The last few months have been difficult. Many famous men I admired and looked up to fell like dominoes in light of the ‘Me too’ movement, and thank goodness for that. But on Wednesday, something hit a little too close to home.
I have known Shamir Reuben, a well-known name in India’s up and coming spoken word poetry circles, as a friend. Additionally, I, and many others, have known the 24-year-old as one of the few ‘woke’ men, who speaks openly about empowerment, sensitivity, and gender equality.
So, when he was accused by a number of women on Facebook of sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment in some cases, it felt like the final nail in the coffin.
It began with a post by another poet, Sakina Bootwala, who recounted her own experience with him. A number of women began reaching out to her with their own interactions with Shamir – 50 screenshots in two Facebook posts where at least 20 women accused Shamir of coercing them into sexting and/or initiating unwanted physical contact such as kissing.
Some of the women who came forward with their stories were 16 or 17, when Shamir, an adult, allegedly sent them unsolicited sexual messages. He persistently asked the girls and women to send explicit pictures and sexts; he also sent them sexually graphic messages such as wanting to be their “first kiss” or “take their virginity”.
The compliments, the friendly banter and attempts to build an emotional connection to ultimately get sexually intimate with them seems typical to the behaviour of a groomer.
Others spoke about being solicited or sexually harassed when they were emotionally vulnerable, and despite their apparent discomfort. These advances were almost always accompanied by compliments, “I love you”, jokes or other things to make them feel comfortable, they said. The pattern was not difficult to spot.
After the initial shock and denial of it, I was compelled to face the uncomfortable truth about sexual violence and abuse that we don't acknowledge often enough: the perpetrators are among us.
Perpetrators don’t always come packaged as ‘bad guys’
The flaw with our perception of predators is this – they are not always monsters who treat you badly. They can be quintessential ‘nice guys’, impressively ‘woke.’
We are conditioned to see the perpetrator as a stranger who is not from our social class, a man who doesn’t smile unless it is sadistic, and looks ‘like a criminal.’ He’s the bogeyman, and his fear makes us blind to the perpetrators who walk in our midst.
What has also come to light in these series of events is that some of Shamir’s friends knew about his sexual misconduct and that he was soliciting minor girls. Their complicity ended only when he was called out by the other women.
It’s a rude reminder that even woke, seemingly practising feminist men, can perpetuate the same misogyny in their personal lives that they speak against. And it becomes even more important to call them out for it.
The perpetrator does not decide what is sexual harassment
Earlier this evening, Shamir responded to the allegations on Facebook. He apologised for the discomfort he caused to these women. He added, “Several things said are an incorrect portrayal of past events during 2013 - 2016, and the messages shared form part of longer conversations. […] Violence of any form against women should not be tolerated. But, I have not and never intended to harm or harass them in any way.”
The statement is a textbook example of the excuse most abusers use: That they did not ‘intend’ harm. Except, sexual harassment is not about what the perpetrator intends – it’s about how the victim feels. And the most overwhelming thing these women felt, apparent from the screenshots, was discomfort and coercion.
Women are taught from very early on they should be compliant. That they shouldn’t be rude. That they should learn to let a man down easy, and not bruise his ego. To feel guilty for refusing sex to a man they’re involved with, because a man has ‘needs’. And that they can ‘fix’ people because they are ‘natural’ caregivers and nurturers. Popular culture is full of these references to the ideal woman.
And when someone older, more influential is showering you with compliments and attention, it gets harder to say ‘no’. And it’s not because women would do anything for attention. It’s because we are conditioned to want to please men, especially those we have feelings for.
I also want to address another justification men use continually – that they were just being persistent.
So, it’s never a ‘no’ when we say it? It only means ‘no until you make me say yes’?
Consent is consent only when it is informed and enthusiastic, not coerced. No, we are not ‘teasing’ you, men, or playing ‘hard to get’.
Learning to trust our instincts
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this is just how pervasive it is for women to second guess themselves. We tend to do it more when the perpetrator is someone we know, or care about. In liberal circles especially, it is easy to be dismissed as prudish for not being down with casual sex, sexting and so on.
There is undeniably room for misunderstanding in interpersonal relationships. But passing off manipulation and predatory behaviour as a ‘misunderstanding’ is never okay.
And even though saying ‘no’ is important, it is not always easy, for ample reasons such as the ones mentioned above. Maybe the society needs to understand one of the reasons ‘why she didn’t just say no’ is because she wasn’t encouraged to embrace and express her discomfort.
Views expressed are author's own.