Sex no bar

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By Women, beware - the government is introducing a new law that will take women who sexually harass men to task, warns Reena Martins Additional reporting by Sonia Sarkar in New Delhi
  • Published 21.03.10

They were buddies at the call centre they worked in. Rohit and Shalini would often party together or go out for a drink as a twosome. But gradually, Rohit started feeling uncomfortable. It seemed that Shalini had other thoughts about their platonic relationship.

One day, Shalini — who is married and has a nine-year-old son — moved to the desk right next to Rohit. Rohit, who is also married, would find her gazing at him between calls. She would brush against him when she passed by.

“Even now, she makes no bones about wanting to sleep with me; she says she’ll book a hotel for the occasion if I agree,” says Rohit, adding that the struggle to stay away from Shalini is taking its toll on him. It worries him that at the call centre in Malad, the two are the daily staple of office gossip.

So far, the story hasn’t ended with an ugly bottom line. But if the relationship sours and one of them decides to press charges of sexual assault or harassment, all hell could break loose. But Rohit feels he can’t make an official complaint about Shalini for he believes that will end up embarrassing them both.

“It is more difficult for a man to report or prove that he is being sexually exploited by a woman. If he does, his credibility is at stake. We are conditioned to believe that women cannot sexually abuse,” says Anjali Gopalan, executive director of the Delhi-based Naz Foundation. “But it is not outside the realm of possibility that women sexually exploit men,” adds Gopalan.

As of now, the law backs Shalini. But if the controversial Sexual Offences (Special Courts) Bill, 2010, introduced in Parliament last week, gets a nod, a woman in her position could land in a right legal mess.

The Bill, which is touted as being gender neutral, proposes the introduction of a new section — 376 (E) — to the Indian Penal Code, 1860, on unlawful sexual acts. “Whoever touches directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or with an object, any part of the body of another person (not being the spouse of such person), with sexual intent and without the consent of such other person, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both,” it says.

The Bill does not specify the sex of the victim. So in effect a man can accuse a woman — or another man — of sexual abuse. But ironically, the Bill has its seeds in the 172nd report of the Law Commission of India, and recommendations drafted by women’s groups around the country, spearheaded by the National Commission for Women (NCW).

When women’s groups lobbied for a stronger law they did not have gender neutrality in mind. They merely wanted to tighten laws on sexual assault. Men who touched women with sexual intent and without consent had to be punished, they said.

“As women’s groups we are opposed to blanket neutrality. We believe that sexual assault is a gender-related crime and hence the assault can only happen between two persons who have different gender power in society,” says Chayanika Shah, an activist of the Forum Against Oppression of Women.

Shah acknowledges that it’s not just women who are sexually assaulted. “But we would like to retain this understanding of sexual assault in the law. If a man is being assaulted by a woman he can file a complaint under a general assault law,” she says.

But if the government has its way, the word rape is soon going to be gender neutral. The change proposed follows a government move last year to decriminalise homosexuality. Soon, men can legally have sex with other men, if the Supreme Court gives its nod. And once it is legal, it implies that there can be illegal acts of homosexuality as well. And that is the reason, a government officer explains, why rape is no longer going to be an assault merely against women.

Some would argue that a woman is incapable of sexually raping a man.The National Crime Research Bureau has no statistics to prove otherwise. But voices of dissent do sometimes make themselves heard. Last year, the Save India Family Foundation, a Delhi-based non governmental organisation, was approached by 10 men who complained of being sexually harassed by women.

The amendments proposed by the government underline the point that sexual harassment has no gender either. Indeed, with more and more women joining the work force, there has been a rise in women harassing men. While the number of men who sexually harass women is still several times higher than women who abuse men, complaints from men are no longer as rare as they were even five years ago.

Mahesh, who works at a top information technology firm in Chennai, is one such victim. He says he almost took to his heels when a manager in his company, a woman in her early forties, asked him to spend the night with her after he had driven her home from office. “As I was parking her car, she went in and changed into a low-cut blouse,” says Mahesh.

The stage had been set a few weeks earlier, when she asked Mahesh on their way back home in the office cab on two occasions to massage her hurting back. Mahesh obliged, but says he felt used. Yet, even though he feels resentful, he doesn’t dare to complain to the management about her, fearing that he would be ridiculed or even lose his job.

“A man would be wary of reporting sexual abuse by a woman, for fear of being labelled a sissy,” says Jasmir Thakur, founder and secretary of the Samabhavana Society, a gay rights group in Mumbai.

Samir, 30, would agree. At a party, when a woman made a pass at him, started pawing him and invited him home for the night, Samir felt uncomfortable, but ignored her behaviour. “I pretended not to get the hint,” he says.

But that’s not all. Men these days complain of another kind of harassment — by other men. Avinash was almost assaulted by a man in a Mumbai local. Stories of men feeling up other men in busy trains are widespread in the city. “I threatened to beat him up,” he says.

Soon, people like Avinash won’t need to take the law in their own hands. Mahesh may be able to take the senior woman manager to court and Rohit his colleague. A law that women spearheaded to protect women may end up pushing some of them behind bars.

(Some names have been changed)