By Amba Azaad
Two days ago the news broke on Twitter that Vinod Mehta, the former editor of Outlook, staunch defender of Journalistic Integrity in the face of current paid news, etc etc, had written some pretty appalling things regarding Tarun Tejpal and sexual harassment at the workplace. He had written these in his forthcoming autobiography Editor Unplugged – which, being published by Penguin, presumably went through some sort of editorial and fact-checking process. So these words are his final, deliberate choice of what to say regarding the subject, not some hasty off-the-cuff remarks hailing from his lizard-brain id.
I’m a woman who works in a professional workspace in Delhi, intimately familiar with the culture of masculinity that Mehta embodies, so I have some questions for him. Twenty questions, to be precise, though this is not at all a fun game to play. (The original tweeted version of these questions can be found here.)
Question 1. Why is it unfortunate that a person accused of rape is being prosecuted for it by due legal process? Why is legal justice ‘catastrophic’?
Rape culture perpetuation note 1: This concern for the logical consequences that a rich, privileged man faces when going through a legal trial for sexual assault is used to dissuade victims from seeking legal justice. It is often accompanied by a telling silence regarding the actual catastrophic turn a victim’s life takes when she chooses to report assault. This concern is also weighted in a casteist, classist fashion to pity the well-off accused who has the most protection from the brutality of carceral justice system. Poor undertrials, (disproportionately Dalit and/or Muslim) rarely get such pre-emptive forgiveness and sympathy.
Question 2. As his employer, why did you do nothing with your knowledge that Tejpal used his official position to coerce carnal favours?
Rape culture perpetuation note 2: Ignoring known incidents of sexual harassment, and being friendly with known perpetrators of sexual harassment sends a clear message to victims that their harassment is acceptable and their harassers are tolerable, but their abuse is not a subject of concern. It enables rapists by vindicating their belief that their male colleagues will support their actions as long as they can get their victims to keep quiet about it.
Question 3. Why is it not a crisis that women are being sexually coerced in the workplace you are in charge of, regardless of formal complaints?
Rape culture perpetuation note 3: Women reporting sexual abuse in large, or any, numbers is only seen as a crisis by men who would like to pretend that women are not being abused in large numbers. The reporting becomes the flashpoint, rather than the rape.
Question 4. Why does your concern seem to be focussed on avoiding the crisis of rape accusations against friends, rather than sexual harassment?
Rape culture perpetuation note 4: Employers who care more about avoiding a crisis of reportage, rather than fostering a climate where victims feel safe to report, care more about their personal reputation and choice to be lazy, than about the bodily and emotional well-being of their employees abused by rape culture.
Question 5. Why would you use the gendered word ‘hysteria’ to describe the reaction people had to hearing that a man raped his employee? And as my friend @Vada_Vakshi observed, why do you use the casteist term ‘pariah’ to describe someone benefitting from every privilege of caste, class and religion?
Rape culture perpetuation note 5: Words are how violence gets disseminated. Part of rape culture is to associate rational, logical reactions to masculinity, and to link femaleness with irrational, untrustworthy overreaction. Caste privilege is to construct savarnas as victims while ignoring how casteism disproportionately mistreats, abuses and denies justice to lower-caste sexual violence victims and undertrials alike.
Rape culture perpetuation note 6: The equation of libido with sexual attractiveness is a strawman argument set up to distract from the fact that sexual harassment is an abuse of power. How much how many people want to fuck you has absolutely nothing to do with your appetite for sexual abuse, and your sexual appetite has absolutely no bearing on your conduct with unconsenting employees in the workplace.
Question 7. Why do you consider a man’s genial nature and editorial competence to be relevant to a discussion about his sexual predations?
Rape culture perpetuation note 7: It is a myth perpetuated by the patriarchy that rapists are all recognisably horrible people with bad breath and fangs, unleavened by the slightest personal charm. The false corollary to ‘rapists are all monsters’ becomes ‘he’s not a monster so he’s not a rapist’. The only relevance that a rape-accused’s niceness and charm has to the accusation at hand is that he is capable of behaving himself when he thinks it is to his benefit. That makes the weight of his crime, should it be proven, all the more heavy.
Question 8. What did you do in your position of power at Outlook to make your workplace safer from sexual coercion, harassment and assault?
Rape culture perpetuation note 8: The patriarchy likes to focus on rape after it happened, as a sensationalised, out-of-the-ordinary assault upon female bodies it wants to control and assert sexual ownership over. It does not like to talk about rape culture as a daily, relentless process constantly at work in our social environment, and by refusing to acknowledge rape culture, men in positions of power wash their hands of the hard, regular labour involved in pre-emptively preventing assault and harassment.
Question 9. Do you understand what the term ‘rape culture’ signifies? If yes, what actions have you taken to dismantle it? If no, why the fuck not?
Rape culture perpetuation note 9: Straight, cisgendered, privileged men tend to have the least personal experience with being a victim of sexual harassment and rape culture. And yet their voices on how to solve the problem tend to be amplified the most. They do not seem to feel the need to educate themselves about an issue that they do not recognise their ignorance about, and they do not acknowledge that their ignorance causes harm.
Question 10. What apologies and restitutional action do you plan to undertake for rape survivors you have ignored, derided or disbelieved?
Rape culture perpetuation note 10: Everyone knows a rape survivor. They may not know that the person has survived rape, but statistically, if you know more than five women, you know a woman who has been raped. Sexual assault and harassment statistics are even more prevalent than rape. So men who have publicly said things to support a rape-accused, have contributed to the silencing and victimisation of the rape survivors around them. Making up for this is a lifetime process. It is also the kind of basic work that every man should be doing, as part of their shared humanity with women.
Question 11. Did you get clear, uncoerced consent for the ‘badmashi’ and ‘covetous eyeing’ you committed with women outside your workplace?
Rape culture perpetuation note 11: Part of rape culture is to gender promiscuity and ignore consent – ‘badmaashi’ is the same thing as a playboy practising consensual sexual promiscuity, but not the same as a slut-shaming a woman practising the same. Treating female bodies as objects to assert ownership over, by eyeing, leering, ogling and otherwise disrespecting the personhood thereof, contributes to rape culture.
Question 12. Do you realise asking journalists to sexually harass women outside their workplace affects women even more vulnerable and unprotected?
Rape culture perpetuation note 12: Telling men to ‘take it outside the workplace’ sets up a hierarchy of abuse. Some women are more protected because their bosses don’t want to deal with the hassle of their complaints, while others – wives, domestic employees, strangers – get deemed more permissible to assault. The problem shouldn’t be that employees are complaining about harassers, it should be that employees are harassing anyone at all. How workplaces choose to ignore the domestic violence their employees perpetuate is part of this rape culture.
Question 13. Do you understand how only giving megalomania and professional focus as reasons to not have power-imbalanced relationships is fucked up?
Rape culture perpetuation note 13: “Don’t rape because it will put you in jail” is quick-fix advice to give a psychopath, it does not address the root issue of right to inviolate personhood. Sexual abuse at workplaces is a part of the abuse of power that hierarchies perpetuate, and in fact, implicitly offer as a perk of success. We should always focus on the damage caused to vulnerable people above the self-image of those in power.
Question 14. Can you conceive of a female editor in a position of power over a man? Can you conceive of same-sex interpersonal relationships?
Rape culture perpetuation note 14: That many, many male victims of sexual abuse are ignored, that authority is always visualised as masculine and heterosexual, that examples of abuse are generally always gendered in a way to deride women and invisiblise queer people, these are all ways to talk about sexual harassment that harms the larger resistance against rape of all people.
Question 15. Can you not fathom bigger dangers to sexual overtures at a workplace than work being disrupted because the woman (always, the junior, less powerful, woman) is bitchy and demanding?
Rape culture perpetuation note 15: Only women demand unprofessional favouritism from their bosses. Only women use sex as a professional bargaining chip. Only the careers of idealistic, incorruptible men vulnerable to manipulative female subordinates matter enough to talk about. And other lies the patriarchy tells us.
Question 16. Do you understand the concept of ‘coerced consent’? Have you educated yourself about how power can be abused at the workplace to get it?
Rape culture perpetuation note 16: Consent is willingly, voluntarily given in joy, not under intoxication or duress. Consent is a process, not a blank cheque. Coercion should not be rewarded like a strategic business manipulation, it should be treated as a crime of intimidation. Power hierarchies, such as those that are perpetuated at modern capitalist workplaces, affect the ability of its participants to prove unambiguous consent. These are facts, not opinions subject to debate.
Question 17. Do you get that protecting women from sexual harassment is more important than protecting male editors from the consequences of their libido?
Rape culture perpetuation note 17: Discussions of sexual harassment and rape that centre around male perpetrators reiterate that male protagonists are more important than their victims, that the patriarchy’s point of view is the one that counts.
Question 18. Why do you have no advice to male editors about how to make the workplace safer for women to report sexual harassment?
Rape culture perpetuation note 18: The longstanding question: What do men really want? Do they want to live in a world where no one’s body is treated as an object and where sex occurs as a mutually rewarding partnership, or do they actually want to be called nice liberal feminists who do no work to counter the predations of rape culture? Who knows?! The minds of men are so confusing!
Question 19. Do you get the loss to journalism when women are forced to quit their workplaces because their harassers are protected by the system?
Rape culture perpetuation note 19: Rape culture affects every industry from top to bottom. Right now victims of sexual harassment and assault hide the enormous costs of the crime by internalising all the processes of protecting, defending, healing, and escaping. Reparations to survivors of sexual crime are meagrely made by a carceral justice system, while larger society – businesses, educational institutes, religious institutes, art, cultural and entertainment institutes – take no responsibility. The loss to humanity of the creative energies of victims is immeasurably large.
Question 20. Do you even feminism, bro? Do you? If yes, why are you so bad at it after so much time to learn? If no – WHY THE FUCK NOT?
Rape culture perpetuation note 20: That this has to be said, again, at all. ‘Nuff said.
Amba works in your typical heteropatriarchal setup in Delhi and finds her escape by ranting on Twitter about various and sundry affairs as @AmbaAzaad
(Vinod Mehta image credit: Penguin Books India)