Trigger warning: This article contains details about sexual assault, cyber bullying and death threats which may be triggering to survivors.
For a moment, imagine a young desi girl in her early twenties graduate and come back from New York to South Delhi. Fresh off the liberal arts boat, she returns to her hometown to relive her South Asian life.
She decides to party one fine Tuesday in October. It is 2018 and she steps out with a friend from high school. What could possibly go wrong? The bar is not full, there’s space to dance and smoke a cigarette, enjoy the weather and the music’s groovy as well!
Little did she know that her cocktail had something called Rohypnol – a white dust also known as the “date rape” drug. You might have heard of it in American pop culture as “roofie”.
So, does she make it home?
She does. Because her male friend escorted her home a little after midnight. This is a true story.
Back in 2018, I took to Facebook to share my #MeToo story, not out of hindsight, but because I was sexually assaulted (for the first time) in 2003 by a stranger and I was ready to speak about it, years later.
As a seven-year-old, not only did I lack the physical strength to fight off the adolescent, perhaps post-pubescent boy, but was also at a loss of language to express the words to speak about what had happened. What is the word for ‘assault’ in my mother tongue Odia? I’m still not sure, the closest I get is to panic, torture and harassment.
Long before the landmark Nirbhaya outrage (December 2012) or the ‘Me Too’ catchphrase (first used by Bronx-based Tarana Burke as early as 2003) and popularised during the Time’s Up movement (2018) that outed Harvey Weinstein on social media, I knew something went wrong. My body had been violated; I had tasted my own blood for the first time. I only recall hiding in my mother’s green saree that evening and letting out a muffled cry.
Now, let us fast forward to 2020. The virulent, novel COVID-19 pandemic has brought everything to a halt, and governments worldwide are struggling to flatten the curve. There is another virus doing rounds rather covertly – it is in our minds, on our WhatsApp forwards, on our many Facebook groups.
On May 4, after my morning stretching session, I came across stories about the ‘Bois Locker Room’, a humiliating (to say the very least) direct message group chat on Instagram. By noon, as I was vehemently texting my “support groups” and “girl gangs”, all restricted to phone-based chats and calls, I reminded myself to just breathe. ‘This too shall pass,’ said the voice in my head.
But how was I to forget the many boys who had downloaded my Facebook profile photos, circulated them, saved them and even gone to the length of proclaiming: “she’s my girlfriend!?”
Cyber bullying is very real, albeit intangible, something you cannot pinpoint but the body feels trauma in ways the mind cannot comprehend. Let us say, the same way you can “ethically” hack an email account without the owner finding out. The system itself is rigged.
Speaking from personal experience, of course, not to use myself as the poster child of PTSD, but studies show that the fight-flight adrenaline rush most victims and survivors of sexual assault experience, is not all that common. There is a third ‘f’ – the freeze. On a phenomenological level, when someone downloads pictures of you, you might feel validated, but what do you do when you don’t know when your images have been downloaded, and how they are being circulated? Where is the consent when social media platforms (to which we are addicted by design) are not transparent about who accesses your data? When artificial intelligence algorithms allow people to find “open” accounts with the human face deemed attractive, to find other people with such attractive faces?
On May 4, I posted on my Instagram story:
About time we addressed the literal AND metaphorical locker rooms and glass ceilings in our childhood and high-school educational systems. The many conversations they perpetuate by virtue of providing spaces and systemic support, for these people (I’m not naming names) continue to exist, scares me. I am tired, but I WILL NOT BE SILENCED. I have received support, but it is a long journey. Trauma is not a switch you can turn on and off. I would tag my Alma Mater in this post, but this conversation exists beyond my school(s)
PS: If I am friends with your perpetrator, message me. That will change.
To stay relevant, I used the hashtags #MeToo and #BelieveTheSurvivor.
What is the solution to this behaviour? Is it predatory, or is it just bad parenting? Who do I hold accountable? How do we move towards an inclusive sex education? I have read A Room of One’s Own, Sylvia Plath’s Daddy, and understand the importance of being well read. I had chanced upon Eve Ensler’s 1996 play with a forward by Gloria Steinem, The Vagina Monologues at the age of 16, the same year a Delhi student was gangraped in a moving bus. With fervour, I approached my Hindi teacher to let me stage a street play, but the content was deemed too mature. I cried for the next three days.
Will you talk to your family about the upheaval and uproar that has taken to the internet today? We need a detailed and elaborate sexual education, beginning from the early childhood level. How many of us knew what the human body looked like in a mirror, outside of our biology textbooks, say before the age of 10?
There are always many sides to any story. To remember can sometimes be a curse. We are at a pivotal moment in time, however abstract it may seem to you. Believe the survivor, but also listen to the perpetrator. The earlier you start, the easier it is to make amends.
A proposed method that does not solely rely on colonial era jurisprudence and punitive laws demanding harsh punishment is restorative justice. Justice in “true” sense can be achieved vis-à-vis the perpetrators’ admission to the crime(s) committed, and this cannot take place in isolation. By virtue of centring around the felt and expressed needs of the survivor, we leave room for legal and social systems to move beyond act and react, and call for lasting reform – be it in our schools, offices or homes. Listening to the perpetrator is in no way a “release” of their guilt.
They must learn afresh.
Subhashree Rath graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in May 2018 with a background in Visual Anthropology and she believes in the power of photography, storytelling, and active listening.
Featured image credit: averie woodard/Unsplash