Let’s Not Derail the Conversation Around Sexual Harassment
We must recognise a significant party controlling the narrative when such incidents unfold on social media are the ‘first responders’ i.e. ourselves.
We must recognise a significant party controlling the narrative when such incidents unfold on social media are the ‘first responders’ i.e. ourselves.(Photo Courtesy: Liju Joseph/The Quint)

Let’s Not Derail the Conversation Around Sexual Harassment

Over the last two weeks, conversation surrounding sexual harassment surged across the world following allegations against prominent men of power. Multiple women spoke out against Harvey Weinstein while, much closer to home, Khodu Irani – owner of a popular club in Pune – was accused of harassment by multiple patrons and employees. And once again our homepages were flooded with articles about consent, harassment, misogyny, and everything in between.

While this is usually the case in the immediate aftermath of any such allegation that claims our attention, this time around the “feminist fad” seems unlikely to die out.

WE, the First Responders

The discourse surrounding harassment in India has progressed steeply since the first allegation against Khodu Irani was made. Acknowledging that harassment can exist and possibly thrive even amongst a group of elite, educated individuals was long overdue.

But many characters contributed to the progress of the discourse — a viral international movement against sexual harassment, celebrity endorsement of the right to speak up, a victim (Sheena Dabholkar) unwilling to give up the fight, and an inadequate response from the accused perpetrator sufficient to keep us enraged.

We cannot expect that such a combination of factors will line up to take the conversation forward each time a sexual allegation makes news

Therefore we must recognise that one of the most significant parties controlling the narrative when such incidents unfold on social media are the ‘first responders’ i.e. ourselves.

We’ve seen this time and time again where a victim calling out her perpetrator faces malicious threats to her safety, questions on her intentions, and of course of her character (‘Tinder’ Aunty, anyone?).

Mallika Dua playing the Tinder Aunty character in the AIB video, ‘If Apps Were People’.
Mallika Dua playing the Tinder Aunty character in the AIB video, ‘If Apps Were People’.
(Photo Courtesy: AIB/IfAppsWerePeople)

Rallying Behind the Accused

It makes little sense that people speak out against the alleged victim in such generously subjective and emotional ways, considering the fact that the victim is probably going to be proven right (going by statistics). We seem to forget that in our country, for any person of any gender identity, speaking out about being sexually violated is no easy feat.

Past the trauma that follows her around, speaking-up means her fear has finally been overstepped by some version of courage. Harassment can only exist because of the power gap that exists between the harasser and harassed, and the fear that it breeds. For this reason the argument Why Now shouldn’t have to be gratified with a response anymore.

So when we lash out at the victim and their allegation because we personally know and/or support the accused or what they represent, or just don’t believe the victim, we inadvertently increase the power gap between victim and perpetrator. In doing so, we might disincentivise the victim and others from filing a formal complaint, or from speaking up again.

Shouldn’t we then feel responsible for our response even if we disagree with the victim? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves why supporting the accused becomes an attack on the victim?

These often-baseless responses ranging from blind-faith in the accused to extrapolation of one’s personal experiences are only sheepishly taken down if or when more women add their own allegations, because apparently an allegation is only legitimized if there are many in number.

Derailing the Discourse

What if there was only one victim? And what if the cutoff is passed? Shouldn’t we then feel responsible for the potentially derailing stance we earlier took? Is it sufficient to delete our comments and pretend we never had a stance at all? Or should we publicly hold ourselves accountable for the unfair tarnishing remarks, and pledge to not be so dismissive in the future?

If we don’t want the progress of discourse to be derailed by our responses we must introspect and evaluate the way we construct them. To begin with, regardless of the equation we share with the accused, we must refrain from personally attacking the victim. We bring no credibility as positive- character- witnesses for the accused if we respond by tarnishing the reputation of the alleged victim.

Secondly, our primary defense of the accused cannot be an extrapolation of our own experiences. While on an emotional level this seems like a rational response, the experiences one has are dependent on the equation they share with the accused where something that might seem positive to us might cross someone else’s line.

Finally, before posting a response, we must check our privilege. Just because you are a woman who had positive experiences at High Spirits, does not mean that you can speak for all other women. As a male, the stakes for checking your privilege and not derailing conversations are even higher.



Khodu Irani and High Spirits is the Millgram prison experiment and Stockholm syndrome rolled into one.
Khodu Irani and High Spirits is the Millgram prison experiment and Stockholm syndrome rolled into one.
(Photo: High Spirits/Facebook/The Quint)

Leading the Charge

For all us feminists who want to see this movement thrive, it's time we recognise that the way we respond, especially when allegations involve our own, is incredibly important. Lucky for us there are many shining examples leading the way. Sheena, the first woman to accuse Khodu Irani of harassment, and her unabashed and continued attack on the culture that allowed her harassment is largely why this particular conversation shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.

All comedians and musicians who stood with Sheena, and boycotted the venue even before other allegations came out need to be applauded. So does Mallika Dua for shutting-down a derailed conversation and writing about normalisation of sexism in the most relatable way. People like Shariq Rafeek who made a point of publicly acknowledging their past sexist behavior (the likes of which most of us men have been guilty of) are to be made into positive examples. All the men and women who joined the #metoo campaign; and finally, all the victims around the world who spoke out against their perpetrators, without their courage this movement would fall flat.

(Karan Singhal and Nisha Vernekar work as researchers at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad where they work on issues related to gender and education. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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