Last week’s column was spurred by reactions to a potentially false sexual harassment allegation, but did not delve into the catalyst for the same: (potentially) false allegations. Over the past two years, with more women than ever sharing their experiences of harassment and assault, the question of veracity has come up repeatedly. It’s a fair one. But it’s also a good-faith practice to acknowledge that very few people stand to gain from such fabrications. Outliers (or plain liars, if you prefer) who do benefit are outnumbered by those who risk, and face, consequences for telling the truth. We can objectively accept that a tiny percentage of fraudulent cases exist, but that they should not cancel out the rest. We can also attempt to talk about what falseness means.
Firstly, there’s a difference between potentially false and incomplete, and the latter is often tarred with the same brush as the former. An incomplete story can have complicated factors, like: being in love with the perpetrator, being pressured by sources other than the perpetrator (like their “cool” friends) to go along with a situation, and so on. It can be difficult to respect people who distance themselves from their earlier allegations, especially if they’ve made it challenging for others to come forward afterwards in the same environment. But our private character judgements should not cloud principled stands.
In certain uncomfortable situations, wherein I did not have a good intuitive reading of the accuser or their desired outcomes, I’ve found it possible to consider the spirit of what was being said, if not the letter. This has been true in cases in which an unreliable narrator blew the lid open on a well-connected and gregarious accused, who had long been protected. What we can believe then is not the speaker’s testimony as much as the many crusted layers of silence, denial and complicity that allowed the perpetrator to carry on as they had. Within these layers are the stories we’d quietly known all along, always whispered or implied, as well as our own secrets – such as how prided ourselves on being street-smart enough to escape, or how we had experienced trouble too, but mollified the situation, or how much we liked the alleged perpetrator.
A series of particularly gruesome rapes and murders were reported in India last week, and some will wonder why I’m still writing about sexual harassment when “more serious crimes” are happening. But it’s an obfuscation to place crimes on a continuum of violence without acknowledging how a continuum functions, how actions increase in violence the more we allow leeway for what we perceive as minor infractions. Ribald jokes in the office aren’t on the same scale of egregiousness as assault, but both are wrong. We must see how they are related: how being okay with one wrong leads to the next worse thing being possible, and then the next worse, until… The webcomic Sanitary Panels said it best with a cogent new take. “This is horrific! Why don’t women talk about sexual violence more?” says a stick figure holding a newspaper. “We do. But you don’t believe us if we’re alive…” responds the other.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.