The current controversy over the viral and crowd-sourced Facebook post seeking to ‘name and shame’ academic persons accused of sexual harassment has brought to the fore some questions I’ve had about dealing with allegations of sexual harassment that I’ve grappled with, but have never been able to obtain clear answers to.
Before I outline this, a little context is necessary. Raya Sarkar’s list accusing various academic persons of being sexual predators is the major prompter behind this article. The list names individuals allegedly based on materials provided to Sarkar by individuals who say they have been sexually harassed or are friends with (and represent) someone who has. From what I have read online, Sarkar seems to have been inspired by C Christine Fair’s article (which originally appeared on HuffPost, but seems to have been taken down since) accusing noted historian Dipesh Chakrabarty of sexual harassment. She has also been inspired by the #MeToo movement on social media.
While I have nothing to comment about Christina’s article, the latter is a movement which I support wholeheartedly. Sarkar has said that she is maintaining a database of the accusations, the evidences and the people making the claims. However, it is worth noting that from a reader’s perspective, the list seems to be based on anonymous accusations. Sarkar may know who the accusers are and the context of their accusations – but those reading, commenting on and sharing her post (and her other interactions with the subject) do not.
My aim here isn’t to offer a defence for, or a corroboration of, the accusations against any of the individuals named in this list. First, I want to outline the issue of sexual harassment as I understand it, and then put across the questions I am hoping to receive answers to.
It is also necessary to enter into some important caveats here. The first is that as an upper middle-class male in India, I come from an extremely privileged background. I am not someone who has faced sexual harassment, largely due to these privileges of class and gender. Therefore, I cannot claim to understand what it is like to be a victim of sexual harassment. Nor is it my desire to tell others what actions specifically constitute (or do not constitute) sexual harassment, or explain what sort of ‘reaction’ is ‘appropriate’ to facing sexual harassment. The term, as I understand it, is ‘mansplaining’ – and I hope not to do it.
My understanding of sexual harassment is that the action or event of harassment comprises two elements. One is the intent to harass, and the second is the perception or feeling of being harassed. I believe that while the two elements are linked, it is possible for one to exist without the other. For example, person X may say or do something to person Y. It may be that X either intended to make Y feel harassed or did not. Similarly, Y may or may not feel harassed, regardless of whether X intended to do so (or not). I also understand that these issues are complicated by context. Thus, for instance, behaviour that is ‘appropriate’ between friends or equals can be ‘inappropriate’ if said interaction is between strangers, or between a subordinate and a superior.
In an accusation of sexual harassment, we can thus envisage three possible realities or situations:
Situation 1 – In this situation, there was an intent to harass by the accused.
Situation 2 – Here, there may have been no intent to harass – but the complainant nonetheless feels sexually harassed or exploited by the actions, statements or general behaviour of the accused.
Situation 3 – There is no sense that harassment took place, but the accusation is made nonetheless due to a malicious motivation.
The third situation can easily be described as a ‘false accusation’, just as the first is demonstrably a ‘true accusation’. The complication lies in characterising the second. The complainant in this case does feel harassed and regards their accusation to be true and valid. Whether the interaction is widely regarded as ‘sexual harassment’ or not is, to a large extent, immaterial and irrelevant. The point is that the harassed person genuinely believes that they have been victimised, which means that we cannot and should not assume malice on the complainant’s part in making the accusation of harassment.
It is important to note here that this issue becomes even more complicated in any professional setting or where a power dynamic exists. Once a belief of being harassed exists, it can be extremely difficult to determine whether or not future interactions are coloured by the act of sexual harassment.
Thus, in the light of Raya Sarkar’s or Christine Fair’s post, once a student is harassed by an academic supervisor, or believes they are, it can be almost impossible to determine whether subsequent actions by that academic person are further actions as part of a campaign to exploit and victimise, or merely the ‘interactions’ between teacher and student. This is basically when the interactions tend to be ‘negative’, which is not infrequent (as I understand it), since a person is unlikely to have a positive and fruitful relationship with a superior or colleague whom they believe had harassed them. This can be regardless of whether the accused ‘intended’ to harass or not. The reason I point out this difficulty is because it cannot be denied that people who have been sexually harassed are often further victimised and attacked by their persecutors and the power and institutional structure they inhabit.
It is in the context of these three potential situations that my question arises. And my question is simply this – how am I, as a man, expected to act if I am accused anonymously of having sexually harassed someone? At a broader level, the question stands true, irrespective of whether one knows the accuser or not. In my case, if I knew the person making the accusation, I would certainly apologise for any inadvertent action which may have caused someone to feel harassed.
The problem lies in engaging with an anonymous accusation. How should I respond to such a claim? In the case of an anonymous accusation, I have no way of knowing whether the accusation belongs to the second or third situation outlined above. Since I cannot know who the person making the accusation is, I have no way of knowing which actions of mine stand indicted, and whether or not the person genuinely feels harassed. This is especially true if the accusation is made on social media, where it can easily go viral and ruin my personal and professional reputation and standing in the community I have to survive in.
There is a reason for these fears of mine. While I have never fallen prey to sexual harassment and haven’t been accused of it either, I have been a victim of a generally false accusation. As part of a team effort in preparing for a major multi-stage competitive event, I was accused, after the preliminary qualifiers, of not pulling my weight in the team effort. Though I believed that I had contributed extensively to the team and even tried to say so, I was removed from the team. While many in the surrounding community had rallied around me, and had given me enormous support, the feelings of betrayal, anger and despair due to these false accusations lingered with me for a long while. In fact, these feelings still colour my interactions with friends and colleagues in some ways, though many years have passed ever since.
And it is these memories that motivate the questions I have. How do I engage with an anonymous accusation? I am mindful of the problems with hitting back at the accuser, or advocating that people be stopped from making accusations unless they can prove them and then be punished if they are unable to do so. These actions will make it harder for people to come forward with their narratives of being harassed – and will therefore make it far easier for a person in authority to suppress and even destroy the survivors, both professionally and perhaps even personally.
Given then that my hands are tied, how am I supposed to react? If I were a teacher or an academic person employed in an institution (which I could easily be at this moment, as I have finished my Masters), and my name were to somehow figure in this sort of controversy – how could or should I respond to the accusation? I would hesitate to call out or attack the accuser, since I would not know whether they genuinely feel harassed or whether their actions are malicious. On the other hand, if others came out in my support, it would likely be construed as proof of a process of ‘victim shaming’ or attempted ‘silencing of the accusation’.
What actions or options are available to the person accused which would allow them to show that they are innocent? I hold no brief for an individual who falls into the first situation I had outlined, since any person who intended to harass someone deserves all the legal penalties and social opprobrium due to them. However, if a person doesn’t believe that they have harassed someone, how are they to respond, without seeking to further victimise someone who may genuinely believe that they have been harassed? How do they tell if an accusation is true or not, especially if the general institutions which would judge such matters don’t come into play – given the anonymous and possibly viral nature of an accusation in public or on social media, and the general systematic and institutional apathy that exists in properly investigating or punishing those accused of harassment?
I do not pose these questions as an exercise in rhetoric. I am genuinely keen to know how a person should respond to an anonymous accusation of sexual harassment if they believe in their innocence. I can be reached on Facebook if someone wishes to help me answer this, or respond to my article.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.