By Tanya Vasundharan
When I was 10 years old and attending a family wedding, a cousin-in-law walked around grabbing young girls, holding a knife very close to their throats, and letting them go after a minute. Good fun, great fun, he went around saying, sounding like a character lost in a Wodehouse novel. Only my mother was appalled by the seriousness of what he was doing, but everyone else, including his wife, a gender rights and women’s health activist, thought it was funny (if slightly dangerous). Big funny joke.
According to the Delhi police, you can now make big money by filming pranks which tantamount to sexual harassment and uploading them on YouTube. Rs 700 for every 1000 hits, says the Joint Commissioner of Police Ravindra Yadav confidently, a wildly exaggerated figure that would undoubtedly extract a hollow laugh from stand-up comedians who would be millionaires if YouTube was half as generous.
The fine line between harassment and pranks – which isn’t so fine at all, if you give it a moment’s thought – is back on everyone’s radar because of a kissing ‘prank’ that has made national headlines. The promise of a YouTube trophy and money for a viral video was apparently enough to prompt a 20-year-old man, Sumit Kumar Singh, who goes by the moniker ‘Crazy Sumit’, to run up to women in Connaught Place and kiss them. He was detained by Delhi police on 12 January, but then released after he insisted that the women were his friends and knew about the shoot in advance, and added that several of his 36 videos feature his mother too, this last data point obviously being the court of last appeal.
While the police are currently attempting to verify these claims by recording the statements of the women involved, they haven’t hesitated to hold forth about the logic behind Sumit’s pranks: according to a report in The Hindu, they blamed websites like YouTube for instigating ‘obscene activities’. They backed up their theories by suggesting that YouTube has been “organising seminars” that endorse and indulge young people’s pranks by promising them monetary rewards, which in turn encourages them to upload ‘obscene’ content.
In the past, other YouTube ‘pranksters’ have been threatened with legal action: in 2014, Sam Pepper, a regular YouTube blogger, uploaded a video which showed him pinching women’s behinds (and another pinching men), and later defended himself with a rich and exhaustive account of how he was trying to highlight the urgent issue of sexual harassment. YouTube might be a helpful breeding ground for these kinds of ‘prank’ videos, and this Firstpost article goes to some lengths to explain why YouTube and similar channels should take more responsibility for the videos that go viral rather than leaving the decision to remove a video entirely to the users. But it also argues that the platform can be held culpable for rewarding content that goes viral.
Because Delhi police surely knows that predatory incidents that pick on women occur all the time, regardless of whether they are being filmed for entertainment, and part of the problem is that the defensive post-dated logic that an act of harassment was a staged joke is given any leeway at all.
In the same week as Sumit’s antics, for instance, a 22-year-old man was arrested in Bengaluru for harassing two women, one of whom was a minor, stalking them on his motorcycle, and asking them to hug him – and marry him as an afterthought. None of this prompted by aspirations of everlasting YouTube fame or bribes from websites – just a case of pure and simple entitlement and taking advantage of women who are on their own or in a vulnerable position, but what if he were to pass off his actions as a prank?
Women are handed that logic far too often as a response to molestation complaints. On 11 January, a London court heard the cases of multiple women who had been sexually harassed in the past by Rolf Harris, the Austrailian entertainer who was arrested two years ago for numerous assault cases. One of them, a 13-year-old girl, was dismissed (by her friend, if you please) when she recounted her story of Harris groping her, and told, “It’s just a joke.”
So it’s high time that the Delhi police, rather than waste time speculating on the majestic incomes of YouTube pranksters, began to issue less baseless, more sensitive analyses of harassment. Whether or not they appear in the form of apparent jokes that are staged in advance and couched as entertainment. Because otherwise, the instant an act of molestation comes to light and creates an uproar, it will continue to be passed off as humour. And in the brave new world populated by characters like Trump, of course, this tendency is set to escalate. You only need to hear the succinct phrasing of Christopher von Keyserling, a 71-year-old American politician who was arrested yesterday for pinching a woman in the genitals, to realise just how ominous it is that harassment attempts are being defended as big fat jokes: “I love this new world, I no longer have to be politically correct.”
Co-published with Firstpost.