I’m not sure if this is the right time for this piece, or if I’m the right person to write about the issue. This last week has seen numerous women come forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment, detailing years and years of abuse and the rot that has beset almost every industry in the country. At a time when it’s important for men to listen, there’s also a question about how men should react to what is clearly a systematic problem that has been allowed to flourish in our society, and how they should think of what can be done to dismantle it—ensuring that women are treated with respect and given a chance to flourish in their professional and personal lives without the fear of experiencing harassment or assault. There’s also been a lot of self-congratulatory behaviour, with men who label themselves as an ally of the movement, acting as if there is no need for them to even reflect on how their actions have contributed to the situation.
In an interview with Slate last year, Anthony Bourdain—an early supporter of the MeToo movement—had reflected on his own behaviour in an industry that was reeling with allegations against powerful chefs, and how he, by being a bystander, played a part in cultivating that environment. “But I had to ask myself, particularly given some things that I’m hearing, and the people I’m hearing them about: Why was I not the sort of person, or why was I not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in? I see this as a personal failing,” he said while questioning whether, through his success and celebration of food culture, especially in Kitchen Confidential, he had helped legitimise meathead or bro culture in the food industry.
Last year, when writer and photographer Sheena Dabholkar called out Pune’s High Spirits—one of the Indian independent music industry’s flagship venues—a lot of people were surprised. But a lot of others and I weren’t. Despite multiple women coming forward with their own accounts of how the culture at High Spirits cultivated an environment where assault and harassment became rampant, men banded together to diminish the significance of allegations. This allowed regular service to be resumed at High Spirits, and the issue is all but forgotten. This facade of support is exposed because we focus on individual incidents and allegations while ignoring the culture that cultivates it.
The way we react to these allegations betrays the extent of how problematic our collective behaviour is. It seems to be that as long as you haven’t been accused of sexual assault or harassment, you’re allowed to consider yourself an ally. Is that really the bare minimum bar we’ve set for ourselves? This story was originally supposed to be a piece about men who have called out other men. However, as I started my research, I realised I had nothing to go on. Instead, it’s developed into a piece about how men react when allegations come to the surface, and the conversations that we need to have to bring about change.
“In a culture where sex is considered a taboo topic, conversations surrounding it, including sexual assault and harassment, go unaddressed,” says Dr. Seema Hingorrany, a trauma expert and clinical psychologist. “Men are reluctant to talk about it, even when it directly concerns them. Whether it’s male-on-male assault or male-on-female assault, we’ve been brought up in a patriarchal and conservative culture, where even addressing these issues is considered problematic. When you talk about conversations that men need to have regarding their own behaviour as part of this culture, you also have to take into account that most men don’t consider their behaviour as an act that can be called assault or harassment. They see the world from the point of view that has been driven into them and manifested itself over time, so the first step when you talk to them about it is viewed as a challenge that needs to be defeated. That also drives men to close ranks when allegations come forward—if one of them can be shown as wrong, isn’t everybody who subscribes to that worldview wrong? That’s the issue men, and even women who subscribe to this worldview, are forced to confront, and most refuse to.”
Prayag Arora Desai, a journalist with Hindustan Times and alumnus of the Asian College of Journalism (Chennai), was part of the group that helped push the allegations of sexual harassment against Sadanand Menon to the authorities. Menon, a member of the college’s adjunct faculty and prominent cultural critic, was accused of sexual harassment by an ex-student. As an integral member of the group attempting to hold Menon accountable, Desai saw firsthand the way his batchmates reacted to the charges. “There was scepticism (against the charges) amongst our batchmates,” he says. “Most didn’t respond to our petition to hold the college and Menon accountable, but the aggression and nonchalance with which some men spoke about him, the college and the protesting students was typical of the way in which men speak about sexual harassment in general.”
The way men react to allegations of sexual assault and harassment also differs according to proximity to the accused. “Having a conversation about this forces you to confront your own behaviour that might have allowed or contributed to the incident taking place,” says Dr. Hingorrany. “It is easier to be a part of a conversation or call someone out when you know you have no proximity to the people involved because you aren’t immediately forced to confront your own behaviour.” Adds Desai, “It’s easier for me to call out a stranger on the internet, but when it hits closer to home, there’s a tendency to be strategic because the end goal has to be to make sure the person understands where they went wrong and actually improve their behaviour.” Ashish*, who works at a Mumbai-based creative agency, recently mentioned how one of his colleagues made an off-hand remark about the recent spate of MeToo allegations: “How do we use this opportunity?”
I myself am wrestling with allegations that have hit close to home. The question I’m struggling most with is: Is it wrong for me to believe both accounts? It would be hypocritical of me to say I believe women, unless an incident comes out from my immediate social circle. I recognise the trauma and the tremendous courage it takes for women to come forward, then why do I falter or hesitate when someone comes out against people I’ve worked with or am friends with, especially when I acknowledge that due process has failed and will continue to fail most sections of Indian society, including women?
Recently, Rimjhim Jain wrote about the deafening silence of men in the MeToo movement and how it will continue to normalise sexual violence in the country. We live in a society where the language surrounding sexual assault has been trivialised by men and reduced to an adjective that’s used to describe one’s performance in sports or other activities. Is it really a surprise that men are silent? The conversations are missing on a larger scale because we’re scared to confront our own complicity, and are barely even realising now how deeply misogyny has been a part of our upbringing. “We live in a society where men are taught that they occupy the seat of power,” says Dr Hingorrany. “The patriarchal upbringing that most men have experienced has taught them that this behaviour is acceptable and our culture has reinforced that. It is constantly used as an excuse to justify their behaviour also. Awareness about these issues has also risen amongst men, but do you actually see a will to change? It’s easier to stick with the status quo without confronting your own complicity at any level.”