phone call. An unknown number that Truecaller cryptically identified as ‘Guess-guess’ flashed on his phone and the female voice on the other end, among other inappropriate things, gave him explicit instructions as to what she wanted him to do to her. Initially chalking it up to a prank, Harshad made a joke about the need for Anti-Juliet Squads, but when the calls did not stop, considered his options. He spoke to a couple of his friends and colleagues, who laughed it off and called him lucky.
After a week, the calls started again. This time he passed the number on to a female Superintendent of Police (SP) of his acquaintance and requested her to talk to the person on the other end. Rather entertained, the SP remarked, “Ladki chhed rahi hai toh chhid jao na! [If a girl’s teasing you, why don’t you just be happily teased]”, “Ma’am,” said our man, losing all pretence of patience, “If a girl had approached you, would you have said the same thing? I’m uncomfortable, please help.” The SP evidently gave the ‘prankster’ a stern talking-to, because Harshad then received a flurry of messages — each more apologetic than the last — from the number in question, informing him that she was just a college student, only 21 years old, that this was only a prank, that she only saw his byline in the newspaper and sought to get in touch with him, and please, please don’t tell [her] parents, sir.
So why, Harshad was asked, did he not file a sexual harassment complaint? “Well,” he said, visibly uncomfortable, “It could have been a friend pranking me and I didn’t want to get her into unnecessary trouble by seeming like someone who couldn’t take a joke.” But, I pressed on, why not after it was clear it wasn’t anyone he knew?
“Assume for a second that I did file charges. I know the system like the back of my hand. The girl would be called for questioning, and if she lied and said that it was me who was harassing her instead, her version would take precedence over mine and I’d be screwed.”
While we work to protect women, let’s acknowledge that sexual harassment of men is not a joke either. There are increasing instances of men being on the receiving end — from being a target of comments heavy with sexual innuendo to being stalked — but because Indian men are supposed to be ‘mards’, they are to take all of this in the spirit intended — fun — and not feel uncomfortable and/or complain.
“Men too feel harassed,” Harshad said. “And yet there doesn’t seem to be a forum where we can safely talk about it. After all, a society should be balanced. On the face of it, men might not seem as affected as women, against whom sexual harassment is a precursor to other dangers; but when your harasser asks you for the size of your thing, fark padta hai [it affects you]. My complaint should be taken as seriously as a woman’s.”
Keshav had the same problem — that of getting his complaint taken seriously. At his new workplace, a female colleague started passing lewd comments at him. At first, it was rather innocuous — a double entendre here, an accidental touch there. And then she started getting very touchy-feely. Keshav, having been harassed in the past, made it very clear to her that she made him uncomfortable and that if she didn’t desist, he’d have no choice but to complain. The female colleague proceeded to nearly disrobe him at the next office party.
Keshav then marched up to Human Resources (HR) and announced that he needed to file a complaint. The confused HR official asked him what the problem was. Keshav explained. Mr. HR looked blank. In his entire career and the company’s history, said Mr. HR, no man had ever complained against a woman; he didn’t know what to do. Well, said Keshav, what would he do if a complaint was lodged by a female employee? But, stuttered Mr. HR, what about the woman’s future? Her job? Her marital prospects?
But Keshav was resolute. The female colleague in question received a slap on the wrist, and from then on, kept away from him, albeit with very bad grace. “It works both ways,” said Keshav of his ordeal. “I hope after this the HR policy is made gender-neutral.”
“It’s more common than you’d think,” he added. “Some men don’t realize it; but most do feel harassed. I’m no stranger to wandering hands on public transport and mock-drunk embraces in pubs.”
Sections 354, 509 and 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deal with sexual assault — outraging modesty, eve-teasing and rape — but they are all for women. While this is a great thing in and of itself, it is rather unfortunate that the only section of the IPC that deals with sexual assault on a man is 377 — the infamous section that makes sodomy an offence and is misused to perpetuate sexism and alienate the LGBT community. Nor does it differentiate between consensual and non-consensual sexual acts between two male adults. Even the Vishaka guidelines that are put in place to prevent and redress sexual harassment in work places only concern women.
Vedant recently found this out much to his consternation and rather than fight the system, resigned from a very lucrative post, thanks to his stalker. He was introduced to her by common friends and she quickly grew infatuated with him. Vedant turned her down politely and that’s when his problems began. She’d turn up wherever he went and would try and talk to him. Things came to a head when she started showing up at his house in the middle of the night and leaving cases of expensive alcohol at his doorstep. Vedant then requested a close female friend to pretend to be his girlfriend, but to no avail. After six months of living in near isolation and zilch social media presence, Vedant discovered, to his horror, that his stalker had joined his company. She spent her first day following him around the office; the next day, he quit.
In 2013, Javed decided to drop a female friend home after a night of pub-hopping. “In my head, I was seeing to a friend’s safety. In her head, maybe the rainy season was a romantic setting,” said Javed. Long story short, she forced herself on him. “I don’t like to talk about it. After I got home, my roommate asked me why I looked so shaken. I told him I was violated. He laughed and said a thousand men would kill to be in my shoes.”
Men like Javed feel they have no recourse — no outlet for the humiliation and no understanding of the hurt received. “Scars are not always physical, you know,” added Javed.
He had no idea what to do or how to complain. “Even if the police took me seriously, how would they file the case?”
Ankit a college-goer, broke up with his girlfriend six months ago. About two months later, his friends asked him why he looked so troubled. Haltingly, he recounted how his ex-girlfriend had tried to offer him money in exchange for sex. As his friends hooted, hollered and generally made off-colour jokes at his expense, he told them that she had also tried to force herself on him and when he resisted, she told him, “Do it, or I cry rape.” He called her bluff and told her that he would file a complaint. “And who’d believe you?” she scoffed.
A common thread seems to be the lack of empathy — or even sympathy — because, for some reason, the idea of the male as a victim seems incongruous.
More so in India, where the male is traditionally seen as the stronger sex, and thus, the oppressor. There is an undeniable need for a comprehensive conversation with regard to the issue of sexual harassment against men. But here’s the kicker — the idea that the concession to male victim hood could endanger the already slow progress on patriarchy-driven sexual harassment of women. While the thought on its own might seem a valid concern, the need of the hour is to stop sexual harassment, period. To make laws gender-neutral, favouring none of the sexes ¬— whether male, female or transgender. And not — as do some men’s rights groups — use instances of sexual harassment against men to badger women into so-called submission.