GenderAnd: The misguided reasons to doubt those who report sexual misconduct

#GenderAnd: Oh Do Shut Up Dear! Using Mary Beard to understand teen actor and others.

Updated: December 13, 2017 6:07 pm

“Why didn’t she raise an alarm?”
“This is all publicity. She is an actress.”
“She is hardly acting like someone abused.”
“Why did she keep shut all this while?”
“How come she is so friendly with her abuser.”

Many variants of the above are likely to be used every time a woman opens up on sexual misconduct, violence or abuse she may have faced. It doesn’t matter whether she is Ashley Judd or someone on the running list of women who have accused Harvey Weinstein or a 17-year-old “child” who used Instagram to talk about mid-air harrasment. Commentary on social media tends to confuse issues. A 17-year-old is a “child” protected by a law called POCSO that defines a “child” as a person under the age of 18. That law is also gender neutral.

Of course, not every allegation is true. The wife of the executive accused by the actor has come forward to say that this is untrue, and her husband is being villified for no mistake of his. While very preliminary investigations could have revealed what happened, the airline chose to articulate it’s zero-tolerance policy more in letter than in spirit.

What’s also perhaps equally true is that a million #MeToo’s later we are still psychologically unprepared to accept how prevalent harrassment and assault are. The teenager who took to Instagram to talk about this incident has since deleted her post. Her latest post was uploaded sometime on Monday. A look at the comments there (which has nearly 99,000 likes*) will showcase some of the same credibility issues that surround reports of sexual harassment whether they involve a man in position of power or someone you have never met. Now the very same set of questions surface every time there is an allegation of this nature.

Why did she take to Instagram?

The variants of this include, why didn’t she complain? Or why didn’t she change seats, or that she found time to be on social media after an assault ! There is plenty of commentary available on how her behaviour was not in consonance with a “victim of sexual misconduct”.

There is no other way to say this except that there is no one response when someone has their private parts groped or touched inappropriately. One could cry, take to Instagram, go to sleep, have a drink, stay calm or shout. Turning to social media should be considered a pretty normal reaction these days. At its least it is an attempt to regain control, before the whole thing becomes a hydra-headed creature about everything from nationalism, to her mothers’ love for a Pakistani cricketers. The one response expected at times like these is from the airline, which chose to turn a blind eye till an Instagram post made it impossible.

Why did she stay friendly with the man who abused her?

This is not relevant to her case but “The silence breakers”, as coded by TIME magazine, have faced this allegation nearly across the board. Many have explained why they didn’t come forward sooner, or how for years they imagined going public would affect their family. Or other failings (debt or being sacked from a job) would undermine their account.

Reah Bravo, one of the women who accused broadcast journalist Charlie Rose of making unwanted sexual advances while they were working for him, told The Washington Post, “It has taken 10 years and a fierce moment of cultural reckoning for me to understand these moments for what they were.”

Also Read | In defence of the victim

Why didn’t she resist?

This scrutiny of failure to resist a sexual assault is particularly peculiar. We hardly hold victims of mugging or street crime to such standards. But a 17-year-old who is trying to figure out what exactly is happening when a man is allegedly rubbing his feet through her back and neck is expected to have absolutely the right-toned response mid-air in a plane full of people.

She is fake. She deleted her posts.

“Leave this sin life. See your dressing?”, “She’s wise enough to eefuse to stand up for #NationalAnthem” are some of the milder responses to the Instagram post. In the past when she posted a picture with Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who called her a “role model”, she was flooded with comments of hate, abuse and threats for “ruining Islam for acting in Bollywood”. The young girl tried to take control by deleting the picture and tendering an oddity of an apology for being considered a “role model”. It backfired and ended up adding more fuel to fire.

All of this and a 2014 incident were regurgitated in response to the Instagram post talking about the sexual misconduct. Some of the comments expose attitudes, prejudices and assumptions that have long remained concealed but are no longer so. Vile as they are, it is not mandatory for a 17-year-old to face them or live with them. She retains the right to delete her post. What could be worrisome is the subtext of the abuse and fear that made her do this.

Oh Do Shut Up Dear!

Mary Beard, a classic professor at the University of Cambridge is troll slayer. Her lecture given at the British Museum titled, “Oh Do Shut Up Dear” full of salty quotes explores the many ways in women are silenced. “The difficulty of not knowing how to talk about rape is not limited to those who have experienced it. It is an enduring cultural problem. Rape is always a contested story, as also an event.”

It would be foolhardy not to underline the differences of degree here, but the same is likely to hold true in cases like that of the actor. The targeting of the 17-year-old is hardly a singular instance of online misogyny, or victim blaming. She clearly had a tough time talking about it. Those who responded to it also ended up treating it more like an event. In her lecture, Beard also acknowledges that it is easier to document ways that women have been silenced than it is to find a remedy to their silencing. The real issue, she suggested, “is not merely guaranteeing a woman’s right to speak; it is being aware of the prejudices that we bring to the way we hear her”.