If You’re Friends With a Sexual Harasser, You’re Part of the Problem Too

Gender

If You’re Friends With a Sexual Harasser, You’re Part of the Problem Too

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

When Tanushree Dutta reiterated her accusations of harassment by Nana Patekar on a film set in 2008, Bollywood’s biggest stars responded with blank silence. Fair-weather feminist Amitabh Bachchan, and the supposedly woke showrunner of Satyamev Jayate, Aamir Khan, inelegantly dodged any questions about the incident, even as trolls online piled onto Dutta for raking up a decade-old incident for some vague form of publicity.

Industry support for Dutta has been scarce, with Richa Chadha and Swara Bhasker being some of the few to speak up in her support. But a first-hand Twitter account of what happened that day by journalist Janice Sequeira, who was present at the shoot, has now prompted people to finally come to Dutta’s defence. What stands out from the story is that Dutta had spoken about the harassment even 10 years ago, but was effectively silenced by Patekar and the film’s producers, who rallied around the accused rather than the alleged victim.

Back then, she received no support, and it’s only now that her story is being given a hearing. The toxic reaction to Dutta’s second attempt to share her story underlines how it isn’t a victim’s primary responsibility to speak up – it is the bystander’s, the onlooker’s, the ones in the periphery of the event. A recent personal incident drove this point home for me.

As women, the first reality we come to terms with is that being inappropriately touched or groped is an active consequence of having a female body. When a man in a public bus constantly brushes his dick against my arm, or when I get followed on my way home, I am aware that I am unsafe. But that feeling is generated by strangers – it is dissipated by those who you call your own. It is easy to accept that sexual harassers are other people; that your friends and family could never be entwined in that heinous a crime. That, is a naïve notion, and coming to terms with reality led to a rapid collapse of self-perceived notions about my feminism.

To understand why women don’t speak up about sexual harassment, one must remember we live in a culture of absolute disbelief in the woman.

Like many other well-meaning women, I’ve repeatedly brushed aside simple things that have made me routinely uncomfortable around a friend of mine – a hand lingering where it shouldn’t have, a hug that lasted too long. One instance goes past, you think you are “over-reacting”. It happens a few more times, you tell your other female friends. They say they’ve felt the same way, but they too are visibly uncomfortable. After all, he’s a good friend, he wouldn’t dream of being inappropriate, it must not have been his intention.

However, when that friend was publicly called out for harassing three really young girls, my two friends and I – perhaps the closest female friends he has – kept questioning why we hadn’t said anything to him before things got out of hand. If we had checked him and his behaviour earlier, could we have prevented other women from undergoing possibly aggravated trauma?

To understand why women don’t speak up about sexual harassment, one must remember we live in a culture of absolute disbelief in the woman. It took the testimony of 60 women with similar experience as Andrea Constand for Bill Cosby to be convicted as a serial sex offender. Sixty women recalling their trauma and horror, versus the “himpathy” of “Bill Cosby is a good man,” in a case that dragged on for years.

No wonder that it took Padma Lakshmi 30 years to come forward with her story of being raped by her boyfriend at the age of 16. She did so in solidarity with Christine Blasey Ford, who is to take the stand against her accused rapist, the nominee for the US Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. US President Trump came forward to question Ford, much like Dutta is being questioned by trolls today, about why she stayed silent for years, if the abuse took place in 1980. It took the possibility of Ford’s molester becoming a judge in her country’s Supreme Court for her to speak up, because until then, her own peace of mind was more important.

This is why the onus of proof must be on bystanders and friends, not on the victim. In a Twitter thread where Amba Azad confronted her own associations with a person named in a list of abusers, she stated, “I also realised what an unfair burden I had placed on the victim; to take the lead in demanding justice, when it should be those less needing to heal and move on who should be doing more.”

It took my friend being publicly accused for me to see I played my part in the crime by not speaking up when I should have. I had repeatedly disbelieved my instinctive discomfort, chosen not to address it, because It was easier for me to believe, just like the society around me, that I was “over-reacting” rather than believe that a good friend whom I was close to, was a potential harasser. If I had invested in him as a friend, was it not my duty to confront him over his mistakes?

This incident has left me shaken, because it helped me realise that social conditioning to this day largely shapes my reactions. Which is why I want other women, women as sure about their feminism as I was about mine, to remember to not take their own role in patriarchy lightly. We must place more value in our instinctive discomfort. We must believe women like Tanushree Dutta when they say they have been sexually harassed. We must remember sexual harassment is real – even when we love the perpetrator to death.

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