By Lavanya Sen (UG21)
In March 2020, in light of what we all thought was a temporary measure, students were asked to leave campus. As time went on, it became clear that we were in the middle of a global health crisis, and that return to campus was indefinitely postponed, and our university experience became entirely virtual. The existence of shared online spaces like the undergraduate Facebook group, the meme group and the various batch WhatsApp groups became important to try and maintain any sense of ‘normalcy’.
This is why when, on 24th September 2020, there was a mass doxxing of the undergraduate Facebook groups, by an unknown student in collaboration with several right-wing pages — something was broken. I was lucky enough to have not been a target of this particular doxxing, but I was all too familiar with the anxiety that builds from knowing hateful people were combing through every aspect of your life they could find to say vile things. The trauma from an experience like this does not disappear overnight and is rarely restricted to a singular space. However, the last House of Representatives tried their best to try and restore the sense of security. Measures were put in place to make sure only current undergraduates and undergraduate alumni could join the group, and a call went out for moderators. After a fashion, I was put on the panel of moderators, along with Shauryavardhan Sharma, Siddhartha Sreenivas, Pulari Bhaskar and Rohan Manoj.
Pulari and Rohan resigned after being elected into the HoR. Then there were three— and I was put in the strange position of being the only mod who was a woman. Something that I did not take much cognizance of at the time.
Then, a few weeks ago, an anonymous post was made detailing a horrifying account of sexual assault, harassment and misogyny. Slowly at first, and then more frequently, more accounts began to pour in as survivors began to find their voices.
This was not the first time this had happened— last year, following the Boys Locker Room incident, a large conversation began on the same Facebook group about the culture of sexual violence that was prevalent on campus. A culture that I was all too familiar with, having been at the receiving end of it, several times. I remember how on-edge I was the entire time. How it culminated for me with an incident that sent me spiralling for weeks. I was hopeful that this time, something would come out of so many survivors recounting their trauma, and while it is too soon to tell, it appears that there is something in the works. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of posts was enough to remind us all about the ugly reality of the culture of sexual violence in our university.
I spent hours looking through the group almost obsessively, searching through comments and posts to make sure nobody tried to harass, intimidate or doxx survivors. Some of the messages that I woke up to every morning had graphic descriptions of assault that left me shaking, anxious and close to spiralling, and most of the people who sent me these messages did so without asking if I was okay receiving them. Even if they did ask, I found myself unable to refuse. How could I say no to people who were going through the same kind of pain I was?
I knew what the obvious solution was to my steadily declining mental health— to shut off my phone and carry on, but it was, in a way, my duty to be there and try to ensure nobody else was retraumatized or faced retaliation, at least on the group.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, I knew from our conversations that Shaurya and Siddhartha were feeling the pressure as well— we were already running on reduced capacity as a mod team, and none of us expected to have to deal with a situation like this. We expected that our work as mods would be accepting requests to join the group, sending emails and maybe occasionally asking people not to call each other names in comment sections. We had never thought that we would suddenly be confronted with the responsibility of having to convey people’s traumas to the group and trying to ensure that the people brave enough to speak out weren’t doxxed or harassed by the perpetrators in the replies or separate posts. We really were not equipped to, or even imagined in our wildest dreams, that we would be fielding legal threats because we removed someone from the group for harassing a survivor.
Then came The Email— from Prof. Ashwini Deshpande, the current CASH chair, as a response to the “name and shame” posts on social media— where we were reminded that we, as survivors, could be sued for defamation. Along with the several other things wrong with the email, this part in particular was jarring, for lack of a better word. It was a threat. A calculated one at that, to try and keep people from speaking up, and it worked. Survivors who wanted to come forward would now think twice, or even decide not to at all. There was, once again, a sense of fear that permeated the group.
This kind of fear is not easy to come to terms with, and I was left with multiple emotions that I did not know how to pick apart. How was I supposed to compartmentalize my trauma when I was confronted with the fact that so many others had dealt with the same thing? How do I shut down the part of my brain that wanted to implode in on itself every time my phone lit up so I could effectively work as a mod? How was I supposed to write all my papers in the middle of this?
There are no simple answers to any of these questions. The truth is most survivors have to compartmentalize their trauma to get through the day, and I’m no different. When you are confronted with the reality about the extent of the culture of sexual violence in a place where you are supposed to feel at home, the boundaries you set up are not always going to hold.
When you look at any of the posts, the responses are mostly people saying “I’m so sorry this happened to you”— apologizing to each other that ‘this happened. The knowledge that ‘this’ keeps happening, and most of us don’t know how to handle it, is a weight none of us can bear on our own, but we don’t have to. This is where groups like SASH (Students Against Sexual Harassment) enter the picture. There are communities that survivors have built for themselves, spaces you can go to for support, solidarity, and the knowledge that you do not have to carry your pain all by yourself. Sometimes, even the knowledge that you are not alone is enough, sometimes the knowledge that there are people who do care about you, and want to hear you out is enough. Sometimes nothing is, but it is all we have.
Lavanya is a 21-year-old rising fourth-year anthropology student. She enjoys spending time with animals, crocheting, and writing pieces on things she cannot stop thinking about. She is currently a moderator on the Facebook group.