People say sexual harassment is a ‘one-off’ thing. That you can get over it, move on from it, block it out like a bad memory. If only you could gauge how untrue this is, from how my hands are shaking as I recount my experiences and muster the courage to write this down.
Maybe writing about it will finally help me feel better, heal my scars, heal that part of me that feels broken, violated and humiliated. Maybe I’ll finally stop feeling like a ‘victim’.
I was 12 when I was first cat-called and followed home. By someone I’d never seen before, someone I had had nothing to do with. I didn’t know what harassment was back then, and when I came home and told my parents, their instinctive response was for me to stop travelling alone. My first brush with harassment was also the beginning of my internalisation of it.
Throughout school, I had several disagreements with my parents over going out alone or even going out with a bunch of friends. One day, my father finally sat me down and said these words, which I’m not likely to ever forget, “We trust you, we just don’t trust this city.” My internalisation of harassment continued, along with the perception that I, and my loved ones, were the ones required to ‘protect’ me from it.
“That skirt is too short.”
“Ek button aur band kar lo, beta.” (Close the other button too, child.)
“Are you sure that’s appropriate clothing for work?”
I was 18 when a man in the Delhi Metro tried to feel up my behind. Women in the coach noticed and proceeded to thrash him and hand him over to the security.
I was 19 when my best friend in college tried to kiss me as a ‘joke’. After winning a mental war and confronting him about it, he responded with, “I’m sorry, man, you know I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I told myself I had a boyfriend that my friend knew about, and hence, my friend’s actions were inappropriate, and it could not have been my fault. It’s ironic that I derived validation for my experience from the existence of a male counterpart in my life. As if it would have been okay for my friend to have done it had I been single. I decided to forgive the friend. I never forgot the whole thing though.
Early next year, the same friend repeatedly felt me up while we were dancing at the college fest. Thinking about this now makes me want to scream, and do whatever else it takes to somehow get over the sense of disgust and violation I felt. The circumstances were different this time. Both of us were tipsy. Does that make it okay? Here I was introduced to my coping mechanism: Denial. “You were drunk, you must have dreamt this up/ hallucinated. This didn’t happen, it could not have happened.”
I went about the rest of the year pretending I was fine, while secretly having panic attacks from time to time. It was only a year later when the Facebook confession page of another college released the statement of a woman student, who had also been harassed by her best friend, that I finally accepted what had happened to me, and that it needed to be given a name and spoken about. I told two very close friends and tried to make my peace with it. But you never really get over it, do you?
I was 20 when I was driving alone at night, and was chased all the way from college to home. Having to shake someone off in a high-speed chase on a highway has never been on my to-do list. That same year, I was followed by a car in broad daylight while walking to the metro station in the company of two male friends. It makes me wonder. What will happen when I’m twenty-one? Twenty-two? Thirty? Fifty? Will I ever really feel safe? Can the company of male friends ‘protect’ me?
I’ve also experienced first-hand, the nonchalance with which our society deals with incidents of harassment. What those inflicting this harassment don’t realise is that such actions can make one feel thoroughly uncomfortable. The perspective of the victim/ survivor is the only thing that should matter. When I confronted a long-time family friend for having made horribly inappropriate comments via text message, he brushed it off, saying, “I’ve always spoken to you like this, stop overreacting and doing drama.”
Somewhere around this time was also when one of our professors legitimised harassment in his lectures, proclaiming he had conducted ‘experiments’ with women on public transport where he had touched them without their consent. “I wanted to see whether women know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch. They do, and that shows their natural superiority over men.” He further added, “I did not intend to harass them. You ‘feminist people’ understand nothing.”
What stunned us was how he’d rationalised his actions, how he hadn’t even considered that he had violated someone’s bodily integrity in the process of his ‘innocent experiment’. How he didn’t even realise how entitled he was acting, to women’s bodies and their reactions. We fought the professor on it, and he flunked us in our project research papers, but at least we retained our principles. He does not teach that section of our curriculum anymore.
Another unfortunate aspect of harassment is that it transcends borders. I wish I could say that I’ve felt safer in other cities across the world, but I’d be lying. In London, I learnt that standing at a bus stop at 2:00 am in a ‘short’ jumpsuit is an invitation for entitled guys in a swanky car to catcall you and try to get you to sit in their car. In Hong Kong, I learnt that standing alone at a bar was an invitation for guys to touch you inappropriately, sitting with a male friend at the bar was an invitation for another guy to try to put his hand up your shirt, and being alone and lost in a crowd was an invitation for a lot more.
You know you’re in it deep when Public Service Announcement (PSA) videos released to spread awareness about sexual harassment act as triggers for you. When someone’s confession on a college Facebook page makes you want to make one of your own. When you’re sceptical about hugging male friends for the fear that it might send the ‘wrong signal’. When you’re afraid to drink at a party because someone might take advantage of you when you’re not completely in your senses (voices saying “why did you let it get this way” still echo in my head sometimes). When you can never bring yourself to approach someone in a club or a bar because they might try things you don’t want. Because willingness to speak, and willingness to kiss, are consent for everything else, right?
When you lock your car doors as soon as you get into it. When you don’t wear shorts in public transport. When you carry your can of pepper spray everywhere you go. When you keep a screwdriver in the glove compartment of your car. When you feel like you can do whatever it takes to protect yourself, and know that it will still never be enough. In these and several other small, everyday things, I continue to feel angry and helpless. More so when some of the people I’ve spoken to about my experiences have based their questions on my clothing, company and sobriety at the time of the incidents. Does basic human respect and decency have to be gauged by what the survivor is dressed in?
No one should have to feel this way. I wish this was a story about how I came out of all this stronger and am ‘taking on the world’ now. I’m on my way, but for now, I’m a girl behind a screen, trying to get my experiences out there and hopefully, come to terms with them. I’m done feeling helpless and humiliated. What bothers me, even more, is knowing that I got off easy and that so much worse happens to other women every single day. I hear stories of my friends having been groped, gagged, felt up, masturbated to and sexually abused, and I am thoroughly infuriated.
I want this to be known, I want something to be done about it. Maybe men who read this will finally understand the ramifications of seemingly innocuous actions. Other men might begin to question their privilege. Maybe someone with similar experiences will come by this post and know that they’re not alone.
It’s never your fault.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Breakthrough Blog. You can read it here.