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Taking the stigma out of sex crimes

Vaishna Roy
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TALKING ABOUT IT:It is not easy for victims of rape and sexual abuse to discuss the incident, but social and legal systems must make it easy for them. —PHOTO: AFP
TALKING ABOUT IT:It is not easy for victims of rape and sexual abuse to discuss the incident, but social and legal systems must make it easy for them. —PHOTO: AFP

As is inevitable, when a prominent case of rape or sexual assault dominates the mindscape of a society, a slew of collateral issues also comes to the fore. One that has raised its head this time has been the question of privacy. As with most news in today’s age, the Tarun Tejpal incident too was first broken by social media, and relentlessly pursued by it as well. Without in any way condoning social media for its notorious lack of proportion and good sense, and the fact that it allows an all-too-easy platform for trolls, fanatics and idiots, it must be acknowledged that it plays an incomparable role when an incident or announcement of importance needs to be disseminated quickly and effectively.

In the Tejpal case as well, within hours, significant emails pertaining to the crime had been published. As each mail came into the public domain, more details became known. One major stream of the online and offline discourse that emerged was the fear that publishing the gory details of the crime would harm the young woman who had been subjected to the assault. As a response to this, within hours, the email that gave the most detailed rendering of the crime, written by the employee to Shoma Chaudhury, Managing Editor of Tehelka , was removed from the public space. It was an admirable, and possibly the first, instance of self-censorship by what has hitherto been a rampantly uncontrolled social media.

Reporting on rape

Interestingly, however, the incident itself raises certain vital questions on how rape and sexual assault must be reported and discussed in online and offline media. One of the common assumptions made about rape reporting is that the details somehow further shame the victim, bringing her and her family into perpetual disrepute. It is argued, and justifiably, that the girl’s future, her marriage, and her career are all jeopardised by the episode. The tendency therefore — and it is motivated by the best of intentions — is to use disinfected language and generic phrases to describe an incident that has perhaps been frighteningly toxic in reality. The disadvantage of this approach is that too many people then tend to underplay the episode.

Take the Tejpal case. The first emails through which everyone came to know of the incident was his mail to Ms Chaudhury recusing himself, and her mail to her colleagues explaining the recusal. The phrases used included “bad lapse of judgment,” “misconduct,” and “unfortunate incident.” Sadly, it meant that the initial reaction to the incident was it was some kind of consensual episode gone wrong. When the lyricist Javed Akhtar got harshly criticised on social media for appreciating Mr. Tejpal’s recusal, he posted this apology: “I didn’t know the gruesome details; thought it was drunken misbehaviour at a party.”

This was equally true of most people’s first assumptions. Many people, both men and women, initially made the easy assumption that the episode involved two drunken adults, both partially to blame. It took subsequent mails with the full details to actually give people a sense of how horribly wrong Mr. Tejpal’s behaviour had been. Of course, what was stupid and unforgivable was the carelessness with which the sharing was done. The reporter’s real name, the details about her father, Mr. Tejpal’s daughter’s name, the hotel’s name — all the facts that can help identify the victim — could have easily been suppressed from the public domain without concealing the crime itself.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. And that’s why social media laid itself wide open to the charge of prurience. Without dismissing the fact that there is an inordinately large number of people out there driven only by curiosity, it would be doing a great deal of disservice to the budding sense of outrage among ordinary Indians if we accused them all of prurience. In this and many other instances, they have acted as conscience builders and prodded the rest of society into thinking right.

Victim’s double burden

Rape has always been seen as a stigma that only the woman victim has to bear. It is vital to change this perspective. Thus, while lauding the reporter’s courage to complain, it is equally important to laud her fearless decision to document every detail. The fear of being disgraced is one of the biggest reasons sexual crimes go largely unreported by women. It must be unequivocally established that the only shame in these incidents belongs to the perpetrator, and that the victim can continue to walk tall in society. The overwhelming need to “hush it up,” to take on the onus of the “disgrace,” puts a huge double burden on the victim. Having been subjected to some of the most appalling abuse, the inability further to talk about it turns the balance hugely in the perpetrator’s favour. It makes it fantastically easy for him to get away with lies and half-truths, with justifications, insinuations and character assassination.

It is not easy for victims of rape and sexual abuse to discuss the incident, but social and legal systems must make it easy for them. It is here that impartial and clinical reporting, whether in online or offline media, becomes of paramount importance. It must be established that rape is just another cowardly and contemptible crime such as armed assault. When a house-owner is bludgeoned on the head and robbed, the narrative serves only to confirm the seriousness of the crime and the culpability of the burglar. Such a narrative must be established for rape as well; where shame for the victim is removed from the equation and what’s left are only the physical details themselves, for better or for worse. Only then will attitudes towards the victim become far less judgmental and only then will this convenient veil of secrecy be removed. Under its cover, too many men in significant positions of power are able to get away with impunity. Rape crimes, like bacteria, are best aired. Sunlight kills them.

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in

Rape has always been seen as a stigma that only the woman victim has to bear. It is vital to change this perspective


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