We grow up in a society where the distinction between private and public is ingrained in our minds ever since childhood. Society and its flag bearers have time and again emphasized on the importance of maintaining this distinction. Religion, politics, and economics- all benefit from this invisible yet salient line of separation.
The socialization process helps in cementing this distinction. Children are taught that certain body parts are ‘private’ parts and to not fondle with them in public. The code of conduct for behavior in public is repeated until it becomes so ingrained that it transforms into instinct. Norms for sitting, eating and even talking are different in public than at home, which is considered to be the private sphere.
Sex and related explicit activities, such as masturbation, are relegated to this private sphere in most societies. These are considered as taboo activities to engage in the public eye. However with an increasing number of men masturbating in public, this carefully crafted line of control between public and private collapses. The disintegration of this distinction presents not only moral but also political and judicial ramifications for the social structure.
Experiencing the Perils of Public Masturbation
My day started out like any other. I was on my way back home after having ice cream with a friend to counter the sweltering heat of Delhi.
Just a few steps from my house, I see a guy on a bike driving at a snail’s pace towards me. From a distance of a few steps, he asked me for directions. Unfortunately, I decided to be a Good Samaritan and helped the lost fellow. That is until he dawdled next to me and I noticed his hand moving strangely.
Glancing below, I gasped. There he was with his fly open, and his hand pleasuring an erect penis as I blabber on directions uselessly. Paralyzed, I could only utter an astonished ‘Oh God’. As soon as the he heard me, he sped away on his bike, leaving me feeling harassed in his wake.
I’m sure that for most women reading this, events like these aren’t unheard of. Incidents of public masturbation have been rising fairly consistently in India. Men masturbate in parks in broad daylight, or on public transportation, and even outside girls’ colleges, traumatizing women everyday and making the public place even more unsafe for them.
My personal experience taught me how unsettling the whole ordeal can be. For a moment, fear paralyzes you as the unexpected happens. Being objectified as the source of a man’s pleasure without consent and seeing him derive pleasure from your surprise, leaves one feeling miserable and unsafe. At the time of the incident, these feelings overpowered me and the perpetrator sped away without any repercussions.
Men masturbate in parks in broad daylight, or on public transportation, and even outside girls’ colleges,traumatizing women everyday and making the public place even more unsafe for them.
Few days later, I was full of questions. I couldn’t fathom why someone would roam around looking for women to masturbate at. My research into public masturbation came up with surprising results.
When I googled public masturbation, I expected to come across articles by women who have been the target of this atrocious behavior, columns calling public masturbation a menace and discussing legal actions one can take against the offender. However, what I got was numerous search results for pornography sites containing vast variety of videos of men masturbating in parks, movie theatres, buses,etc.
According to psychological research, public masturbation is a fetish. Public masturbators derive pleasure from various things like voyeurism, depersonalization and anonymity of the object of their pleasure, the surprise of their victims, to name a few. However, public masturbation cannot be excused on the grounds of it being an uncontrollable urge. This fetish is not directed towards an inanimate object for it to be harmless; it is directed towards women, from whom public space becomes a battleground to maneuver safely every day.
The Politics of Power
Like all sexual crimes, targeting women is not only about pleasure, but it is also about power. Unlike molestation and assault, public masturbation uses a type of power which isn’t physical in nature to threaten the victim. In some ways, catcalling and public masturbation can be grouped into this category of violence which doesn’t require physical contact, yet leaves a lasting impact.
Public masturbation is a ‘safe’ way for the perpetrator to assert power over women in public. Due to the non-physical nature of harassment, they feel that their act isn’t wrong. With the justification of it being ‘self-pleasure’, for them it should have a minimal impact on the woman towards whom it is targeted.
Like all sexual crimes, targeting women is not only about pleasure, but it is about power. Unlike molestation and assault, public masturbation uses a type of power which isn’t physical in nature to threaten the victim.
Unfortunately, this thinking is a result of the narrow definition of harassment among public. While cases of public masturbation can be filed under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with ‘assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty’, Section 509 which deals with ‘gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’, and/or Section 268, which handles cases of public nuisance. However, nowhere in IPC is public masturbation listed as ‘crime’.
In some instances, even the police fail to acknowledge the act as a crime because the perpetrator didn’t touch the woman. The injustice of this situation isn’t lost. Who gets to decide what constitutes harassment? The victim who went through the trauma or the police/perpetrator/law makers?
There is an urgent need to acknowledge how harassment can be mental. Words and acts which aren’t physical can be equally powerful as physical assault in instilling fear. Just because the nature of asserting power has become more invisible, doesn’t make its impact any less.
The War over Public Space
Ever since women have asserted their right to venture into public space and work towards their goal, outside the relegated private sphere called home, men have used a series of measures to limit the access of women in the public domain. Like public masturbation breaks the boundary between private and public, so did the demand of women for rights in public spaces did.
Ever so frequently, violence is used to ‘keep women in their place’, and instill a fear in them which will prevent them from entering this male dominated arena. The most common question asked when assault, whether sexual or not, takes place is what was she doing outside the home all alone?
With laws against rape, groping and molestation strengthening, men have found loopholes in acts of catcalling and public masturbation. Ironically, using masturbation – an act so private that women who want to indulge in it find creative means to keep it hidden from public gaze – as a means of control is a blatant display of power. Men have the power to express their desire and pleasure to threaten and force women into submission.
This tug of war over access to public space is not one which is likely to end soon. Women will continue to fight for their right in public space and men will continue to use horrific measures to restrict their access. The need of the hour is to acknowledge public masturbation as a crime rather than trivialize it and encourage women to speak up against this measure of repression and control.
Featured Image Source: Mel Magazine