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A molested person is often told that they are “lucky” it wasn’t worse. All of this – the “not-so-bad” and the “horrifying” are all still sexual violence.
A few weeks ago, news of a man flashing an unsuspecting woman in Mumbai, India came up.
The woman had got out of an autorickshaw to withdraw cash from an ATM. Seeing that she was facing some trouble accomplishing the withdrawal, the man had approached her to help. In this brief period, he decided to help himself by touching the woman and exposing himself to her. The latter, shocked as she was, decided to film the encounter and later uploaded it on social media, after reporting the incident to a nearby police vehicle. The man was reported to have been taken into custody.
Reactions of women online were effusive, naturally. The upsurge of shock, embarrassment, confusion, and fear of being flashed at is difficult to express.
I remember walking a short distance to a bus early one morning, ready to be picked up for a trip. It was about 5 am and on the way, I spotted a man urinating on a wall near an exit. I knew in an instant that I had to pick up my pace. He spotted me, waited for me to get closer, and started making loud moaning sounds. By this time, I was jogging and thanking the stars that I had packed a light bag. Just as I was turning into the exit, he turned his body towards me, hinting at me to look at him. I continued jogging and kept looking just straight ahead till I reached where I had to.
I was terrified that he would follow me and actually touch me. But, he didn’t. ‘Lucky’ me.
This incident happened over 5 years ago but I can still distinctly remember the mounting feeling of dread that had overcome my body the moment I had spotted that man near the wall. As news of the ATM flasher spread, a few comments tried to downplay the seriousness of the issue by invoking the whataboutery of ‘real’ sexual assault and rape. All these people, let’s just cut to the chase, are wrong!
Sexual assault and trauma are not competitive games that have medals attached to them depending on performance. The argument that one form of sexual trauma is greater than the other is dangerous because it can be used to nullify literally any lived experience of a survivor, simply by comparison to an apparently ‘greater’ violation.
Making such sweeping statements is not just condescending towards the persons who have had to endure being flashed at but also gaslights them into thinking that they are overreacting to a small violation. It ignores the deeper ramifications of acts like flashing, groping and pinching by random people on the streets and how it can scar and scare the victims.
In the instance of the ATM case, so many factors deserve to be observed more sharply. It involved a lone woman, who was traveling at night and was using a familiar public space, and who, when stuck, had accepted the help of a person who had offered to assist her.
When you think about it, it is one of those mundane encounters that happen to so many of us all the time, without us having to think back to it.
The flasher’s actions, however, directly made these mundane actions traumatic. A woman who chooses to travel alone and walk about confidently is clearly considered fair game – many will question her intelligence in choosing to interact with a strange man at night. Some will wonder why she was out at night at all. All these arguments will try to frame her judgment as being the worst aspect of the case.
But male flashers, in a brief moment, are attempting to reassert their control over women. A flasher’s actions signal to a woman that he can violate her personal space very easily if he chooses to do so. He is reminding her that because she chose to step out at night, he is not responsible for what assaults may come her way. It is a way of restating that public spaces are still male spaces that women can access safely only if men allow them to. There is no guarantee of safety.
News of the ATM flasher may have already been forgotten, but let’s always remember this – all forms of sexual assault are acts of control, not lust. The victims’ socially-conditioned shame, surprise, and shock are a flasher’s prizes for the night. That brief moment of exposure gets his adrenaline pumping and reminds him that he, indeed, is powerful.
For women, the possibility of coming across a flasher, a squeezer, a rapist, a voyeur, a pincher, a public masturbator, a kidnapper, a drunken molester, is real enough to push us indoors. The depth of trauma that every such action inspires is subjective and cannot be decided by people who aren’t the victim.
We need to stop expecting women to be thankful for being ‘allowed’ to walk on a road safely. Stop expecting women to be #blessed because we got groped and not raped. Rape culture not only condones rape jokes and protects sexual predators, it also demands that women remain eternally thankful that they have been ‘given’ the privilege to exist, and that we shouldn’t complain.
In the time since the ATM case, a yoga instructor at the posh Amanora Township in Pune was flashed at early one morning when walking her dog. In another case, a 24-year-old man from Kerala was reported to have unzipped his pants while on a flight from Jeddah to New Delhi. He had been stopped by a female cabin staff member from lighting a cigarette. And these represent the minuscule number of flashing-related sexual harassment cases that get reported. Imagine the whole scale of the problem!
So, let’s never forget that sexual harassment comes in many forms and all of those forms are criminal. No debate about its severity is necessary.
Image source: shutterstock
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Shruti Sharada (She/Her/Hers) is an award-winning Queer Feminist Writer and GBV Activist.
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