As Unsafe a Place as it Gets
By Shivani Deshmukh, UG22
Content Warning – The following article has mentions of sexual harassment and violence, absence of consent.
Ashoka’s #MeToo movement is back and this time, the tables of anonymity have turned. Victims and survivors are sharing their stories anonymously, while publicly naming their abusers, and talking about the extent of their abuse in painful detail. It started out with a few people admitting how Kirdaar, the former theatre society fostered and enabled abuse and discomfort, but has now extended to students taking this as an opportunity to finally talk openly about their own experiences with any form of sexual harassment on campus.
This is not the first time that sexual harassment has been so publicly discussed. The conversation around sexual harassment in Ashoka began in 2017, when a professor who taught at Ashoka was accused. Even just last May, I was hunched over my phone and refreshing Facebook every hour, reading ever comment, every new post narrating horrifying experiences with sexual harassment at Ashoka. It was all I thought about then, and it’s all I’m thinking about now. In that moment, I remember feeling so relieved to be home, so far away from this hellish landscape. The fear and anger I feel has already been vastly discussed, so why is it that a year later, nothing has changed?
The rampancy of sexual harassment within Ashoka cannot be discussed enough. As a victim myself, I never harboured an idyllic perception of Ashoka. For me, it was fractured from almost the very beginning, but seeing people speak up about their horrifying experiences time and again has destroyed even the little bit of hope and sense of safety I felt around the space. However, the support extended to the victims has, for me personally, been overwhelming. Many students volunteered to post for the victims to maintain their anonymity, publicly disengaged from abusers who were named, and supported others with kind comments.. However flawed the institutional structure of CASH is, the (existing) representative has taken the initiative to speak to victims and talk to them about their options for recourse within, or outside of CASH.
Still, the fact is our university has failed to foster a safe environment for anyone. While there may be a number of reasons for those who did not seek CASH’s support, the number of people who have complained about the myriad of ways in which CASH has let them down strongly implies that CASH as an institutional body has failed. However, the reasons for sexual harassment on campus go beyond just institutional failure.
The insidiousness of sexual harassment on campus is never that the abusers are unaware – it’s that they choose to disregard everything we know about consent. The reason why we have wave upon wave of lived experiences of so many victims is because the behaviour of the abusers is perpetuated. While the lacklustre policies to protect victims abet abuse, there is a culture within the institution that not only tolerates, but nurtures, and normalises abuse. It is woven into the performative wokeness of the abusers, when they amplify and speak out against hypothetical abuse, while continuing to protect themselves and their friends. Sexual prowess in the form of hookup culture is still rewarded, with no questions being asked about the enthusiastic consent of both parties. Of course, this is not to say that hook up culture in itself is a bad thing, but it does foster an environment where enthusiastic, informed and reversible consent often takes a backseat.
Recounting the experiences of many, one of the most pertinent dynamics at play were the power imbalances between the victim and the abuser, in a supposedly consensual hookup. Victims are often unable to say no, even if they want to. Many instances of sexual harassment are dismissed under the guise of it being a ‘bad, drunken hook up.’ Most bad hookups have an element of unenthusiastic consent triggered by power dynamics. In the event that a victim is unable to say no, the allegations of abuse are met with resistance, with many abusers using the much coveted line – “I’m sorry for how you felt, but I didn’t intend on making you feel that way.” Did you intend using your upper hand to get what you want and leave? Consent is an ongoing process, and verbal cues are not the only way to know you are crossing a boundary. Going by the exorbitant number of sexual harassment allegations that get categorised as drunken hookups, I don’t even know why this needs to be said, but drunken hookups simply have no element of consent. Even under an inebriated state, it was you, the abuser, who made the victim feel uncomfortable. There is no ‘we’ here, just you.
Many sexual abusers thrive in friend groups where abuse is at best tolerated, and at worst, celebrated. Aside from rarely facing social exclusion, abusers often manipulate their friends into thinking that they’re the ones wrongly accused. Their manipulatory tactics are always the same, and it’s important we recognise them – “I’ve reflected upon myself, and i’ve changed,” “I suffered more than you know,” “I lost a lot of friends and opportunities because of this,” are common phrases abusers use to guilt victims, or to persuade their friends. This is not to say that abusers do not deserve means for recourse, to truly understand how they can rectify their mistakes. But using ‘self-reflection’ as a bargaining chip to get their normal life back is extremely manipulative. Friends of abusers, as we have seen in many shared experiences, have refused to detach themselves from the abusers, instead adopting an attitude of victim blaming, along with accusations of lying, manipulation and trying to harm the abuser’s mental health.
Sexual harassment under the guise of ‘friendship’ has also been terrifyingly common. As a ‘friend,’ an abuser can be manipulative and controlling, coaxing the victim into performing sexual acts. Sexual harassment of this kind has the added factor of being long-standing, often leading the victim to question themselves and if what they experienced is actually abuse (it is). In many instances, the skewed power dynamics between juniors and seniors are also at place. How do you stop doubting yourself if your abuser is popular? From personal experience, I know how hard it is to not blame yourself. The invisibilising of sexual harassment encourages victims to keep quiet, and not ‘name-and-shame.’
Sexual harassment at the hands of a senior has the compounded fear of public scrutiny – they’re friends with the people you want to be friends with they’re usually the head of a club or society, they’re a TA grading your papers, a student representative, and, in Ashoka’s case, two ex-CASH representatives. How do you stand up against someone so ubiquitous? Power enforces silence. Who wouldn’t be afraid to speak out against someone who could, so easily, make your college years the worst years of your life?
Upon hearing these allegations against the entrenchment of sexual harassment within Kirdaar, I was ashamed of myself. Not because I was a part of Kirdaar, but because these allegations weren’t a surprise to me, or anyone else. We all knew of everything kirdaar forced its members to do, but we laughed it off as ‘cult behaviour.’ This, too, is a big part of the problem. At an individual level, we know about sexual harassment on campus, but we choose to not engage. Just because it’s not us being abusive, doesn’t mean we are removed from this unjust system. Of course there needs to be institutional change. But there also needs to be a more personal and intimate change. We need to stop believing that we’re part of a safe utopia, where sexual harassment doesn’t exist, just because everyone’s so woke. We need to keep talking about this, and, more importantly, recognising it even when it is implicit.
The most frustrating part, and biggest motivator of sexual harassment, is that the abusers face no repercussions – or, at the very most, if they are found guilty after trial proceeding, it’s a slap on the wrist. They graduate, get a job and move on with their lives. And what of the victims? I think I echo the entire affected student body when I tiredly ask what it will take for this to end. How many more summers will it be before an effort is taken in the direction of people not needing to be called out just once a year, because it is the abusers who live in fear?
As it stands, I dread the day I have to return to campus and look mine and my friends’ abusers in the eye. The thought of sharing space with them, however limited, is truly terrifying. No words will ever be enough to describe the bitter anger a victim feels at the sight of their abuser, laughing away with their friends, enjoying a meal at the dhaba, all the while boasting about their sexual conquests. Personally, it’s been extremely vexing to even write this article; to have to dampen my anger and use logic and reasoning to explain why rape culture is so rampant at Ashoka. I say this on behalf of everyone – I’m angry and so tired. In a space where I’m supposed to feel safe, I don’t want protecting myself from sexual harassment to become a full time job. On behalf of everyone, please, make it stop.