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Casual Sexism on Campus: Perspectives From a Male Student - The Fifth Estate

Casual Sexism on Campus: Perspectives From a Male Student

In the second article of the gender series, Aroon writes about casual sexism on campus from the perspective of a male student. In our first article, we exposed some distressing results from a survey of 815 students. These were some of the highlights from the findings:

Total number of respondents: 815
Male: (73%) 593
Female: (26%) 215
Other: (1%) 7

1. The proportion of female students (45%) who said they were sexually harassed is over 10 times that of male students (4%) who faced the same issue. In all, 109/815 respondents reported this issue.
2. 54.5% of all victims said that ignoring or clearly indicating their discomfort had no effect on sexual harassment; 59% of female victims reported that the harassment continued despite this.
3. 80.5% of those who reported being sexually assaulted on campus are females (out of a total of 36/815). 1/7 of the people who identified differently faced sexual assault, as did 1% of all male respondents.
4. Fellow students form the majority of the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault; 67% of female victims and 67% of male victims said that their perpetrators were fellow students.
5. One-fourth of all female respondents have faced inappropriate behaviour from security guards.

 

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“Oh, you got an S? Nice, I knew that Prof had a thing for women. Haha!”

“Yeah he got that job because they were looking only for male employees anyway.”

“Of course she got the coordship – didn’t you see her flirting with the cores all last week?”

 

These are a select few comments (not quite verbatim) that I’ve been privy to in social circles over my time in the Institute, and the more discerning reader should be able to perceive how they reflect a deeply ingrained worldview. Of course, most of us tend to think that sexism is minor or non-existent in the Institute, so let’s perform a simple exercise to test this assumption. Think back to the number of times you’ve called somebody an “attention seeker” because of the way they’re dressed, and see what percentage of those judgements tend to be members of a certain sex. How many times have you made, or heard someone make, sexually suggestive jokes, and what percentage of those were aimed at a certain gender?

 

A simple reflection on the Institute norm would make us realize that casual sexism is quite deeply rooted here, and sometimes leads to egregious cases of sexual harassment. This norm is established quite early – think back to the freshie night comment screen and how it is filled with sexually explicit comments when women perform. Freshie guys are forced to follow freshie girls and get their room and phone numbers, which dangerously normalizes stalking and falsely equates persistent harassment with reward. We’re also introduced to Insti slang fairly early, and one of the most used terms is “rape”. When one sports team beats another, the loser is “raped”. You “rape” an exam if you perform well in it. This trivializes the fact that rape is a terrifying concept for women because they have to live in constant anticipation of this horror visiting them. What’s worse, most women are forced to be okay with all of this being the norm in order to stay socially relevant, because their future, especially placements, depend on how much they’re able to accomplish socially in the Institute.    

 

At this point, it is important to understand that the victims of casual sexism are not restricted to one sex. Both sexes can fall victim to casual sexism when discomforting comments on sexual identity are taken to be a part of “normal” conversation. Given the misogynistic nature of society today, it so happens that a majority of these instances affect women, but it is important not to overlook how men are also conditioned into some norms. For example, we always expect men to ask women out. Sensitive and feminine men are automatically classified as “gay”, and homophobic jokes are standard stock.

 

A major enabler of casual sexism in our Institute is the woefully skewed sex ratio. It is much harder for men to incorporate the female perspective into our worldview because our interactions with the other sex happen to be minimal. To make it worse, we live in a culture that propagates unrealistic and unidimensional views on relationships through movies, magazines etc, making it virtually impossible for men to understand what women are likely to be comfortable with. This obviously leads to overt harassment through stalking, but it causes other subtler forms of sexism as well. When a woman works hard for a PoR and achieves her goal, most of us assume a sexual element to it simply because we haven’t had the opportunity to see the level of fight she has mustered. In fact, in most cases the woman has to put extra fight (which again men are unlikely to witness) to ensure that her achievement is not trivialized by casual sexist comments. This analysis neither excuses such behaviour nor does it imply that women don’t game the system by winning favours using their sexuality, but it attempts to paint a more holistic picture of these situations.

 

Another facet to this issue is the slightly impersonal and esoteric nature of the institutional support systems that exist to counter societal and cultural sexism. For example, many companies today have a policy of hiring only women for a certain percentage of their workforce. In isolation, this policy seems unequal – why should they hire women at 30% when the sex ratio in the Institute is 10%?

 

However, as many of us recognize by now, the context for this policy is much more complicated. Discrimination against women in the workforce had become deeply rooted in corporates, and this policy was in part an institutional response. But more importantly, women face a larger number of roadblocks in their journey from school to a job, and hence it is the 10% number that is worrying, rather than the 30%. Parents are hesitant to send them to good coaching classes, and even when they clear the JEE, are again hesitant to send them far away from home. The 30% policy is more of an attempt to normalize the situation by getting the 10% as much higher as possible, rather than an unthought PR stunt. When discussing the unfairness of this policy to the individual, we should also reflect whether we’ve unfairly benefitted as individuals due to ingrained sexism in our past.

 

While our Institute’s administration fares better relative to most other institutions in our country, it fails us at some crucial points when it comes to sexism. I personally know of horrific sexual harassment cases in which the first question that the officer in charge asked the victim have ranged from “What did you do to provoke him?” and “Why didn’t you do anything to stop him?” to “You should look at him like a brother”. When approached with a severe stalking case, during the ensuing discussion, the Chief Security Officer himself allegedly commented – “In India, each person is responsible for their own safety”.

 

Until very recently, there had been no sensitization classes for freshers on proper gender conduct and as a result, casual sexism not only pervaded the Institute’s atmosphere, but worse, went unnoticed by most, leaving the victims often confused and defeated. Election rules were skewed against female candidates until a couple of years ago, since female entry into male hostels was restricted, and they remain unequal today since male entry into female hostels is banned. Public spaces for intergender interaction, such as community halls and parks, are also nominal in number.



Even though I believe that the sexist mentality is not representative of the Institute’s culture as a whole, it exists and is uniquely hurtful and demoralizing, and hence it is important that we reflect on where it originates from and how it can be tackled maturely. Often, colleges are the breeding ground for change, and some sensible conversations amongst us today can go a long way in ensuring a more equitable society.  

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual authors only. The Fifth Estate does not endorse any of the views mentioned in the article. The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
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