by Yukti Saumya (ASP’22)
a part of The Edict’s Cultures of Harassment series
The onset of the monsoon semester brings to a close a summer that will remain etched in our collective memory for years to come. The third wave of Ashoka’s #MeToo movement was different from its predecessors for one significant reason-this time, perpetrators were named and the impact was monumental.
Soon after, when the wave of stories began to ebb, a dramatic series of events culminated in the fall of the Student Government. No stone has been left unturned in the effort to explain their abrupt resignations. The student body analysed every variable to find the faultlines, from Swiss PR to their division of work. However, the immediate trigger for the resignations remained sidelined from this analysis: the allegations of harassment against a former student representative, and his consequent retaliation against the student representative of CASH.
Conversation about sexual harassment at Ashoka has traditionally been reserved for whisper networks and CASH hearings, but it is imperative to bring back the student body’s focus to the problem at the heart of the Student Government’s collapse. For me, the events of June reiterated the dangers of being a CASH representative in a university with a harrowing problem and no tangible solutions.
The position of a CASH representative is one that is difficult to navigate. While errors in judgement could harm survivors, even doing the job right puts women and queer representatives at risk. Over the course of my term, approximately thirty students reached out to me to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment. Counting victims instead of perpetrators when talking about sexual harassment obscures the nature of the violence. So to rephrase, over the course of my term, I’ve been told about approximately thirty cis men (and two or three perpetrators of other gender identities) who have harassed or assaulted students. Depending upon the degree to which they faced social or judicial consequences, approximately thirty cis men who have harassed or assaulted people have known that their victims confided in me.
The allegations against the former student representative were first brought to my attention by the survivor in March. This was ordinary. Although I resisted this in the initial months of my term, I was often treated as a first respondent. By this point in my term, I had developed a kind of protocol for these conversations. I would offer my support, lay out the victim’s options as I saw them, and answer any questions they had about CASH procedures.
Such a conversation was par for the course. I did not think about it too much since it was merely one of the several accusations of this nature that I had been told about. However, I also followed a protocol to protect myself. I would try my best to feign normalcy around the perpetrators I was told about lest they discover that their victims had confided in me. I would keep my camera off during defendants’ hearings, the naive optimism that hiding my face would provide me with some degree of protection from them. I would keep my social media private, I would keep my friends close, I would keep my conversations confidential. I would say I did it to keep the victims safe from retaliation of the exact sort that the now-infamous former student representative indulged in, and to ensure that I did not compromise their agency with regards to telling their own story. But that was only partially true. I did it because I’m a woman.
On the 8th of June, the former student representative spearheaded a campaign of harassment against me. It followed me for the next month. My greatest takeaway from this experience was that it took so little for it to happen. I did everything to protect myself. And yet, he still retaliated against me. My term was entirely online, which largely protected me from physical retaliation. However, the motivation behind any form of retaliation, the entitlement behind the act, is consistent, regardless of its form. The former student representative felt justified in his actions. How dare someone confide in me about him? How dare I believe her? How dare I not adamantly defend his right to “grow” from the harm he caused me, as if the women he hurts are merely stepping stones in his journey of self-growth.
It is imperative to realize the frightening implications of retaliation. The University of Arizona’s policy against sexual misconduct defines ‘Title IX Retaliation’ as materially adverse action that is taken through intimidation, threats, coercion, harassment, or discrimination against an individual in order to interfere with judicial procedures or to take revenge against an individual for participating in these procedures. Dartmouth College considers sexual misconduct, abuse of power, and retaliation to fall under ‘Prohibited Conduct,’ the same kind of sanctions applying to each transgression. This makes sense. Retaliation displays the willingness to cause harm to protected individuals to ensure their silence. Fear of retaliation is probably the strongest reason behind survivors staying silent and not reporting cases. The fear of retaliation is also what makes it so dangerous for people to work on issues of abuse and violence.
Any form of retaliation, even if it is not physical, cannot be examined in isolation from the structural violence that survivors—particularly women and queer survivors—face. Millions of women routinely drop out of educational institutions, compromise on their careers, and face violence from their families when they speak up about sexual misconduct. There is no word for this phenomenon, although its shadow has loomed over our lives for centuries. At a university with a statistic of 1 in every 4 students facing harassment, countless people must have been forced to compromise on their education, their careers, and the quality of their lives as a result of sexual misconduct. Yet, ‘cancel culture,’ the term thrown around when perpetrators face the hint of a consequence for their actions, dominates the conversation about sexual misconduct at Ashoka.
It was disingenuous when the former SG member—alongside those who came out to support him—continued to lay emphasis on ‘cancel culture.’ The narratives about coerced resignations and the fear of consequences, along with the series of abusive actions undertaken by the friends of the former student representative, succeeded in completely derailing the conversation about retaliation and student safety. The same people who insisted that due process was the necessary alternative to call-out posts did not see the irony in simultaneously harassing a member of CASH. They chose to ignore the horrors of the retaliation they were participating in, while leaving no room for conversation about it.
What has left the deepest scar is Ashoka was supposed to be a safe haven for so many people. Graduating students departed with a faltering feeling of security. It is fair to say that we still don’t know the exact events that prompted the resignation of so many students. But from the little that is clear to us now, there are important lessons to be learned for students in positions of power.
First, about being conscious of their social capital. When students with immense social capital and privilege stand against people who have caused sexual harm, as the same members of the Student Government previously had, they ensure that survivors don’t feel isolated. But when they stand with the people who have caused sexual harm, they’re often blind to the impact of their social capital and class and caste background.
Second, retaliation is a community problem. It actively counters the creation of a harm-averse student community. While people who have caused sexual harm still require social support, it cannot come at the cost of re-victimizing their victims. Choosing whether to stay friends with someone who has caused sexual harm is a personal decision, but when this support is vocal, public, and actively harming survivors, there are serious ramifications. We should reflect upon when and how we take up space.
Third, being called out for something is painful. Having your friends called out for something feels terrible. But it is important for a harm-averse community to acknowledge the impact of the perpetrator’s actions, support survivors, and centre the feelings of those who have been harmed. While former student representatives and their friends were entitled to their feelings, perhaps they should have felt them somewhere their WiFi didn’t reach.