‘Sexual harassment’, the term is by default synonymous with the ‘sexual harassment of women’. The sexual harassment of men largely remains a hush affair in our country. But just because society refuses to acknowledge it, doesn’t mean that it does not happen. “It doesn’t happen as often as sexual harassment of women by men but sexual harassment of males in work places is also very common,” according to Pavan Choudary, author of ‘How A Good Person Can Really Win’ and an expert on workplace ethics.
The issue is so entirely neglected in men that even our legal system is obsolete of laws protecting men from sexual harassment. The sexual assault laws of our country have been devised such as that they clearly state their existence exclusively for women. The sections 354, 509, and 376 of the Indian Penal Code which deal with sexual assault, namely, outraging the modesty of a woman, eve teasing and committing rape of a woman, all assume that men cannot be subjected to these crimes. The Vishakha guidelines which aims to prevent sexual harassment in work places are also just limited to women.
“According to the Indian law, modesty, if at all, exists only in women,” says ex-IPS officer Uday Sahai on the issue of male sexual harassment. “The only form in which a wrong sexual advancement on a man is recognized as an offence is as sodomy under the 377 section of the IPC. Apart from that there is no law to punish a person for molesting a man,” he further explains.
The absence of a law definitely doesn’t stem from the absence of the crime. “A large number of males do face sexual harassment in work places, both at the hands of men and women. Man on man harassment is more common, but woman on man harassment also isn’t exactly unheard of,” says Choudary. “Sexual harassment is, in its most rudimentary form, an assertion of power. So it does not take any one form or place itself in the hands of just one gender,” Choudhary adds.
Rahul Roy, documentary filmmaker and a noted voice for South Asian masculinity, explains this furthermore, “Sexual harassment of women is endemic, it is both a byproduct as well as a means of subjugating and controlling them. The sexual harassment faced by men in specific work situations like the police, armed forces, prisons and other such spaces require a certain excessive oozing of machismo for men to survive.”
The collective psyche that men can only abuse and only men can abuse needs to be shunned in light of the rising issue of sexual harassment of male employees. There also rises a need to address this problem more publicly and accumulate data specific to the male gender. The majority of surveys, studies or discussions fail to address the issue of sexual harassment in males. “There has to be some basis to come to a conclusion that men face sexual harassment at the hands of women … I would argue that we need separate or supplementary legal procedures that specifically address the issue of sexual harassment of men by other men,” according to Roy.
Sanjay Deshpande, one of the victims of sexual harassment who has spoken openly about it says, “Male sexual harassment is usually pushed under the rug. Especially by families themselves. Given that it would make their male child look weak/turn them gay. My parents too did the same.”
Rahul Roy shares this opinion too. “The problem of not acknowledging and recognizing male sexual harassment by other men is a direct fallout of the inability of men to accept vulnerability. Men find it very difficult to acknowledge sexual harassment because any such admission would mean that they have been feminized and there is nothing worse that can happen to men than being equated to the so called weaker feminine,” he says.
While the necessity of a law to protect men is realized, the need to protect women shouldn’t be lost in the debate. As Roy says, “Gender neutrality in laws that discriminate against women should be welcomed. However, it is not a universal principle that needs to be applied to all forms of law making. Gender neutrality should not imply gender blindness.”