Trigger Warning: This article is about the public masturbation incident in Kerala and mentions sexual harassment and rape.
It is your regular grocery store on a regular weekday evening. You are walking along the aisles picking a packet here and a can there when suddenly from the household cleaning supplies aisle jumps out a fellow with his pants zipper open. He is holding his erect penis in his hand and staring at you. From where you stand, he looks insane. He starts masturbating in front of you as if between the cockroach spray and the Lizol floor cleaner is the best place for him to jerk off.
Masturbation, the sexual-pleasure act done in the privacy of one’s bedroom or bathroom is one of the most irritating and offensive public tools of sexual harassment against women all over the world. They come in all forms of dressing and undressing: jeans, pants, shorts, mundu, dhoti, and with and without underwear. For a few minutes or in the blink of an eye, girls and women are forced to watch a penis in action.
Apparently, no places are off-limits for men to engage in this exhibitionistic act in a very public manner: grocery stores, public transport buses, bus stops, cinema theatres, parking lots, restaurants, elevators, classrooms, libraries, trains, planes, automobiles, streets, side streets, rickshaws, rickshaw stands, parks, and hospitals, you name it, the place probably has seen some flasher pervert who has exposed himself to girls and women without consent.
Most recently, however, in a widely publicised case in Kerala, a man accused of exposing and touching himself in a public transport bus while seated between two women was welcomed with garlands by a men’s rights group when he was released from judicial remand. The 28-year-old man was travelling in a Kerala State Road Transportation Corporation (KSRTC) bus en route from Thrissur to Kochi, sat between two women in the seats reserved for women, and started touching himself and masturbating. The woman Nandita Sankara confronted him and started filming him whereupon he got up and tried to run away.
The conductor and driver of the bus helped apprehend him and turned him over to the police who registered a case against him. With the men’s rights group garlanding him upon his bailed release, public masturbation has left the sphere of creepy behaviours and entered the discourse of public “rights” movements.
This is a new ripple in that old scummy pond; the very public approbation of a reported sexual pervert by the brotherhood, a form of virtue signalling whereby the accused is portrayed as a victim of legal affordances to protect women’s rights to bodily autonomy and sexual safety in public and private spaces. While the accused awaits trial on bail and has not been acquitted or convicted, both his supporters and detractors have taken to social media with many YouTube channel discussions about men’s rights in the age of #metoo movements and feminist activism for women’s rights in Kerala.
The YouTube videos create much noise about morally depraved Malayali women eroding men’s rights and masculinity in Kerala while listing a litany of real and perceived injustices against Malayali men, all apparently initiated by feminist women and men who aid them, including police officers, often referred to as “paavaadas” (skirts in Malayalam).
To any alert human being living in Kerala today, this passionate posturing of innocent Malayali men being wronged by “feminists” in Kerala might appear bizarre. It is objectively inaccurate. Men in Kerala do not face sexual threats and sexual attacks in public or private spheres at the same rate – daily, according to media reports, as girls and women do. Men are not directly killed or harassed into dying by suicide in dowry-related deaths. Then, what justifies this defence of an accused flasher pervert as a victim of feminists?
When one listens closely to the complaints against feminists by the men’s rights activists it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that the fact that Nandita Sankara does not follow the patriarchally prescribed norms for modest womanhood has provoked their ire in this case. In other words, the men’s rights movement is led by aggrieved men who feel themselves to be a failure, who feel left behind, who feel denied and deprived, who do not share in the neoliberal wealth of current Kerala society and who have elected to use women and feminists as a punching bag to vent their frustrations. They have only their patriarchal gender entitlement going for them.
Does Kerala need a men’s rights movement? Sure, why not? Just one fact alone merits a dedicated men’s rights movement in Kerala: men’s suicide rates in Kerala have gone up in recent years. Unemployment, depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic issues, mental illness etc. are some of the identified sources for the high suicide rate among men in Kerala. Adivasi and Dalit men are murdered; transmen die by suicide. These are all legitimate reasons for the men’s rights movement. Yet, the men’s rights movement has found its purpose in feminist woman-bashing.
Indeed, in one of their videos posted on the men’s rights site, the presenter has wallpapered his video background with Nandita Sankara’s photos from her personal social media sites where she appears in lingerie as if to suggest that a woman who posts pictures of herself in lingerie on her social media has no moral right to feel disgusted at a man masturbating next to her in a transport bus. Blaming a woman who speaks out against sexual harassment by zooming in on her clothing is a textbook symptom of a misogynist rape culture.
It is also quite telling that the same men’s rights organisation had planned a march in support of the Malayali actor accused of orchestrating the sexual assault of an actress. Fortunately, the march had few takers and was shut down before it could take off. Treating actresses, models, television personalities, social media influencers et al – women who are part of the larger entertainment/performance industry and who have visibility both online and offline – as targets for sexual harassment and sexual violence is the concrete application of institutionalised sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy.
While all women and woman-identified bodies in Kerala exist on an intersectional continuum where they can be denied bodily autonomy in the blink of an eye, from the infant girl in the crib to the grandmother and every age in between, to the trans woman and the trans man, entertainers, performers, and women celebrities are particularly targeted for patriarchal violence.
They are literally entrapped within the larger male gaze of society and by extension, patriarchy’s unlimited entitlement to do whatever it wants to these bodies. The men’s rights movement that garlanded the accused flasher pervert who did public masturbation and later justified it by plastering its comments with pictures taken from Nandita Sankara’s social media is marching to the tune of institutionalised patriarchy’s hatred for empowered women in Kerala.
A woman is free to dress how she wants. A woman is free to post pictures of herself in any clothing she is comfortable with on her social media. A woman is free to be comfortable in her body. She is free to look at herself in a mirror. She is free to post those pictures on her social media.
But linking such images to a man masturbating next to her in a public bus is a useless attempt at denying the man’s decision to do so. Nobody held a gun to the head of the accused and asked him to masturbate right there on that seat. He did it of his own accord. Public masturbation was his choice.
Conventional wisdom affirms that public masturbation and exhibitionism are sexually aggressive acts, or sexual hostility meant to shame or humiliate the woman forced to suffer the unsightly act. However, times have changed. Women no longer feel shamed, ashamed, afraid, or humiliated at the sight of masturbating perverts. While women might initially feel shocked or taken aback, it is a promising sign that Nandita Sankara called the accused out and rallied the people around her to witness what he was doing.
There is a lesson here for all girls and women:
- A sexual pervert flashing his genitals at you is not a reflection on you or your womanhood. Do not blame yourself, your dress, your body, your shoes, or your lunch box.
- When a sexual pervert flashes his genitals at you, tell him immediately “Smile, you are on Camera.” Take out your phone and capture the pervert in action. Make sure it is a medium shot or a full shot so both his face and his genitals are visible. The men’s rights organisation cast doubt on Nandita Sankara’s video because she did not zoom in on the masturbation clearly.
- When a sexual pervert flashes his genitals at you, immediately raise your voice and shout to alert the people around you.
- When a sexual pervert flashes his genitals at you in a bus, ask the conductor and the driver to stop the bus and summon the police. Ask for their help and the help of other passengers to make sure that the pervert does not flee from the premises. While 99% of the passengers might not lift a finger to help you, perhaps one person might.
While it is a drag to anticipate potential public masturbators in transportation as you get ready for work or school in the morning, remember to pack mace, pepper spray or a whistle to disrupt such obscene conduct should they occur.
Use your voice. Raise your voice. Show your face. Speak your truth.