Features Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
Ragamalika Karthikeyanv | The News Minute | January 10, 2015 | 07.20 pm IST “I got sexually harassed by a man. I’m a man,” posted a young engineering student on Reddit last week, as he described how a stranger molested him on a Delhi bus. Pavan* was approached by a man who seemingly just wanted to make small talk, but soon groped him as he was trying to get off the bus. Shocked and confused, Pavan tried to get away as soon as he could from the situation. In his post , twenty-year-old Pavan writes, "I was shocked at first, I at first thought this was a mistake since nobody does that." But when the reality of what happened to him hit home, he decided to take to the Internet anonymously in search of some answers. "You simply can't share these incidents with your identity open in the field," says Pavan. Considering the huge silence around issues of sexual crimes against men, Pavan’s reaction isn’t surprising.  While today, there is more awareness about sexual crimes against women – who are encouraged, at least by some sections of society, to report these instances – in the case of men, they are just expected to handle it on their own.  One Redditor describes an incident a few years back on a train where a man molested his friend, who was in a different compartment. “He was really shocked and he came running to us almost in tears,” writes Sameer*, who, along with his friends then proceeded to beat up the offender. Today, he’s not proud of their reaction, he says, and might have dealt with it differently. But the chances of them having reported the case to anyone, he says, are still negligible. “As a man you should try to file a police report of sexual harassment - if it was by a woman you'll be called lucky, if it was a man you'll be called a pussy,” says Sameer. But as traumatising as an incident of molestation is for any person – man, woman, or transgender – under Indian law, Pavan’s case, apparently, does not merit justice. Most laws on sexual offences in India are not gender neutral; therefore, anyone who is not a woman cannot seek legal recourse in cases of sexual harassment (on the street, at the workplace, at home) or molestation. The controversial Section 377 of IPC can be used in case of sexual assault – but not because it recognizes the issues at hand. Section 377 does not look at consent as a factor at all, and criminalises any and all ‘unnatural’ sexual activity. Independent researchers working on Section 377 find that the law is rarely used with respect to adult men. One researcher studied 99 cases filed under Section 377 between 1884 and 2010. “These are all cases from the high courts and the Supreme Court and the vast majority of them are judgments, sentencing and appeals related to sexual assaults on children, often boys,” says Dr Jyoti Puri, Professor of Sociology at Simmons College of Arts and Science, who is working on a book manuscript on decriminalising homosexuality in India. “To get a better sense of how Section 377 actually functions before it shows up in the higher courts, I collected sixty-six FIRs from four police districts in Delhi. Again, the bulk of them are complaints related to sexual assaults on children, often boys but also little girls. Out of the sixty-six FIRs, only four were related to cases involving adult men,” she explains. While the lack of usable legal options has serious implications for straight men who might face sexual crimes, more importantly, the queer community is left with the short end of the stick for multiple reasons. “Male-on-male sexual assault is very often called ‘gay rape’ – which fails to take into account that neither the victim, nor the perpetrator is necessarily gay in such cases,” says Dr L Ramakrishnan, the Country Director of Programs and Research at SAATHII. In fact, several studies show that most perpetrators of male-on-male sexual violence identify as straight. Studies also say that men who are perceived to be weak or effeminate are more at risk to be victims. “Just like sex crimes against women, sex crimes against men are also more about dominance and assertion of power, and not about sexual desire,” says Dr Ramakrishnan.But the issue is much more complex than a question of legal rights. Sexual crimes against a man are rarely reported because they are seen as an affront to his masculinity, as Dr Ramakrishnan explains. “A man who faces any kind of sexual crime is ‘suspected’ of homosexuality – there is a lot of victim blaming in these cases. And because there is so much stigma associated with homosexuality in our society, reporting in these cases becomes very difficult,” he says. In dealing with the issues, several questions need to be answered. Firstly, should the laws be made gender neutral for both the victims as well as perpetrators? In early 2013, the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance promulgated following the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder made sexual crimes gender neutral. But following strong opposition from women’s rights activists, the subsequent law passed by Parliament went back to explicitly mentioning that only men can be perpetrators and women, victims. The main argument of those who opposed gender neutrality in this case was twofold: first, that women face disproportionally more sexual violence than men. Secondly, they feared that making the perpetrator gender neutral would lead to false cases against women who file rape cases, by the very men who are accused of raping them. “In a society where there is so much gender imbalance, gender neutrality doesn’t make much sense,” says Legal Scholar and women’s rights activist, Flavia Agnes. “Understanding the context is very important. What women face in India is very different from what men face, and in the case of sexual crimes, gender neutrality will only lead to false allegations against women by men. Specifically though, the issues faced by gay men, transgenders and the queer community as a whole need to be dealt with, but not by making laws gender neutral. We need to have separate laws to deal with the issue, just like we have separate laws to deal with sexual abuse and assault of children,” she says. While the debate on whether making laws gender neutral will dilute them for women needs to be settled – preferably with policy decisions that are informed by detailed studies on the issue – the bigger question is one of a shift in mindset.  How do we ensure that, even if the laws are made gender neutral, or new laws are brought in, there are users for such laws? How do we make it okay for vulnerability to be a part of masculinity, so that men who are affected can seek justice and closure? How do we go about ensuring, as a society, that we don’t dismiss stories of sexual harassment/assault of men, and start recognizing the issue as a first step? As more and more stories emerge of sexual violence against men, like this one, we need to start breaking the silence around the issue to find any solutions. Tweet Follow @thenewsminute

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