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Discourse is the key: How a new kind of conversation on sexual abuse can drive change

Author: Tabitha, Hutchison works with the Communications Team in ActionAid India
Posted on: Friday, 29th June 2018

This past year has seen a sea-change in how we talk about sexual assault. An unprecedented number of women have spoken out and enabled others to do so, sharing strength and solidarity in the new front against sexual assault and the patriarchal power structures that enable it. Most importantly, it seems that the conversation around harassment and abuse is finally changing.

In India, these conversations started with the Vishakha case,[1] but have recently been accelerated by an increasingly public and globally-reaching number of revelations: the #MeToo movement, the ‘Lists’ of the academic sector, and the uncovering of sexual abuse by aid workers, to name a few. This is not necessarily an indicator of increased frequency, but rather that dynamics of abuse and power that have always existed are finally coming to light. This massive, snowballing movement has irrevocably shaken up personal and public processes for dealing with sexual abuse.

Whisper networks get louder

One particularly vehement debate has arisen from Raya Sarkar’s List, in which she named professors who had allegedly sexually assaulted or harassed students. This List is just one in a number of recent material manifestations of ‘whisper networks’ that have existed since time immemorial in women’s circles. These networks are made up of informal information sharing and exist to protect women by helping them avoid known or rumoured abusers. With the rise of social media, and particularly in this past year, these whisperings have been translated into the digital world, into spreadsheets and both public and private forums and groups. This shift in medium has not only massively increased the reach of information, facilitating the exposure of abuse on a much wider and more actionable scale, it has also fostered solidarity, reassuring women that they are not alone.

Critics bemoan the lack of due process, suggesting that instead of ‘naming and shaming’, victims of sexual assault should go through proper disciplinary and legal channels to bring their abusers to account. While this is a valid concern, I do not believe the two avenues (due process and speaking out informally) are mutually exclusive, nor can they be in the current climate. In India, the under-reporting of rape is a colossal problem, with a pitiful 6% of incidents going to the police. Within this number, the rate of conviction is unbelievably low. Women who do bring FIRs against abusers and attackers must do so in a society that increasingly views rape accusations as some kind of ‘weapon’ that privileges women, enabling them to ruin men’s lives – apparently on a whim. Declining rape conviction rates are often taken as ‘proof’ of these ‘false cases’. In reality, rape cases are withdrawn for all manner of reasons, including but not limited to harassment of the victim, poor legal representation, lack of evidence, or involvement of the family. Statistics that should paint a horrifying picture of what it is to be a woman in India are instead being perverted to fit a narrative that denies rape culture altogether.

Making voices heard

Even in this unprecedented and optimistic movement against sexual assault, it is still the survivors who face the burden of proving its existence and veracity. Questions about how sexual harassment has gone unchallenged for so long, how many knew, and why accounts did not come to light sooner are all too often posed not at the abusers and their enablers but at the survivors: ‘Why didn’t you speak up sooner?’ ‘Why didn’t you use official channels?’ ‘If it really happened, why didn’t you say something at the time?’ ‘Why now? Are you just “jumping on the bandwagon” for attention?’ The answers should be bitterly clear after a glance at the aforementioned statistics.

One wonders if the culture of disbelieving victims is so socially embedded that we are readier to question the account of a victim (who, incidentally, has nothing to gain except the kind of ‘fame and attention’ that leads to vilification and death threats) over the denials of the kind of powerful men who have been taking advantage of vulnerable women for millennia.

In order for this culture to evolve, I believe that the conversation about sexual abuse needs to be held on a much wider scale. Whatever one may think of their outcomes, phenomena such as the #MeToo movement and the Lists are functioning as catalysts for this kind of discussion. I would urge those who disapprove of Raya Sarkar’s List, for example, to consider why and how it emerged. Perhaps it is our culture of disbelief and accusation that gave rise to these mechanisms, as a kind of final recourse for survivors against a system that doesn’t hear their voices until they are speaking the names of powerful men.

A new kind of conversation

Going forward, I would like to see the conversation around sexual assault and harassment framed in moral and ethical as well as legal terms. A prime example of where we are failing in this regard came recently with the release of an account by an anonymous woman, referred to as ‘Grace’, who claims that Aziz Ansari, a prominent US comedian, sexually pressured her while on a date and who describes the night as “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had”. For me, it was a disturbing read, and I imagine that many readers will have recognised elements of the account from their own experiences.

A recurring theme in the responses to the story has therefore been that, since the interaction seems familiar, what happened to Grace was not true sexual assault. Bari Weiss declared in the New York Times, “I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault. And if you’re a sexually active woman in the 21st century, chances are that you are, too.” Weiss may be right, but not in the way she intended: a lot of what people consider to be ‘normal’ in sexual activity is aggressive, uncomfortable and non-consensual, particularly for women. Ansari’s actions may well fall in a grey area that does not qualify as being illegal. Nothing will change, however, until we scrutinise these grey areas nonetheless, and actively try to change our attitude towards consent, recognising that legal actions are not inherently good.

Moving forward

What are the next steps? In order to eradicate sexual harassment, it must be engaged with on a fundamental level. From my perspective, the root of the problem lies in a need to change the way we react to women’s voices. Due process must be observed and improved from within where it is lacking, but let us also support and amplify the voices of survivors when they feel able to speak out. As a society, we must place the emotional labour of exposition on those who currently enable abuse by complicity and silence, and demand accountability and justice for those who commit abuse on any scale. In the ever-changing conversation around sexual assault, let us make sure the right voices are being heard.

Debate this year has been vehement, and it has thrown up a lot of deep-seated issues. In a way, this can be

viewed as a symptom of success. Discussion on ways of eradicating sexual assault, no matter how controversial, is a step forward from historical silence on the subject and the expectation that women should ‘grin and bear it’. Thanks to feminist action, zero tolerance for the crime of sexual harassment is becoming a minimum demand. Going forward, I believe that robust and challenging conversations will form the backbone of a movement against all forms of abuse and violence, which will hopefully both transcend and transform the black and white world of the law.

ActionAid India’s policy

ActionAid India has been building itself as a feminist organisation for many years, committed to working against sexual harassment long before The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013). An Anti-Sexual Harassment (ASH) cell has been a feature of the organisation since the 1997 Vishaka judgement, and now ActionAid seeks to expand the spread of feminist principles through responsible partnerships.

[1] This refers to a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court of India against the State of Rajasthan after Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan was brutally gang raped for stopping a child marriage. The petition sought to get the Court to enforce the fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court judgement in 1997 proposed guidelines, also known as the “Vishaka Guidelines” to alleviate the problem of sexual harassment in 1997. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“Sexual Harassment Act”) is seen to have emerged from these guidelines.