It was July 2020. Bored of staying indoors due to the lockdown, I decided to watch a movie and after surfing for about 10 minutes, I finally settled on Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017). While I thoroughly enjoyed the songs and Varun-Alia’s chemistry, I must admit I did not like Badri’s character at all.
He is a stalker and a misogynist who follows Vaidehi everywhere, going so far as to move to Singapore where she is training to be a flight attendant. Despite her rejection, he keeps pursuing her. The audience, both moviegoers and critics, have talked endlessly about it in their reviews.
But, there is a moment in the film that I haven’t seen many people talk about. After a misunderstanding with one of Vaidehi’s friends, Badri storms off with Vaidehi following him. They are having a discussion on the street when they’re attacked by a group of masked men. Badri, thinking they might harass Vaidehi, flings himself at them and asks her to run away. The men, ironically, end up harassing him and rip his clothes off. He is “saved” only by the timely arrival of Vaidehi and her friends. It is supposed to be a re-enactment of sorts of his treatment of Vaidehi, albeit a comical version of it. To me, it was anything but funny.
Stalking and sexually harassing a woman is a crime. But to do the same to a man to shed light on the subject seems in bad taste to me. I am not sure most people understood the significance of that scene, and even if they did, they probably brushed it aside. I only know that it made me extremely uncomfortable and led me to think about male sexual assault in India and its representation in visual media.
Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code defines sexual assault as “sexual intercourse with a woman against her will, without her consent, by coercion, misrepresentation or fraud or at a time when she has been intoxicated or duped or is of unsound mental health and in any case, if she is under 18 years of age”. This makes rape a gendered crime as it depicts women as only the victims and men as only the perpetrators.
The POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses) Act, 2012 guarantees legal measures for male children who have been subjected to sexual abuse. Even then, the topic is shrouded in silence and shame. An online survey conducted by Insia Dariwala among 160 Indian men showed that 71 per cent of the responders had been abused as children.
Out of that, 84.9 per cent said they had not told anyone about the abuse and the primary reasons for this were shame (55.6%), followed by confusion (50.9 per cent), fear (43.5 per cent) and guilt (28.7 per cent). In April 2018, Maneka Gandhi, the then Minister for Women and Child Development, brought in an amendment to the legislation to make the protection of children from sex abuse gender-neutral for the first time in India. But, the same cannot be said for adult males.
There is no Indian law that covers the act of sexual assault on an adult male, whether it is committed by a man or a woman. At most, when such cases are reported, they are registered under Section 377 of the IPC. Instead of saying that the victim has been “raped”, the documents mention that he has been “sodomized”.
In 2019, Rajya Sabha member KTS Tulsi introduced a bill to make the offence of rape gender-neutral, ensuring protection for male and transgender victims. But, it hasn’t been passed yet. While it is true that rape is a patriarchal act of power assertion, it is vital to legally address the instances of male sexual abuse as well.
Patriarchy is a double-edged sword. While it ensures women’s bodies and lives are constantly surveilled and policed, it imposes upon men a strict code which they have to adhere to or face rejection and ostracization. Men are repeatedly told that they are supposed to be the protectors of their families and their communities, strong and reassuring in their demeanour. Thus, male sexual assault is often taken to be a sign of emasculation within our society.
The social stigma attached to male sexual assault prevents men from reporting such incidents to law enforcement officials. Homophobia also plays a role in ensuring silence over the matter. Our obsession as a society with female purity and its association with family honour means that we not only oppress women but we also ignore the trauma endured by men.
The lack of awareness regarding male sexual assault is evident from its glaring invisibility in the media. Less representation means that fewer people are aware of it. It also means that more people live in denial about it. News channels hardly ever cover cases of sexual assault on men.
Movies that talk about this subject are either branded as critically acclaimed films (implying that it is only for the consumption of the “classes” and not the “masses”) or are simply ignored. I doubt many people have heard of I Am (2010) or Hostel (2011), both of which depict male sexual assault.
Even when it is depicted in mainstream shows and films like Bridgerton (2020) or The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), it tends to get glossed over. It is infuriating that the only time male sexual assault is discussed in media and social media platforms is to be used as a weapon to silence women who’ve experienced sexual harassment instead of acknowledging and supporting the survivors.
The consequences of this kind of misogynistic discourse can be extremely damaging, to say the least. Therefore, we must act to raise awareness on this issue starting with media content that delivers a nuanced portrayal of this issue, especially with regards to marginalised communities.
Media has always played a powerful role in influencing law-making and we must use this to push for an amendment of sections 354 and 375 of the IPC. Countries like the USA, Canada, Northern Ireland, and the UK already address sexual assault of all genders through laws. It is high time we do too.
Shilpashree is currently pursuing her PhD in English Literature at Utkal University. She spends her days reading books, writing poems and binge-watching Netflix shows. As a scholar, she is interested in how the fields of Masculinity Studies and Media Studies can contribute to issues of social justice in India. She is a proud ARMY and loves travelling, dark academia mood boards, chocolate cakes, and everything Robert Pattinson
Featured Image Source: QDT