This is part 2 of a series analysing issues around sexual harassment on campus
By Devika Goswami, UG 22
Content warning – The following article contains mentions of sexual harassment
A significant part of Ashoka’s struggle with sexual harassment comes from a pervasive culture that enables it. Granted we are not on campus right now, and most likely won’t be for a while, but that shouldn’t put a stop to this conversation. We explored the pitfalls of CASH in the first part of this series, and while the redressal body plays a role in the culture that lets SH play out—there are still other overlooked players.
Exploitation and Abuse of Power
Those who came out with their stories during Me Too Ashoka recounted abuse of power. For instance: exploitative versions of senior-junior relations. Incidences of seniors inviting freshmen over, on the pretense of others also being there. Scenarios like this also often involve alcohol or other substances. Not every such relationship should be called under fire, but those that cross boundaries of established consent should.
The age-gap and the illusion of social capital at stake on its own can create undue pressure for a freshman. Add to that any substance that might blur lines of consent, or if there’s coercion—the situation goes from bad to worse. Sure, this takes place at most colleges but why did we have accused students on freshmen whatsapp groups? How were these students permitted to become points of contact? What we needed then was a much stricter screening process. It’s not just that one time, but this can easily manifest within clubs or the SG. We have a culture that lets unacceptable things like this slip.
Who is Most Likely to be an Aggressor, and Why?
This begs the question of who really tends to be an aggressor. From anecdotal evidence, it appears that for Ashoka and college campuses generally: the aggressor is usually someone that the survivor knew. This person can range from a romantic partner, a friend, faculty member or a distant acquaintance. Whatever the relationship is, it can make warning signs and the warranted reaction tougher to navigate.
The aggressor can easily threaten against a student reporting an incident. This ties into the CASH confidentiality clause and how it may be misused to silence the complainant, to then possibly gaslight them. Part of this culture hinges on the knowledge that most incidents of harassment go unreported since the complainant has so much to lose: whether they’d be believed, admonished, even blamed or how they’d be seen, the rumours, the mental strain, and just the sheer time and energy.
To add: a certain *city* boys’ group floated to the surface with its group chat demeaning and objectifying women around campus. Before it was all over the Facebook thread, it was so normalised that many students already knew of it. If abject mindsets like this exist on campus in groups, then there’s an insidious culture at play: the same one that enables sexual assault outside of campus. It’s easy to say: call people like this out, but understandably there’s an element of fear. It’s when we back individuals as a community, that we can give them the courage to come forward.
An Institution Disengaged at Best, and Ignorant at Worst
There’s a greater culture of turning a blind eye towards sexual harassment, perpetuated by the VC and the admin. While we were told that “no facet was left unexamined” in Ashoka’s internal inquiry of the Baruah case, we were never shown this. The fact that he was found guilty of manipulative consent and ‘patriarchal abuse of power’ at JNU wasn’t even addressed. If we know he was tried for the vaguely articulated “infractions not related to sexual harassment” then is it asking too much to ensure that he doesn’t take mandatory courses, and at least isn’t assigned as a mentor to freshmen? All this does is create a culture that makes it seem okay to abuse power.
Is Prevention Possible?
This is not to say education on consent or the threat of punitive measures do not work on potential aggressors, it’s just hard to tell if they really prevent assault. Flip the Script is a 12 hour sexual assault resistance program for college women. It can first sound like victim-blaming propaganda, but it actively recognises that it’s never the victim’s fault. The idea is to empower college women. The program reduced the incidence of attempted rape: 3.4% for the enrolled group vs. 9.3% in the control group. This is not without its problems as it’s currently not inclusive of other genders. Even so, it’s an idea to consider—at least in an attempt to reevaluate our current practices.
While it’s easy to get bogged down by this culture: it’s just as easy to not turn our backs to it. The SG and the CASH Policy Research Team recently floated a survey on the sexual harassment climate at Ashoka, which was a step in the right direction. Whether it’s by educating yourself, supporting a survivor, asking for help, calling an aggressor out, vying for stricter screening or just demanding transparency from the institution: there’s much to be done.
Featured image : ‘Assessing accountability in campus cases of sexual harassment’ by Sharon Inkelas, from https://www.dailycal.org/2019/03/01/assessing-accountability-in-campus-cases-of-sexual-harassment/