Sexual harassment, molestation and assault happen because the perpetrators know that there are no consequences.

As Shanmuganathan is accused of molestation time to call out the dirty old men in our midstPhoto: Facebook/V Shanmuganathan
Voices Gender Violence Friday, January 27, 2017 - 13:15

The analogy of the ‘Missing Stair’ describes our affliction as a society succinctly.

Coined by blogger Cliff Pervocracy in 2012, ‘Missing Stair’ refers to a sexual predator whom everyone in a community knows about and ‘accommodates’, like a missing stair in a house that every learns to skip, and no one actually decides to fix. The letter by the Meghalaya Raj Bhavan staffers accusing Governor Shanmuganathan of molestation is a rare event of people coming together to identify and acknowledge the alleged Missing Stair.

Under most circumstances, we make excuses for the Missing Stair; we use coded language to ‘warn’ newcomers about him, but we never do the one thing that we should be doing - calling him out, and fixing the situation.

And more often than not, this missing stair is a dirty old man in our midst, who has considerable power - a patriarch in the family, a respected colleague at work, the editor of a magazine, the head of an esteemed organisation, a sitting judge, an IPS officer, the Governor of a state…

When accusations of harassment, molestation or sexual assault are made against them, one fine day, there is a whisper in the circles in the know. “I’ve always known,” someone would say. “He’s always been a sleazeball.”

This is never surprising, if we go beyond the popular, filmy understanding of sexual harassment - no, it’s not caused by a short skirt or ‘poor judgment’, it’s not caused by a one-time attraction to any one person, it’s not caused by the victim, no matter how many people would like to convince us otherwise.

Sexual assault and harassment happen because the perpetrators know that they have power and control in a situation. It happens because the predators know that there will be no consequences.

The reasons we give ourselves for never speaking out are many: he’s a man in power, so what if there are consequences for me? What if the victim does not like the fact that I intervened? What if I just read the situation wrongly, and he wasn’t actually doing anything wrong?

What tops the list of course is: why should I get involved? Why doesn’t someone else do it?

It’s easy to dismiss this as apathy, because really, what can you do about apathy? You can ask people to be more sensitive, more caring, more human etc, but unless you’re a spiritual guru in saffron or white, you’ll only be seen as a pretentious person.

What you can do something about though, is the bystander effect. Bystander effect is when people witness something in a place where other people are present - an accident, an instance of harassment on the street or the workplace - but don’t react because they believe someone else will do the right thing.

The trouble is, in many cases, everyone believes that someone else will do the right thing.

Read: Responding to gender violence: The Dos and Don’ts for a good bystander

The action of the Meghalaya Raj Bhavan staffers calling out the alleged sexual misconduct of a man with considerable power, holding an important office, is all the more of significance given how rarely it happens.

While saying nothing about any consensual sexual encounters that have been hinted at in the letter, what is really shocking is the alleged deliberate misuse of his office by Shanmuganathan to sexually harass women who are clearly younger than him, and clearly much lower in the hierarchy.

And the accusation that his secretary apparently ignored the complaints of harassment from the staff, although completely unacceptable, is not surprising. People in power get away with misconduct because those closest to them, cover for them.

Shanmuganathan’s is not an isolated case - in just the last few years, sexual harassment, assault and molestation charges have been filed against RK Pachauri, the man who received the Nobel Prize on behalf of the IPCC which he headed at that time, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, Justice Ganguly.

All of them are educated men in high offices - busting the comfortable ‘educated class’ myth that it’s only working class men who are perpetrators of gender violence.

All the alleged victims have been educated women of considerable privilege - busting the other myth, that if you have a degree and work in an air conditioned office, the very privilege of these spaces will insulate you from violence.

Unless we recognise this, and stop blaming ‘other men’ for all the gender violence in the country, the Missing Stair will continue to remain unfixed in plain sight.


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