So what needs to be done to make sure that Indian men don’t think they can get away with online abuse?
Earlier this week, when Instagram screenshots of Delhi’s teenage boys plotting to release ‘nudes’ sent to them by young girls started doing the rounds of social media, a young woman — let’s call her A — felt a familiar sense of dread wash over her in Kolkata. Two years ago, at the peak of the MeToo movement in India, she had messaged a friend who had shared her experience of abuse, to show support. The conversation led to a shocking revelation: some intimate photos she had shared with a senior she met at a debating event had found its way into a Google Drive which several men had access to.
She was not the only woman whose photos were saved on that drive. In the same year, 2018, a third-year political science student in Kolkata — let’s call her B — came to know that the photos she had shared with a male student in Jadavpur University’s electrical engineering department had been saved in the same drive and were being circulated among their peers.
Even after the #MeToo movement in India kickstarted a much-needed conversation on power and consent, the male college students in Kolkata did not see anything wrong in sharing intimate photos of women without their knowledge. Two years later, the impunity displayed by the Delhi teenage boys as they discussed gangraping girls points to their deep-seated faith that social and legal structures in India will eventually protect men.
Activists and lawyers also point out that in India, where survivors and victims of sexual assault still find it traumatic to bring their perpetrators to justice, the issue of online abuse is not taken seriously enough.
Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, said that the language dealing with online abuse needs to change in activist, media and police circles. She pointed out that sharing of a woman’s nude photos or morphed photos cannot be considered just breach of privacy.
“Research across the world has shown that the way women described the experience of dealing with abuse such as this was similar to assault and rape. You cannot isolate data from your bodily integrity,” Kovacs told HuffPost India, emphasising that these ‘privacy breaches’ should be dealt with as seriously as assault.
Especially when photos are involved, women also find the judgement from family, friends and even the police hard to deal with, dissuading them from filing complaints.
‘An open secret’
A was 18 and a college fresher when she met S at a debating event. S, the woman told HuffPost India, was a star in Kolkata’s debating circuits and offered to ‘train’ and ‘guide’ some of them for an event. Soon, said the woman, he began prodding her to engage in sexting and demanded intimate photos of her, which she did. He himself sent her unsolicited photos. Soon, the woman started feeling uncomfortable and stopped interacting with him.
“I was so uncomfortable that I would turn my phone off for hours. This stopped soon enough and I thought he would delete the pictures but it was only later that I found out that he didn’t,” she said.
B who shared her photos with the same man in 2016, confronted him the same year when she realised that his girlfriend had seen the photos, and had discussed them with friends. The man told her that her photos had been deleted. She found out later that they had just been moved from his phone to a drive to which access could be easily shared.
“Realising that it was dangerous to keep access to these photos on a device, I heard that they had shifted the same to a Google drive, wherein the access to it could easily be determined through signing in. The pictures, being on the drive, are no longer on a particular device, and can be shared by sharing access to the Google account. But the problem was that while I had heard of this drive, I realised that in order to call them out, there needed to be a tangible proof to this drive’s existence. But the access was in a close, inner circle,” B told HuffPost India.
In 2018, A was still in her final year of college when she discovered that her photos had been circulated among men in her college and outside for the past three years. “It was an open secret, I got to know,” she said. Her first reaction was to block the man she had shared the photos with and stop going to college.
> “But the problem was that while I had heard of this drive, I realised that in order to call them out, there needed to be a tangible proof to this drive’s existence. But the access was in a close, inner circle”
“I found out that the drive was shared with a classmate of mine as well. It disgusted me to be in the same classroom as him after knowing that he might have possibly seen my pictures and circulated them to other classmates. I felt violated,” she said. She said she confronted the said classmate, who lied that he did not have the drive but curiously added that he had often thought about apologising to her. He did not actually apologise or disclose why he was planning to in the first place.
The incident took a toll on her mental health and she couldn’t muster courage to go to college for weeks on an end.
Taking advantage of power structures
A common defence of the school boys and college students who shared and circulated photos is that ‘these are just boys yaaaa’ and that their ‘trash talking’ and sexual curiosity shouldn’t be equated with older harassers taking advantage of unequal power structures. This assumption is wildly inaccurate.
Young people become aware of where they stand in the gender power structure the moment girls begin getting censured for the clothes they wear, while the topic doesn’t really come up with boys. When young boys witness girls being harassed by older men as they try to ignore it and walk away, they begin to realise that there are hassles to being a woman that a man won’t have to deal with. Add to that the language of popular culture, television comedy shows, WhatsApp jokes and memes which broadly categorises women as two kinds: the terrifying nag, usually a wife, mother or mother-in-law, and the sexualised ‘other’ woman who never says no to sexual fantasies. In the language of popular culture young men are usually exposed to, sex is something you ‘get’ from women, usually an achievement or a conquest — and consent can either be forced or ignored altogether. The same popular culture dictates that for young women, sex is at best, a dirty secret.
In this article, my colleague pointed out why it’s important for the social institutions that children spend the most time in — family and school — to actively explain sex and autonomy to young boys and girls.
In the case of these two women, while they knew that the man was in the wrong, the power and fame he courted despite being a college student ultimately discouraged them from pursuing the subject.
A discussed her predicament with friends — some of whom have now backed her on Twitter, after she shared her ordeal in a series of tweets — but was mostly advised against taking any concrete action against the man.
What deterred her? “They told me that he and the other people who have access to it come from influential families and that they can easily get away with this because they have stellar grades and are quite renowned faces in the Kolkata debating circles,” she said.
While B confronted the man, she did not know that he had lied to her. For the next couple of years, both men and women chose to ignore the fact that her photos were being shared without her knowledge or consent. Dozens of well-meaning friends, who were not supposed to even know the photos existed, informed her that everything from her body to the quality of the lingerie she was wearing in the photos were ridiculed by women and men close to the man who asked for and circulated the photos.
“One day, another senior boy decided to bring in a few random seniors who were chilling in the canteen, and publicly lecture me about my loose character and dwindling self-respect by comparing the same to a negatively sloping curve (he was an economics student),” B said.
B, a gold-medalist in the university, felt compelled to not retaliate in order to ‘survive’ in college for the next two years. “Being a part of the debating society allowed me to network, and perhaps pursue my self-interest, despite how much ever it would affect me mentally. Mind you, S and his friends were held in high regard, and it would be easier for them to spread some rumour and isolate me from this particular circle. I had thus pushed the incident and the subsequent trauma from it to the corners of my brain, and essentially forgot about it till this week,” she said.
The Delhi Instagram case is similar to the Kolkata incident in that the perpetrators took advantage of existing power structures, and people who knew what they were doing chose not to speak out for a long time.
A male student of a school in Delhi where some of the members of ‘Bois Locker Room’ were from, told HuffPost India that it was widely known that some senior boys would circulate “gross” photos of women and pressurise junior girls to share intimate photos with them. “They tried to text some girls I know and did try to convince them to send their nudes. They also referred to girls they asked nudes from as ‘side chicks’,” the boy told HuffPost India.
Though it was a sort of an ‘open secret’, nobody complained because the boys allegedly claimed they had political connections and often shared photos of themselves wearing scarfs and topis with symbols of popular political parties on them. They also claimed to know the son of a local politician well.
Both the boy and another girl from the same school confirmed to HuffPost India that no one complained about the boys, who were ‘popular’ in school, to the teachers.
A few years ago, my friend’s intimate photos were shared by an ex — in his mid-40s — to people she barely knew as an act of revenge after she ended her relationship with him. We considered lodging a complaint, but then dropped the idea and instead thought we would chastise him personally, or through acquaintances.
> “The perpetrators took advantage of existing power structures, and people who knew what they were doing chose not to speak out for a long time.”
Around the same time, I found myself being bombarded by fatuous, raunchy and often sleazy messages on WhatsApp by unknown men, many of whom seemed to know my name and that I used to live in Mumbai until a few months prior to that. One of the men who messaged me later revealed that some of my photos and my phone number were shared — alongside that of dozens of other women — on a WhatsApp group where men could join for ‘contacts of girls’. Sometimes, he said, men punched in random variations of their own numbers on their phones and called them. If a woman picked up the phone, her number was added to the group.
“We can’t say if they are beautiful though in that case,” he said, as if he was paying me a compliment. When I failed to respond, the barrage of messages soon turned into violent threats of sexual abuse and stopped only when the phone provider suspended my number due to some problem in paperwork. The man who explained how he landed my number insisted that I befriend him as a ‘reward’ of sorts for telling me the truth, displaying a shocking lack of shame of shame or embarrassment.
Both my friend and I were 30 at the time, aware of our rights, had ample access and privilege and lived in a rare bubble of aware, supportive men and women. Yet, the prospect of waging a legal battle — police, lawyers, fatigued family members — seemed way more daunting than burying the trauma and moving on.
Power, as is evident from the behaviour of men ranging in age from 15 years to 45, lay in the very fact that these perpetrators were men in an Indian society.
‘This is not rape or something, ok?’
The day the ‘boys locker room’ controversy was unravelling, a man who had seemed well-read and polite from his bio on Tinder, left a string of graphic, sexually coloured abuses in my inbox after I didn’t reply to his messages for a couple of days. When I threatened to complain, he said, “Not like this is rape or something, ok?”
Implicit in his audacious answer was his confidence that he had simply threatened me with sexual assault on an online platform, and that did not qualify as ‘rape’ or for the penalties that come with it. He seemed to draw courage from the fact that I was unlikely to follow it up legally. Even if I reported him for violent abuse, Tinder wasn’t likely to do anything about it as well — I wouldn’t even be informed if they had taken any action or not. He was right on both counts. Most dating apps thrive on men’s ability to get away with sleaze and abuse on it, like we reported in this HuffPost India article.
In the Delhi case, the 15-year-old boy who has been apprehended has been booked under the IT Act for ‘cyber bullying’. Debarati Halder, a counsellor with the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, told this correspondent that dozens of clients contact her every day — women whose photos had been morphed and put on pornography sites, women whose former partners have circulated intimate photos, women who have been subjected to a steady stream of abusive emails and blackmail — to help them cope with the abuse. A majority of them do not take legal action, report the crimes or go to the police.
Much of their reservation, Halder explained, stems from the overwhelming shame still associated with being sexual beings or considered as such by their perpetrators. Also, she pointed out, most of these cases were dealt with the IT Act, which failed to address the intensity of its trauma.
Lawyer Amritananda Chakravorty explained this further: these cases are dealt under the Information Technology Act — Sec 66A for violation of privacy and Sections 67 and 67A of the IT Act — and at some point of time during the investigation, the victim has to turn in the photos as evidence to the police. “That’s the offending act. So either in a pen drive or in a CD, you have to give the photos to the police. One can make an application that only the Investigating Officer will handle these photos or that only courts can see. Depends on the specific facts of the case. But someone will see the photos,” she said.
Lawyer Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, said that one can ask for a woman investigating officer, but they may not be always available. However, Chakravorty pointed out, even if the complainant is assigned a woman officer, this doesn’t immediately mean she will be more sensitive. In a similar case she is tackling, the police, she said, had been asking various uncomfortable, intrusive questions to the survivor, making the person queasy.
Kovacs added that how the police behave with a victim often depends on where she is placed in the social hierarchy. “If these are nude photos, of course, there’s a high chance that the victim will have to sit through a long lecture on why she shouldn’t have shared these photos at all,” she said. While researching for a project, mostly on survivors of assault among low-income groups in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Kovacs found that even when young women had evidence in their mobile phones that would directly incriminate the perpetrator, they were scared to share them with the police. “They refused to give the phones on many occasions because they were afraid of what the police would do with photos or videos,” she said.
Criminal lawyer Harimohana Narayanan, however, told HuffPost India that if these photos, accompanied by text are sent over messaging services, one could try to black out the photos and use screenshots of the accompanying messages as evidence.
Kovacs explained that women’s organisations which work with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are mostly so overwhelmed that the issue of online abuse — though equally vicious and rampant — often falls through the cracks. “There’s some progress and these organisations work extensively with police, it would help if online harassment is treated with similar importance,” she said.