What is it like to be sexually harassed by your own boss and mentor? This writer shares her brave story
The woman who was at the centre of the Pune’s High Spirits Cafe controversy insists it’s never too late to make your voice heard
In October 2017, a little after The New York Times exposition of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein exploded across the Internet and set in motion a worldwide outpouring of women (and men) detailing their experiences of sexual harassment, I was at the centre of a smaller, but no less damning revolution in this part of the woods. After years of struggling to come to terms with the abuse I endured at my first full-time job as a public relations executive and personal assistant at The High Spirits Cafe, a well-loved Pune party haunt, I finally went public with it.
The reactions to my story were largely positive. I was met with a wave of support from close friends, people I hadn’t spoken to in years… even strangers over social media, the phone and in person. It definitely helped me brace for the negative reactions, a common refrain of which was, “Why are you speaking up now, after so many years? Why did you keep quiet for so long?” I wish there was a succinct, easy way to answer these questions, but there isn’t. Still, I’m going to try.
It’s important to remember that as with everything else, so too with harassment and abuse: every victim reacts in their own way. There are several factors that affect the way we process and acknowledge experience, especially trauma—from conditioning, to socio-economic status, to exposure, to emotional intelligence, to personality type, to how supported and comfortable we feel in the world. Questioning why someone reacted to abuse in a certain way and not the other is about as meaningful as asking someone why they love alt-rock and not death metal, or why they speak Hindustani and not Bambaiya.
The other thing to remember is that abusers come in all shapes and sizes. Not every abuser is immediately repulsive or creepy. Often, they’re charming, articulate, ‘well-behaved’ men who know how to blur the lines of consent. So, for example, I knew how to identify harassment, like groping, when it was coming from a stranger. But when it came from someone I looked up to as a mentor and an older brother, I couldn’t summon the same clarity. Abusers are also careful about who they pick—and it is rarely somebody they believe is their equal i.e. someone with enough power to stand up to them.
The easiest targets are usually much younger, and therefore, more exploitable. I was only 20 when my ex-boss, 10 years my senior, began harassing me. It started with comments about my clothes and my size, then led to pinching and poking, before escalating to butt- and boob-grabbing. At its peak, he was forcefully thrusting against me from behind, in public.
And here’s the thing, actually: I did speak up. Or at least, I tried. Many times I said “no” or “stop it!”, and tried to bat his hands away. But every time I did, he manipulated me into believing that I was just “too sensitive” or “being dramatic”, and that my reactions were not valid. He told me he was doing this for my own good, and so that I could “toughen up”. He told me it was because he cared about me.
And when I didn’t give in, I was punished. Either with beratement—he said nobody would date me because I was fat, and that he knew I actually liked it when he touched me; or with more harassment—like the time he poured a beer over my head during my shift, and told me I would lose my job if I went home to change.
I was also outnumbered. Abusers will build a loyal network of people by carefully crafting a ‘good guy’ or ‘family man’ public persona, often through grandiose acts of generosity and helpfulness. This serves a dual purpose: it lets them prey on victims undetected or unquestioned; and if they do get found out, there is no better way to cast doubt on a victim’s allegations and motives than with throngs of people who will passionately vouch for his respectability.
My boss’s ‘network’, which included his wife and my own friends, whom I informed about the abuse—swiftly silenced me and would go to great lengths (even now) to defend him. Because it’s easier than believing that they have been deceived by such a good guy. This made me feel like I was the crazy one for thinking this was wrong—a manipulation I later learnt is called ‘gaslighting’. And it worked. My brain silenced the red flags. I began to put on a forced smile, and laughed it off every time he grabbed me. After a while, I had normalised his behaviour to a point where I began defending him the same way his network did—dismissing his behaviour as harmless, while feeling totally isolated in my pain.
Sexual harassment strikes at your very identity; it makes you question your sense of self, and takes a toll on your mental health. All the anger and hatred I felt towards my harasser, I ended up turning inward. I blamed myself for what I went through and I know way too many women who have done the same. We’re sick with self-loathing, wondering if we “provoked” the abuse—was it something we wore, or said, or did? Did we “deserve” it? Because from the time we’re young, we’re taught at home and in our educational institutions—both expressly and subliminally—that it’s our responsibility to take care of ourselves and stay safe; it isn’t a man’s responsibility to not assault us. We’re encouraged to be ‘good girls’ rather than girls with agency over our own bodies; girls whose right it is to say no.
In the work place, abuse and assault is further compounded by systemic sexism. As one of only two or three female employees at any given time, I had to work extra hard to prove that I could handle any task my male colleagues were given. I did my best to be “one of the guys” and not draw undue attention to my femaleness. And I learnt to keep quiet and adapt to the torment because I loved my job, and was terrified of losing the budding PR career I had worked so hard for.
Since quitting that job in 2013, I have struggled (and still do) with depression, anxiety, and PTSD-like symptoms, and it has taken years of unlearning and self-care to come to understand what happened to me—and that it wasn’t my fault. And this is key to being able to speak out about abuse: you have to able to grapple with it first.
Most women fare much worse than I did after I came forward with my testimony in October: their authenticity is immediately questioned (mine was too, but to a lesser extent). It’s not unusual for predators and their networks to slander and discredit victims by mounting a ‘nuts or sluts’ defence, forcing them to relive their trauma again and again. I was called a liar, back-stabber and publicity seeker, and had vicious rumours spread about me. My decision to not file a complaint was also used to question the authenticity of my story. It is easy to demand women take their abusers to court, but conviction rates in India are demoralising—a meagre 27 per cent, and even lower for minorities. This is why social media, where the #MeToo movement would go viral a day after my story came out, has become the go-to medium for us to raise our voices. And while that’s a positive move towards creating safe spaces for women to speak out, let’s not forget that it’s a platform only available to the privileged. There are millions who have no such outlet.
The case for speaking out may not be compelling, as you have seen. On some days, I wished I could just disappear. So why did I do it, then? Is the additional trauma worth it? I can only speak for myself, here—yes, it is. There may have been backlash, but sharing my story was cathartic for me. I no longer had to carry around this dark secret, it felt like I shed a huge weight off my back. What’s more, telling my truth helped me create a safe space for others to share their stories. And it led to some, if not enough, change: a lot of patrons and performing artists have since voiced their support and boycotted The High Spirits Cafe.
If you think you might want to speak out, but are still afraid, remember: it’s never too late, even if it’s a week, a month or several years later. The passage of time does not invalidate your experience. Second, you have the option to do it anonymously—that way you get to protect your privacy and share your experience without the fear of judgement. And lastly, in case you have even the tiniest, niggling doubt about it, I will say this now—and a thousand times over, if have to—what happened to you is not your fault. It is never your fault. Speaking up breaks the cycle of abuse, so don’t be afraid. Remember that you are not alone, and that your voice is your greatest weapon.