(Part 3 of a 3-part series in our online publication)
A bystander is a person who is present when an event takes place but isn’t directly involved. Bystanders might be present when sexual assault or abuse occurs—or they could witness the circumstances that led up to these crimes.
Talking about sexual harassment in terms of ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ alone takes the responsibility off the shoulders of the rest of the community. This is where the role of the bystander enters in ensuring an atmosphere free of molestation and harassment.
Role of the bystander in preventing sexual harassment
Bystanders can intervene and thwart/subdue the ongoing harassment before it aggravates to potentially dangerous levels. Experts suggest the following steps that a bystander could take to prevent a probable case of sexual harassment.Confronting the perpetrator
1. Often, bystanders may not find it safe to confront the perpetrator directly. In such cases, convey to the perpetrator that the victim is not comfortable indirectly. For example, by telling “That wasn’t funny!” or “Were you aware of how you came off in that conversation?” it will let the abuser know that you are observing.
2. Approach the harasser as a group. If you witness someone being molested on a bus or in a similar setting and you are afraid to speak out alone, ask the others around you to speak up as well.
3. Distract the abuser and give the victim a chance to escape. You can do this by dropping a heavy item, or giving the victim a phone call.
4. Delegate the task of speaking to the abuser to someone you trust. If it is a colleague, ask a trusted senior to warn them about their behaviour. If it’s a cousin, speak to a relative who can confront them.
Supporting the victim
1. When you are unsure if an incident was consensual or unwelcome, ask the person. Try asking “I noticed that happened. Are you OK with that?” If she/he confides that they were not comfortable, offer to help them by reporting to the authorities. Often, the victim is unsure or blame themselves for being in the situation. Your support will help them ascertain that they didn’t do anything wrong.
2. If your friend shares with you about repeat-ed instances of harassment, encourage them to collect evidence. Ask them to record calls, take videos and save text messages or emails which can incriminate the harasser.
3. Do not pressurise the victim to report. Reason with them what might be the best course of action. Do not take decisions for them. Offer moral support to help the victim stay mentally and emotionally strong and regain their sense of self-esteem.
A section of the survey was devoted to understanding the behaviour of students as bystanders of sexual harassment. This lets us know how actively the student community takes steps to prevent acts of sexual harassment.
If you experienced sexual misconduct and shared it with your friends/peers, how would they respond?
Nearly 60% of females and 50% of males believe that their friends would validate their experience and help them get information of any kind about coping with the experience. On the flip side, nearly 35% of females and 40% of males also believe that their friends will “Tell you that you could have done more to prevent this experience from occur-ring,” indicating that the trend of victim blaming does exist.
If you come to know that your friend is a harasser what would your response be?
A sizeable majority of both females (78%) and males (75%) believe that confronting the friend who is a harasser would be the correct way to deal with the situation. “Reach out to the victims” and “Report them to the authorities” are also some options chosen by more than a few surveyees. About 5% of males and 1% of females responded with “Do nothing about it”. The following comments are representative of the reasons given by them.
“Distance them and do nothing”
“I won’t reach out to the authorities, as I am afraid of being associated with them”
“…I might do nothing if the friend is very close”
If you were a witness to sexual harassment where you did not know the parties involved, how likely are you to intervene?
Most of the respondents answered in the range of 3 to 5, thus showing their intent to intervene and prevent sexual harassment.
Do you think that your actions might have ever been wrongly interpreted as sexual harassment?
26% of males and 5% of females responded with a yes. This calls our attention to the gaps in understanding what constitutes sexual harassment among both males and females. It is also important to understand that certain acts can fall in a “grey-area”. In such cases, instead of the intent of the perpetrator, the impact perceived by the victim is considered to gauge the seriousness of the act.
If you answered yes to the previous question, what have you done to remedy the situation?
Here are a few responses to the above question.“I have never been accused of harassment, but in hindsight, and witnessing the growing ‘me too’ culture around, even keeping a hand on a friend’s shoulder can be interpreted as sexual harassment so I don’t know where the line ends or begins”
“(When I was falsely accused of sexual harassment) I had a long discussion about consent with the concerned person and communicated to her that I felt that she had also been crossing boundaries. New boundaries have been set for both of us and things are okay now.”
Perception plays a huge role in making a survivor a survivor and a predator a predator. In our survey, students were asked what they thought were the perceptions of their fellow students on the following matters.
Having many romantic partners:
With the birth of this millennium, many European and American countries witnessed the transformation of polyamory and open relationships from hushed-up taboos to niche, yet welcome forms of relationships. However, the most common contributor towards people having multiple partners is infidelity. Cheating, as one may call it, is a known deterrent to a healthy, functioning relationship as it violates a partner’s sense of trust and acceptance of the axiomatic rules of a relationship. This violation is known to correlate to sexual jealousy and vindictive tendencies. The survey results were reflective of this – with 50.58% of the respondents thinking that having multiple romantic partners would be scorned at by campus residents. They also indicated that 25.54% of the respondents believed that NITT students would be in support of such relationships. A possible explanation to this is that the belief stemmed from personal experiences in which cheating happened to be circumstantial.
Telling stories about sexual experiences:
“When a man shares intimate details of his past sexual partners with you, he’s contributing to the objectification of women, and unless you tell him to stop, so are you,” says Cara Hoffman, an author and lecturer on anti-social masculinity and sexualized violence. This kind of braggadocio is toxic and often tarnishes the image of the sexual partner, especially in a setting such as India, where sex itself is still a taboo. 27.36% of the respondents felt that the campus perception is conducive for such instances to occur, whereas 35.8% equivocated their stance by saying that the campus is neutral.
Taking advantage of someone when they are intoxicated:
Inebriation or drunkenness is immediately seminal to blurring the lines of consent. Sometimes, doubts exist over the validity of given consent; at times, doubts exist on whether consent was even given. 65.83% surveyees think that the campus would strongly disapprove of a miscreant who crosses this line. However, on the flipside, intoxication is one of the most prevalent grounds for victim-blaming.
Influencing/curbing a partner’s social circles and behaviour:
In any relationship, it is known that the partners are individuals with dissimilar traits, preferences and circles. Often, people willingly change their lifestyle to accommodate their relationship. But it becomes borderline abuse when a partner dictates the lifestyle of his/her significant other. 67.16% of the respondents feel that such behaviour would be strongly condemned in our college. However, some justify it by labelling it as being protective or doing it for the betterment of the other.
Insulting or swearing at their dates:
Words are seldom merely words. Comments made in passing, intended as jokes, not meant to be taken seriously, sexual or non-sexual in nature, all contribute to the demoralization of the person on the receiving end. Verbal sexual harassment includes jokes, slurs, innuendos, name-calling etc. that are sexually suggestive. A healthy 67.83% believed that the campus wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour, whereas 13.43% of the surveyees felt that the campus would, on the contrary, be approving of it.
We asked the surveyees if they felt difficulty in interacting with members of the opposite sex. 33.7% responded that they did have difficulties, while 17.9% responded that it is difficult sometimes. This is a significant number that cannot be discounted. It would be a great stretch to assume that a tendency for sexual harassment stems from interactional difficulties, but at the same time, it can’t be completely disregarded either. A gender sensitization program or activities that teach and facilitate the interaction between members of the opposite sex would be a great platform to curtail such inhibitions.
In a report of National Family Health Survey in 2015 and 2016 conducted in India, the analysis concluded that nearly 99.1% of sexual harassment cases go unreported. Quite often, victims who have had any of the above experiences do not report it or feel the need to report it. This might be due to the following reasons:
Sexual violation often leads to the victim feeling undignified, which can ultimately manifest as a misplaced sense of shame. This ‘natural’ response can be attributed to the fact that in our society, the victim’s every move is scrutinized alongside those of the perpetrator.
Most victims going through this phase use phrases such as “It was all my fault”, “I was sending the wrong messages” etc. As human beings, we tend to believe that we have full control of our lives. But when a person is sexually harassed, this belief is shattered and this leads to a chain of emotions which ultimately culminates in extreme trauma.
This is a sort of coping mechanism for victims. Denial helps victims in creating a façade, which adversely affects their mental health. Victims going through this phase tell themselves things along the lines of “It wasn’t a big deal”, “I was just being flirted with”, etc.
This is especially true in a corporate/educational space. Victims often tend to think that reporting the incident might cause the culprit to brand the victim as a troublemaker, become an object of insult and humour, lose their credibility or in the worst case scenario, expelled out of the institution.
Lack of Awareness
Many of the victims are usually unaware of what all constitutes sexual harassment. Moreover, even when they face such experiences, they aren’t aware of the grievance redressal procedure. Finally, there are cases in which the victim doesn’t have an idea that he/she has been harassed.
We’re extremely grateful to all the surveyees for filling the survey with careful consideration, as this cover story would not be complete without an objective gauging of the campus mindset and student opinions on an issue as serious as sexual harassment. We hope the cover story, the survey results and analysis were as illuminating for the reader as it was for us.
Sexual harassment is not an easy topic to talk about, and most conversations on the topic do not delve into enough detail to be meaningful and constructive. While ideating about what questions we should include in the survey, we hoped to make it as detailed as possible, so as to not gloss over or leave out any aspect of the topic at hand. With that said, there might have been a few things that we might have missed out. Although we did try our best, we do acknowledge our limitations. We suggest one to read as much as possible on issues such as these from other sources as well, to understand the problem and gain new perspectives. Awareness is often the best step forward in such matters.
A few select comments on campus culture and sexual harassment
“There is a general lack of awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment among students. The fact that we come from different backgrounds complicates the issue further, as students often find it difficult to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The most important characteristic of sexual harassment is that such an act is unwelcome and not reciprocated.“
“Simple things – we have become so numb to feminist and sexist comments as a part of our daily conversations. Just like how my friends started pointing them out to me, we all need to point out to our peers that “hey, that’s a sexually slandering comment!”. Initially, people get defensive, but the truth is, these small, subtle hints and ‘jokes’ act as signals to our mind, constantly numbing us to certain obvious values. Not saying that this is the sole cause for sexual harassment, but this can make a lot of people unaware that simple comments they make are actually hurting their peers. Being the one person in a group to point this out to a group can be tough. But it needs to be done, and I think I’ll start there. With everyone, during any conversation. Because we’re at a stage where we can no longer justify a ‘joke’ made against the opposite sex.”
“To be honest, I don’t know what sexual harassment constitutes, other than the ones shown in news. I don’t know if my “normal” casual interaction is actual harassment. As a male, I’m constantly afraid of interacting with the opposite gender as I am afraid of being labelled a sexual offender, I’ll be ostracized completely. It would be great if we could have actual discussions with professionals regarding sexual harassment regarding what constitutes sexual harassment, what steps can be done to prevent, and what must be done in campus as a bystander, as an offender as well as a victim. These discussions may be kept during Orientation itself, and maybe every year in the odd semester.”
Responding to sexual harassment:
Tell the harasser to stop: Promptly let a person know that his or her behaviour makes you uncomfortable. Do not mince words – use precise language stating that you want the harassment to stop immediately.
Document the abuse: Write down what happened, when it occurred, the names of anyone who witnessed the harassment, and how it affected you. If you are mistreated on separate occasions, record every instance. Document the abuse as quickly as possible so details remain fresh in your mind
Consider confronting the harasser via a letter: In this letter, include a factual summary of what happened, how you felt and a straightforward request that the behaviour never occurs again. Keep a copy for your records; it can prove a powerful piece of evidence if you must ultimately involve authorities.
Report the harassment: University Grants Commission regulations describe the responsibilities of higher educational institutions in taking measures for the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. UGC Regulations are statutory in nature, and hence all universities and colleges are bound by it. These regulations require every college to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as the redressal mechanism to deal with matters of sexual harassment. The ICC at NIT Trichy can be reached at their helpline number 9486001150 or by emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org
Tell someone: It’s important to tell at least one other person about the harassment. It can help to talk about the incident with a trusted friend, family member, or faculty member. If you find it difficult to get past the abuse, look into counselling services. The college counsellor can be contacted at 9677096968 (Josephine)
Do not blame yourself: You did nothing wrong, and you are not to blame for the incident. The law is designed to protect you from harassment – anything less than full protection is not acceptable. As you pursue your options, stay firm in your conviction that you and other students at your school deserve to be safe and feel comfortable on campus.
NIT Trichy against Sexual Harassment:
The need for self-defense cannot be overemphasized in today’s world of upward crime graph and increasing sexual assault on women. To shed light on the importance of women’s safety and need to prepare themselves mentally and physically against harassment in any form, the ICC in association with Students’ Council organized a two-day self defence workshop by Franklin Joseph, CEO of Indian Institution of Special tactics and combat sciences, Bangalore on 17th and 18th August, 2019. He emphasised on the need to have a strong mind and sound personality to tackle real time situations since self defense is not a measure of physical strength rather a confluence of smart maneuvers and psycho-motor skills. The event was a huge success amongst the students and was attended by more than 500 girls, who particularly enjoyed Mr. Joseph’s ability to make the session fun and interactive and share stories and experiences without any inhibitions. NIT Trichy’s security staff, in association with the Orientation Team also conducted an awareness program for the first year girls regarding basic safety procedures they can follow to tackle assaulters inside and outside campus. They addressed the issues that girls face inside and outside campus and promised measures to resolve them. They also shared the contact numbers of the college security guards, the security officer, local police station and ambulance to reach out to someone in case of any emergency. The chief security officer also taught the students hacks and tips to tackle harassers, even when they are 1m away and urged them to stay alert and take precautions when they are travel-ling. This session was quite insightful for the first years and helped ward off their insecurities.
We, at Feeds, believe that honest and open-minded conversations can change the world for the better. Eliminating bias, prejudices and unformulated arguments constitute the foremost measures in encouraging all-encompassing conversations. Anonymity of sources inevitably adds onto the list, since exercising freedom of speech comes with unintended consequences from different sectors of the society. We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to the people who made this issue possible. We owe the completion of this issue to Tania Gupta, co-editor of Feeds 8.0, who spearheaded the whole cover story right from its inception, and ensured that the survey was made with painstaking detail. We are grateful to the faculty of humanities for their constant support during the ideation phase. We are also very grateful to Dr. Venkata Kirthiga and Dr. Tamil Selvi for their valuable inputs. As members of ICC, they shed light on the nature of cases that they’d handled in the past. Their insight was extremely helpful in framing the survey questions. This issue couldn’t have been completed without the constant help rendered by our faculty advisors, our guiding beacons: Dr. S. Mekala and Dr. K.N. Sheeba. We would also like to thank the former Dean – Student Welfare, Dr. Samson Mathew, our current Dean – Student Welfare, Dr. N. Kumaresan and our respected director, Dr. Mini Shaji Thomas for their unrelenting support.
Lastly, we thank you, the reader, for your feedback and valuable participation.
To read our special issue: https://issuu.com/feeds.nitt/docs/special_issue