Gender-Based Harassment: A Reality on Campus?


By Isha Bhallamudi and Shilpa Menon, with Abhishek Kelkar and Ramya Vijayram

In this first article in T5E’s gender series, we break down our survey of 815 students and expose serious deficiencies in our understanding of sexual crimes on campus as well as the institute’s mechanisms for addressing them. Watch this space for more articles on the topic.


Today, 5 years after the infamous Nirbhaya case, a lot of media and social attention is being paid to crimes of a sexual nature. As India continues to debate these crimes, the popular stance in IIT Madras seems to be one of exceptionalism — we perceive our campus as relatively better off, especially in terms of safety for women. Most of us are under the impression that crimes of a sexual nature are rare on campus. How true is this? T5E decided to find out. Our first student survey this year culminated in 822 responses, collected over one month starting September 2016.


In this first article in our gender series, we break down the survey responses for you. Both the survey questions and this article have been shaped over the following four areas:

  1. Perceptions: How aware are insti students about legal definitions of gender-based and/or sexual misdemeanours, as well as the penal provisions to counter them?
  2. Incidence of issues: How many students — and of what genders — have faced specific gender-based issues, and which of these are most common on campus?
  3. Process-based problems: What are the most commonly accessed channels of redress, and are they used at all? What are the obstacles, if any, to accessing these channels?
  4. Suggestions: Do students think that the campus needs more gender sensitiveness, and if yes, what ways do they suggest for bringing it about?


Our first question was about the difference between sexual harassment and rape according to the respondents. Most people who have responded to this survey have said that rape is a subset of sexual harassment, and is a more serious offense. Many responses underline that rape is physical —  involving penetrative action — while sexual harassment can consist of physical or mental abuse — such as catcalling, lewd comments and other inappropriate sexual behavior. What constitutes harassment is seen as slightly blurry, and as is mentioned in a few answers, is highly situation-dependent. The general consensus is that any behavior with sexual connotations which makes the person uncomfortable is sexual harassment.

There were some extreme viewpoints, as well. A few responders said that sexual harassment was to be treated as severely as rape; a few said they were the same, or that they didn’t know the difference.


What is it in fact?

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, elaborated and clarified the scope of “sexual offences” in the Indian Penal Code. Under the amendment, section 354A defines “sexual harassment”, and recognizes only (cis)women as victims, and presumably, only (cis)men as perpetrators. It is defined as:

  1. physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or
  2. a demand or request for sexual favours; or
  3. making sexually coloured remarks; or
  4. forcibly showing pornography; or
  5. any other unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature


The definition of “rape”, under Section 375, has also been expanded to cover acts other than full vaginal penetration, with or without physical resistance*. It has also listed a variety of gender-based or sexual offences such as acid-throwing, stalking, voyeurism, etc.

From this, it is evident that rape is perceived as an extreme form of sexual harassment, though legally, harassment and rape are considered as different acts. Rape is a sexual act performed forcibly, and harassment includes acts that are not so ‘extreme’, need not be physical, and include a wide range of acts, all of which are performed with sexual intent.

However, the lines are blurred, more often than not.

We then asked our respondents what they thought of as punishable acts of sexual harassment. Common responses included:

  • I don’t know
  • I don’t know, but I know there are strict laws and definitions
  • Catcalling, lewd comments, abusive language
  • Eve-teasing
  • Molestation
  • Rape
  • Stalking/following
  • Virtual comments and messages of a sexual nature
  • Any act that made a person mentally or physically uncomfortable
  • Forcing someone into a relationship
  • Overtures that are repeatedly discouraged
  • Usage of position of power to misbehave sexually

Some felt that acts like staring should not be considered punishment, and physical harassment must be considered more severe. The question was also interpreted variously. Several people started citing appropriate punishments to be levied, which largely fell into the following categories:

  • Intra-institutional punishment (suspension, dismissal/expulsion, cutting off stipend)
  • Extreme punishments (castration, death sentence)
  • Mob-punishments (public shaming, leaving the public to “deal” with the offender)
  • Reformative punishments (counselling)
  • Judicial punishments (imprisonment, fining)

Others felt that this question implied that there were acts of sexual harassment that weren’t punishable, and strongly emphasized that all acts of sexual harassment were punishable, and none should go unpunished.

A large majority of male and female respondents and respondents who identified differently responded affirmatively to the question of whether men can be victims of sexual harassment or rape. Prima facie, this points to the understanding that sexual crimes do not exclusively impact women. However, we also asked about who the aggressors could be in such cases, and the responses pointed to very divergent and often inconsistent understandings of sexual crimes against men**:

  1. People of any gender can be aggressors
  2. Other men
  3. Females who harass men by filing false cases and defaming them
  4. Females who commit rape on males (with the common qualification that this would be rare)
  5. Older women
  6. Men/women who are older or more powerful
  7. I don’t know

The responses to the question about aggressors serve as an important caveat.These perceptions indicate that notions of male victims of sexual crimes are dominated by false stereotypes — that men “cannot” be raped, and that a large number of men are victimized by false cases by women.

Finally, with respect to the need for gender sensitisation on campus, it is striking that the largest percent of respondents who said ‘yes’ were those who identified as female. It is also worth noting that many respondents felt it was unnecessary because people on campus are already educated, “decent” and “civilized”. A few admitted to not knowing what “gender sensitisation” meant.



We opened this section with a question aimed at understanding whether the respondents faced difficulties in interacting with members of the opposite sex*** in terms of shyness, language problems, etc.

34% of respondents who identified as male responded with a ‘yes’, whereas only 19% of female respondents did so. The high levels of respondents who have trouble with interaction across genders is indicative of the need to encourage and facilitate better interaction among students. In a previous survey, it was found that  a whopping 80.1% of the male respondents largely spent time with same-sex groups. Read with this statistic, one can conclude that the skewed gender ratio on campus creates an environment where there aren’t enough opportunities for male students to interact comfortably with persons of all genders. It seems that students who are women, on the other hand, are compelled to get used to multi-gender interaction in a male-dominated campus.

To begin looking explicitly at sexual harassment, we first asked whether the respondent had ever faced repeated unwanted approaches from a member of the other sex on campus.

The results were startling. Female respondents who face harassment (45%) constitute more than ten times the number of male respondents who reported being harassed (4%). In all, 109 out of 815 respondents reported facing this issue. We went on to ask whether such approaches continued despite lack of expressed consent. 54.5% of all victims (i.e., those who did not choose ‘not applicable’) said that simply ignoring them or making it clear that it was unwanted failed to resolve the issue. 59% of female respondents who were harassed also reported that the harassment continued.

We then asked questions about specific sexual crimes as defined legally. They are:

    • Non-verbal and non-physical sexual harassment in the campus. E.g. making you  uncomfortable about your attire, someone masturbating in front of you, etc.


  • Verbal sexual harassment, e.g. catcalling, sexually coloured or sexist comments in person or via mail/phone.



  • Uncomfortable situations with a security guard, such as sexually coloured remarks or gazes, voyeurism, sexual assault.

What is noteworthy is that the percentages of males who reported affirmatively on both verbal and non-verbal harassment fall below 10%. Of all those who reported being sexually assaulted on campus (36 out of 815 respondents), 80.5% are females (13.5% of all female respondents), and included one person who identified as “other” (of the 7 who responded to the survey). Of all male respondents, 1% were sexually assaulted.

Our question on sexual overtures by security guards was included in order to validate the widespread concern that security guards themselves can engage in sexual crimes. This was of concern because security guards are in a position of power, and meant to ensure a safe campus for everyone. The results, and the comments that detailed specific experiences, were eye-opening, and pointed to a pressing need to reconsider the way the institute is secured. One-fourth of all female respondents have faced issues with security guards. We also provide below an unedited selection of specific comments on the issue:


  • “A guard came across me and a fellow male student in CRC one night and proceeded to give me a one hour moral lecture about how my future marriage will be completely destroyed because of my 'impurity' and misbehaviour. Then he proceeded to talk completely inappropriately about sexual urges and how he "also" falls prey to them (even though we were not doing anything inappropriate, we were sitting and talking, though it was dark). He resisted all our attempts to move away and to tell him off, by getting aggressive. He then told us to use his room for sex. And then he also told us that he got into trouble for something involving a girl up in north India, was sent to jail, broke out and is now in hiding (AS A SECURITY GUARD ON CAMPUS!!!). Are there no background checks on security guards?”
  • “I was with my bf. Then a security guard comes and says what is happening etc when we were just kissing. He wanted to take us to admin block... Then we pleaded him he didn't agree. He was like send her for 5 min with me I won't tell in admin block! We were taken aback! We told we'll come to admin block and not agree on what he asked! later he got scared and left us!”
  • “I think some of the security guards are homosexual. They try to initiate talks in that manner (for eg: requesting for porn videos etc.). If you are cooperating, more intimate things may happen. (from mine as well as other friends' experiences)”
  • “They stare. One of them slapped the guy I was with.”
  • “I've been stared at by security guards a couple of times. Once I faced an issue where a girl was video-taped from behind and she had no clue about it. I told her and both of us approached the security guards at the main gate as the incident happened near the bus stop at main gate. The guards were supporting the man who was a staff in the institute and did not try to help us in any way.”    
  • “I have had multiple experiences of security guards slowing down on their vehicles to stare and pass aggressive comments as I was walking with my then-partner on IIT Madras roads.”
  • “I have not faced but some of the women I know (and I won’t name them of course) have faced such things. One such situations being the guard taking out his ***** and masturbating secretly on seeing my friend some 3 semesters back near velachery.”
  • “Yes, security guards stare at you routinely irrespective of your attire especially late at nights. There was once an encounter when the guard said " Time can make anyone bad, its better to be careful for your own good. If opportunity presents itself even I can become bad".”
  • “Yes, once i went to the main security office and the people there would stare at my chest even while talking to them.”
  • “Yes. They keep staring at almost all girls in way that is so uncomfortable especially at the velachery gate. Security guards are very shrewd and should be taught how to interact with girl students. I myself received an anonymous call which we found as one of the guards who tried to misuse.”
  • “Yes, my friend (female) came to my hostel to visit my room.. And the guard tried to grab the id card and he read dob and asked her age by looking at her top to bottom.. I was a second year student at that time and couldn't do anything also i didn't realize it until it was over”

We also asked about who the perpetrators of the aforementioned acts were, and respondents were given the option to choose multiple options^.

What is most striking is that “fellow student” is the most commonly faced aggressor according to these statistics for both “female” and “male” respondents -- 67% of 162 and 76 students each, respectively. This flies in the face of the widespread assumption that sexual crimes on campus are committed by outsiders, and rarely by our students. It is noteworthy that faculty are named as perpetrators by 25 individuals.

A crucial aspect of sexual crimes that is often ignored is the incidence of sexual harassment and rape within relationships. Like in the case of marital rape, there is a strong popular belief that whatever happens within relationships cannot be called as sexual harassment because the relationship itself was formed under consent. Extramarital romantic relationships are also often considered improper or taboo. Victims of sexual crimes within relationships, therefore, are more vulnerable to self-guilt and victim blaming. One of our questions aimed to find out the extent to which the problem exists on campus. A small but significant proportion of respondents reported experiencing this issue, namely 19 men and 24 women.

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