From TVF to High Spirits: How women are using social media to break silence on sexual violence

On Wednesday, a woman alleged that a Pune pub gave awards like 'best breasts', prompting a cascade of similar accusations by others.
From TVF to High Spirits: How women are using social media to break silence on sexual violence
From TVF to High Spirits: How women are using social media to break silence on sexual violence
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Months after an anonymous blogger called 'Indian Fowler' made serious allegations of sexual harassment against (now former) TVF CEO Arunabh Kumar on Medium, something similar has happened again. And just as in the TVF case, the allegation prompted many other women to share their own experiences with the man in question and his alleged unwanted sexual advances towards them, this time too, the claim has sparked off similar responses.

It started on Wednesday when a woman named Sheena Dabholkar claimed on Twitter that many women had told her that they had been sexually harassed at High Spirits, one of Pune's premier pubs. She alleged that women have been slut shamed, touched inappropriately, had their upskirt photos taken, all with the knowledge of the owner Khodu Irani.

Sheena added that people had even commented on her physical attributes like nipples and breasts, apart from her weight.

She also claimed that High Spirits has sexist ‘awards’ for titles like 'best breasts’. To this, another woman replied that there is apparently an award for the best butt as well.

The thread, which gained a lot of traction on Twitter, became a starting point for a number of other women to come out with similar allegations of being sexually harassed, or witnessing sexual harassment at the pub.

Sheena also said that most women who wrote to her about this requested anonymity because they were afraid of being further harassed.

Meanwhile, High Spirits has denied all the allegations. Speaking to Pune Mirror, Khodu called himself the victim and said he was deeply shocked by the allegations. “It appears that these lies are emanating from a single person, with an agenda, who appears to be motivated by the desire to tarnish the reputation of a bar that has an unblemished record of not having any issues like this,” he said.

While the authenticity of the allegations made my multiple people on social media continues to face scrutiny, what has emerged from this and many other cases in the past is the importance of the medium.

This is not the first time that alleged survivors of sexual harassment have taken to the online space to break their silence. The Harvey Weinstein scandal for instance, prompted many allegations against actor Hollywood Ben Affleck. While he apologized for groping TV presenter Hilarie Burton in 2003, it had a cascading effect of sorts when Hilarie replied to the tweet saying she didn’t forget.

And then more allegations came.

What is also common in all these instances is that these are all allegations made by multiple women against very powerful men. This harassment, as plenty of literature has revealed, is shielded by complicit colleagues and co-workers, who are either too afraid to speak out or choose to turn a blind eye.

At other times, their experiences are questioned even when they speak about them. The following tweets perhaps explain this best, and reveal just how normalised sexual harassment is.

Here, an Indian comedian has posted screenshots from a WhatsApp group of Indian comics discussing the High Spirits allegations. The thread shows how the interaction goes from denial to the victims were 'participating voluntarily'. In other words, they were 'asking for it'.

Anna North explains for Vox that when one woman comes forward with a sexual assault, it inspires a “domino effect” which allows other women to feel safe and speak up.

As we know, victims of sexual assault are often discouraged from reporting the incident for the fear of being humiliated or not believed, and also because they think they are alone. For instance, in April, a number of women from Egypt recounted personal stories of sexual harassment on Facebook and Twitter.

How did it start? An 18-year-old university graduate spoke out about her own experiences of being sexually harassed by men at different points in her life. Reacting to the overwhelming response from other women, she told CTV News, "I didn't know that there were so many others who went through this, I realized I wasn't alone.” The above campaign became a rallying point for Egyptian women to talk not only about harassment but also how easily the society justifies it.

Social media then, allows survivors of sexual harassment and/or assault to come out with their stories in a much more democratic space. And although they are vulnerable to even more pressure to remain silent (anonymous trolls, violent threats and so on), it also allows them to access support and validation perhaps in a way real life and closed circles do not. 

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