By Sonali Kokra Mar. 08, 2019
Days after I outed my abuser at the height of the #MeToo movement last October, I was overcome by gut-wrenching guilt. A big part of it was seeded in my belief that for the most part, people deserve second chances. Were a few unwelcome dirty messages a crime big enough to warrant the obliteration of his public image?
I’ve spent almost six months grappling with this feeling, trying to quash it hastily every time it surfaces. I’ve spent countless hours agonising, even scolding myself that this isn’t my burden to bear. I’m disgusted with myself for feeling sorry for someone who I know, with every fibre of my being, doesn’t deserve one square millimetre of real estate in my mind. And yet here’s the undeniable fact — there are days when I feel gut-wrenchingly guilty for outing my abuser during the height of #MeToo in October last year.
It’s not a guilt borne out of fabrication — I still stand by each word I said, and I can still produce witnesses corroborating that my version of what transpired is the unembellished truth. If anything, I should be able to find solace in knowing that once I outed him, a dozen-odd women came forward with stories that were disturbingly similar to mine. And even more stormed my inbox with screenshots and stories that made it revoltingly clear that the schmuck was a serial harasser with a grotty MO.
The MO being: Get drunk (or at least pretend to be). Indiscriminately send unsolicited sexts/dick pics to women friends and acquaintances. If the inclination is reciprocated, pat self on the back for being a stud. If not, try wheedling the women into acquiescing. On the rare occasions that a woman gives him a piece of her mind for subjecting her to his dangling bits or describing sexual acts he would like performed on himself without her permission, immediately use alcohol as a crutch and vanish. Resurface next morning to reiterate that the shitty behaviour was the result of an alcohol-induced stupor, not him revealing his true, creepy self. Leave the woman feeling faintly violated, but brushing it off as him being him. Rinse, repeat.
Just thinking about it all again makes my head throb and palm twitch with the desire to plant an eardrum-slashing crack on his slimy face. And yet, even in these re-lived moments of seething rage, I feel an undercurrent of guilt. I’ve asked myself a million times why that is so.
The answer is practical, not passionate: for once, I had nothing to lose or fear by naming the man who abused my trust and friendship.
A big part of my guilt is seeded in my belief that for the most part, people deserve second chances — to clean up their messes and not be defined by the worst in them, especially if they’re making an effort in good faith to learn and change. Who among us hasn’t said or done something that, in retrospect, horrifies us beyond comprehension? Who doesn’t have a skeleton or two hiding in their closet?
A smaller, more annoying part is my own messed-up conditioning. Were a few unwelcome dirty messages or photos a crime big -enough to warrant the obliteration of his public image? Worse things happen to women all the time, worse things have happened to me and I’ve been forced to take it in my stride. Then why did I decide to out him and not other worse predators still lurking in my social spheres?
The answer is practical, not passionate: for once, I had nothing to lose or fear by naming the man who abused my trust and friendship, even through comparatively low-key transgressions like being dragged into a sexual conversation against your will. My rational mind knows all of this, but my conditioning to minimise or even dismiss my own feeling of being violated is so absolute that I worry more about the effect of public shaming on a serial abuser than how his actions may have disturbed the women he preyed on. As a feminist, this realisation is acutely painful and troubling.
And finally there is the gnawing distress about collateral damage, the third and strongest leg of the stool on which rests my pulsating pile of guilt. Soon after I spoke up, and my voice was amplified by all the other women who came forward as well, several clients of his chimed in saying they would be pulling their business. As satisfying as it was to see a habitual harasser, not the women he targeted, scrambling to come to terms with a situation they hadn’t prepared for, I couldn’t help but worry about all the careers and livelihoods that depended on his business.
All of these thoughts came rushing to the fore a few weeks ago, when the man both my harasser and I consider a mentor reached out to me with a request from him: he wanted to meet and apologise in person. I was told that soon after our little social media storm, he had to shut down his company — say hello to my old friend, guilt — and had spent his time reflecting on his behaviour. He wanted to meet me, in the presence of our mentor so I knew I was in a safe space, and make amends.
It would have been amusing, if it wasn’t so infuriating that the one person he was so keen to personally apologise to was among the few he held no social or professional power over. Typically, his targets were younger women from his industry, or friends who were too embarrassed to tell him he was behaving like a perv. He wanted to create a safe space for me while he apologised, when the women working with him not only had to put up with his vile “joking” come-ons, but possibly had also had to deal with career uncertainty when the company folded. I declined the request, asking, instead, that he apologise to all the women he had preyed on over the years. I’ve asked around, and to the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t.
It stands to reason that his decision too, like mine, is more practical than passionate. Redeeming yourself in the eyes of the person who started the fire that ended up burning your house to the ground, is a good comeback strategy. It forces us to engage with their misery and humiliation, sympathise with their claims of remorse, and wonder if it is time to allow themselves the opportunity to rehabilitate their lives. We can all agree that sending lewd texts is hardly an unpardonable offence in the larger scheme of things, and doesn’t merit permanent exile.
And just like that, the guilt vanished.
Because I realised that while I was busy castigating myself for inflicting the trauma of public vilification (and yes, it is traumatic, sometimes more than the punishment itself can be), he too seemed to have spent all his time ruminating over the injustice done to him. Because if he had, as he claimed, spent his half a year of time out reflecting on his behaviour, his first move would not have been to reach out to me, while neglecting all the women who had felt significantly more powerless than me in the face of his sudden advances. Shame holds value only when it flows upward, from the most affected to the least. Everything else is just well-timed PR.
So here’s my advice to all the men who think they deserve second chances: We agree, maybe you do. But don’t come to us expecting forgiveness because you spent some time in your rooms and called it penitentiaries for crimes that weren’t so bad. You don’t get to be petulant; and if you can’t muster the decency to feel actual remorse, just at least be thankful that you’re getting to sulk from the comfort of your homes, and not an actual prison cell.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.