Guest post by R. SRIVATSAN
It is with a recognition of a failing foretold that I read the different posts, letters and conversations around the list (the unmistakable one today). That one’s teachers, seniors, peers and respected fellow academics have been named as having sexually harassed women cannot be digested without trouble. I struggled to comprehend what had happened and went through all the emotions of denial and outrage, followed by shock, acceptance and hopefully a slowly emerging wisdom.
It then came back to memory that I too have sexually harassed women on three occasions. However, I was in anonymous situations which were not explicitly relationships of power or authority. And I did withdraw an overture (or a pass, to call it out by its name) when rejected. Perhaps I have been cautious in not letting my shenanigans come back from the past to bite me. Or perhaps I cleverly chose occasions and situations that would not be traceable to me. Also, most importantly, perhaps those women who could have named and shamed me have been kinder and gentler than I deserved. Finally, if I were a successful teacher today, perhaps my name too would have been on the list. This response is based on the recognition that I virtually am.
Despite my complicity in these acts of recalcitrant masculinity, I feel that this political work of listing actors must be valued highly. What is at issue is not only (though this is the most important aspect) to bring out the injustice and manhandling these specific women have suffered. It is also that there must develop a code of sexual conduct that is consistent with the demands of a learning and working environment that calls on men and women to work closely together. This is even more important when such an environment is also mapped on to a culture of sexual attraction and mutual incitement that is hegemonic today. It is important for men to learn how to conduct themselves, express their desire, their attraction for women in an acceptable way. What is at stake is a democratic living and working environment that is consistent with the demands and promises of living well in our time.
As the women (and men) I know and respect struggle and trip over their treacherous convictions, or even keep silent in forgiveness or loyalty, I can see how the dynamics of response to a charge of sexual harassment is misogynist through and through. Society, (even most of its women) doesn’t forgive easily a woman who complains of sexual misconduct of the tallest in the land. But this individual faltering among those who hold the hot potato of harassment is not the worst of it. Between the different responses, the complete difference of intentions, the institutional mechanisms of redress, the good will and the failure, there emerges a coherent response of perhaps ironic misogyny that is focused on the victim of harassment. A true strategy without a strategist! A chess game where the complainant is guaranteed to lose as the play unfolds.
I am not saying here that the task of learning a democratic sexual conduct and developing a respectful character towards women is too difficult or too easy, only that this education of ourselves is absent, and it should be undertaken as a responsibility that comes with the sexual license that is characteristic of our work situations. Being of the older generation (I am 63) I felt that the younger generation have a better handle on things, but I was quickly disabused of this misunderstanding in a recent meeting which was generous enough to tolerate me!
The first step is perhaps to stop in its tracks the whisper and denounce campaign against the young women who have so courageously broken their pained silence and have found inventive and effective ways to do so. It is to accept that even if one or two names may be factually inaccurate, the list points to a fundamental truth about the way privileged masculinity conducts itself in our times. And I am not even addressing the caste question here.
This naming cannot be easily forgotten, nor can the soul-searching that has followed. Those named face a life sentence. Let those of us who are not as unfortunate even though we have erred not forget our larger responsibility. The point is not to establish the brotherhood of man. It is to build a better society.
Acknowledgment: As always, explicitly or implicitly, I acknowledge with the deepest gratitude to Anveshi for the gentleness and generosity with which it has included me in its own ‘list’. I would also like to acknowledge specifically Vasudha Nagaraj’s quickly summoned meeting to discuss the emerging situation a couple of day ago, in which I was able to nuance my own understanding of the problem of sexual harassment. I am also grateful to the discussions I had with A Suneetha on this subject these last few days. Failings of course are mine alone.
R Srivatsan is a senior fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies.