The last week has been an outpouring on several fronts – women have unburdened themselves of stories and secrets, scars and trauma they have carried for years, sometimes decades, naming and shaming the men who assaulted or harassed them, using their positions of power over the women in question.Some of those accused have apologised, others have filed defamation suits, still others have maintained stoic silences, and there has been the occasional denial. Senior journalists K R Sreenivas and Prashant Jha have resigned from their jobs in the wake of the allegations.
I have had friends accused of sexual harassment earlier, and I found myself in a bind – did I believe the women who were making the accusations, or did I believe the friends in question? What if the person has been flirtatious with us in the past, but has respected “no” immediately and become a good friend since? What if the person has been a truly kind mentor, who has never made us feel uncomfortable? What if the person is more than a friend or boss, is a close relative? Why do wives accept philandering husbands, we ask. Do they accept it? Do they reject it? Do they pretend it does not happen? Do they believe it is irrelevant? Do they not believe in sexual or physical or emotional fidelity? And do wives accept husbands who not only philander, but prey on other women? “How could she not know?” is easy enough a question to ask. It is one thing to know that one’s husband or one’s father or one’s brother is a philanderer; it is another thing entirely to learn that he is a sexual predator. The problem with accusations of harassment is that they can rarely be proven. Screenshots and chat logs are recent phenomena, and even so, there are men who cover their tracks, men who are careful not to be “caught”. How does one distinguish a man who has left no traces from a man who has never had anything to hide? How does one say a person has always been a gentleman with one and not come across as defending a predator, or as accusing a victim of lying? The question is not simply one of whom we believe. It is far more layered. How do we resolve our feelings for a loved one who is accused of a crime as despicable as harassing a woman over whom he had power and authority? Do we, who are related to them or who are close friends of theirs, become culpable by association? What if we know things about their pasts which humanise them? What if we know things about their present which humanise them? What if we are privy to their thoughts and ideas, their dreams and ideals, and cannot join the crowds in calling them out as “monsters”? I don’t refer to childhood abuse or trauma alone – yes, numerous studies have linked deviant sexual behaviour to the experience of child sexual or physical or emotional abuse, but that cannot be an excuse or rationalisation or justification. I refer to the difficulty of seeing someone who has been nothing but kind and loving to us as an abuser to someone else. That raises another uncomfortable question, one particularly relevant to those of us who could easily have been victims of these men, but were not and were, instead, protégés or friends – do predators know, instinctively, which women they can risk messing with and which women they cannot? Clearly, many of these predators made poor guesses, if that was indeed the case. Maybe not at the time, but years later, they have been called out. But, does it mean anything at all that someone did not prey on us? It has nothing to do with strength or independence or attractiveness. When Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual assault on a date, the phrase “non-verbal cues” became a buzzword. Intimacy is often dependent on non-verbal cues. Few of us have said or heard, and in few instances, “I’d like to sleep with you” or “I’d like to kiss you”. We all know that “no” should mean “no”. But gestures, too, can mean “no”. How can one tell whether a man chooses to ignore the non-verbal “no” or genuinely misunderstands it? There is no defence for predatory behaviour. But we must acknowledge that this is a difficult time for those who have close emotional, marital, or natal ties to the accused. Sometimes, it takes too much out of one to have to pick a side. More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
India's #MeToo: A moment of reckoning
Of Swachch Bharat and scavenging
LGBTQIA rights have a long way to go
V S Naipaul: The man the world loved to hate
The legacy of Karunanidhi
"Rapistan": There are no safe places
The "most dangerous country" poll should not make us defensive
The illusion of secularism
When hooliganism is state-sanctioned
Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury
Karnataka: Death of democracy
India shining as ecosystems die?
Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless
When death does not deter
Power play at a time of crisis
A country in denial
The gods have left the temples
What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show
Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private
No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
Do we really have the right to die with dignity?
Democracy has no place for mobs The Sridevi South India lost