What Is Missing In the #MeToo Movement?

Ditilekha Sharma (diti.mitu@gmail.com) is a PhD Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
11 December 2018

How can we talk about sexual harassment in the context of a sex-negative atmosphere where conversations around sex and sexuality are considered taboo? Who and what is excluded from the available redressal mechanisms for sexual harassment as well as from the larger movement? Through these questions, this article examines the #MeToo movement and the limitations of the criminal justice system and due process. 

There are several parallels between the #MeToo movement in the United States and in India. In the US, Tarana Burke, an African American woman coined the phrase “Me too” in 2006 with an aim to help survivors and raise awareness on the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault. The phrase gained prominence in 2017, when several women in Hollywood spoke up about the sexual harassment perpetrated by film producer, Harvey Weinstein. 

In the context of India, Raya Sarkar, a Dalit Queer PhD Scholar, put together a List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA) on Facebook in October 2017. Both the LoSHA and the responses to it by prominent feminists led to an uproar on social media. However, with the discussion not moving beyond naming and shaming, the conversation died down shortly thereafter. While a couple of academicians mentioned on the list were found guilty when official enquiries were taken up, most others faced no repercussions and there was no news of any inquiry being initiated against them (Dasgupta 2018). 

Almost a year later, in 2018, the #MeToo movement is said to have finally hit the country when Bollywood celebrities have been named (Datta et al 2018). The dialogue that was initiated with the LoSHA was completely erased, much in the same way that Tarana Burke was not acknowledged by most of the American media for a movement initiated by her (Blackburn Center 2018). There were also speculations on social media that the LoSHA did not get as much attention because it was initiated by a young Dalit woman and did not have the support of the larger feminist movement.

The Legal Gaze and the Perfect Victim

One difference between the LoSHA and the #MeToo testimonials of 2018 was that, in the latter, the testimonies of harassment had details about the nature of violence, and thereby a certain assertive construction of the “victimhood” of the victim. Robert Horwitz (2018) writes about how victimhood has become a “pivotal means by which individuals and groups see themselves and constitute themselves as political actors.” It embodies a declaration of the wrongs suffered and a claim to justice. In order to be recognised as a victim of injustice, the individuals or the groups have to be acknowledged as morally entitled to social concern.

Resilience to violence is sold as a prescriptive tool and it is assumed to be the only way to be heard (Mehri 2018). Resilience is measured against a hierarchical scale. The politics of recognition of the violence is a politics that wants victims to resist physically and strongly, and one’s trauma has to be acted accordingly in order for it to be recognised. One has to play out the resilience to a kind of clickbait voyeurism, for people to be able to decide whether they are the “perfect victim.” 

Derrida (2002) writes that there is a distinction between law and justice, because elements of calculation exist in law, and justice, on the other hand, is incalculable. He further details how, in legal mechanisms, where a binary of crime and justice are established, crimes are also categorised on a scale of severity. It is founded on a principle of retributive and violent justice. Hence, the principle on which the legal system works demands that voyeuristic details of crimes be given as evidence so as to ensure justice. The survivors are expected to retell every aspect of what felt as violence. 

Often, in case of sexual violence, it becomes extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact factors that made one feel violated. While violation of consent is becoming the way to understand sexual violence and abuse, consent itself is not a simple yes or no. The following sections discuss this in more detail. 

The Context of Sex Negativity

Bose and Sen (2018) write that the hysterical aftermath of #MeToo has resulted in a disservice to the fight against sexual harassment/molestation/rape by shifting into a politics of female victimhood, empathy, and revenge. They write that #MeToo’s “regressively moral impact on academia” has resulted in a context of sex negativity and safety has become the new radical feminist vocabulary in place of risk, by shifting the rhetoric of transgression to a demand for safety (Bose and Sen 2018). Their argument reduces the right to feel safe and the need for accountability to the institution’s protectionist attitude. 

I disagree with the reading that the #MeToo movement has resulted in an atmosphere of sex negativity. Safety is not a word of sex negativity. On the other hand, safety is a necessity for an environment of sex positivity to flourish. To be able to practise safe and healthy sexual and intimate partner relationships, it is essential to have conversations around sex and sexuality. This is only possible in a context where there is no taboo associated with sex and sexuality.

Bose and Sen (2018) also highlight how power is attractive and the field of desire and sexuality is never devoid of power. Hence, the teacher in the classroom who exudes power is also the subject of desire. The University Grants Commission (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015, in an attempt to protect women, have created an eroto-phobic atmosphere in the university by creating the image of the professor as the mentor. The university and the classroom space should not be eroto-phobic, so much so that the space is devoid of desire, and that students are constantly under the protectionist surveillance of the institute. Whenever there is a demand for safety against sexual harassment in campuses, institutions handle the issue by imposing more rules of dress, entry timings, or behaviour, and control mechanisms such as CCTVs and increased security on occupants of the campus, without acknowledging their desires. This does not address the problem of harassment, but instead makes it more difficult for people to seek redressal because they are scared of the questioning and victim shaming that they may have to face.

Despite this, as discussed earlier, consent is not a simple yes or no. Not all consensual transactions are free of coercion. Coercion can also work in seemingly consensual ways. We live in a society that is largely sex negative and hetero-patriarchal. While individuals who are socialised as women are largely taught not to seek or even desire sex, individuals who are socialised as men are taught to pursue the women. Hasi toh phasi (if she smiles, she has fallen into the trap) is the rhetoric that Bollywood has taught us. It is the same atmosphere of sex negativity that also leads to gender segregation during adolescent and teenage years.

In 2016–18, I was part of a research study interrogating discrimination based on non-normative genders and sexualities, funded by Ford Foundation and based in the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.[1] The team studying the education space, including Chayanika Shah and me, focused on discrimination in educational spaces.[2] One of our methods was to conduct in-depth life history interviews with queer persons who were assigned gender male at birth. During these interactions, we learnt that the “making” of the boys into men is usually very violent and marked by a lot of peer policing. As children approach puberty and develop sexual attraction, they are segregated on the basis of gender so that they do not act upon this attraction because of taboos associated with non-marital sexuality. This leads to the creation of gendered spaces where socialisation into becoming their assigned gender takes place. Violence and bullying, both physical and otherwise, is normalised in exclusively men’s spaces. This violence is inflicted both by adults as well as by peers, and is also often sexual in nature. Any kind of gender non-normativity is met with high degree of punishment. 

While the making of women and femininity is discussed in feminist circles and many parents today try to socialise their daughters to be more independent, the making of men is rarely discussed through the feminist lens. This kind of gender segregated socialising stemming from sex negativity and patriarchy leads to differential socialisation where the issue of consent becomes complicated. This is because men and women are not taught to exercise consent in the same way. Injustice and violence begin from this point itself. 

Who is the Me in #MeToo?

Since #MeToo is an attempt to give recognition to the violence one has faced and requires the performance of being the perfect victim, it brings us to the question of who can afford to actually come out with the story of abuse. Besides the trauma of having to relive the experience when coming out with the story, what is the kind of support that survivors are likely to get?

Women and queer persons from different social locations have questioned the “Me” in #MeToo. Even while they have spoken about the exclusionary nature of the #MeToo movement, they have also spoken of the different kinds of resistance against violence that they have undertaken in their everyday lives, and within, as well as for, their communities. 

Mimi Mondal writes that intersectionality, which seeks to dismantle caste alongside envisaging gender equality, should be the approach of feminist mobilisation, because their perpetrators have been dominant caste men, mixed caste men, men from their own caste, as well as dominant caste women. If the #MeToo resistance is not marked by an intersectional approach, then it is not enough (Mondal 2018). The Kashmiri women’s statement also puts their resistance to violence within a context of army occupation and a movement for self-determination (Raiot Collective 2018). Women from the North East have contextualised the #MeToo movement in terms of racial prejudice, how the bodies of women from the North East are perceived by the rest of the country, and how power structures of the community and local justice systems operate within the region (Gupta 2018). The voice of persons with disabilities is also largely missing from the #MeToo movement despite the continued abuse, torture, rape, and human rights violations they face in institutions, schools, public spaces, and their homes (Goyal 2018). Goyal also talks about how women with disabilities are often seen as being asexual or sexually less desirable, and hence, their harassment often goes unacknowledged. The legal process is not disable-inclusive, be it in terms of the availability of complaint forms in Braille or access to support services. There have been no stories from people in the unorganised sector, the largest population of labour, in the #MeToo movement either. This could be because the lack of access to technology or the precarity of the nature of transactions involved in this sector. For instance, in the absence of an official contract of transactions, everything from one’s job to wages or allocation of duties, depends upon the supervisor. Under such circumstances, the supervisor can use their power to sexually exploit the worker and there is no redressal mechanism to turn to. 

These resistances have often not featured in the popular discourse, perhaps because they are not seen as the perfect victims. The #MeToo movement also does not seem to have taken cognisance of these resistant voices. Instead, it has become “one moment” where the media and the social media seem to have suddenly realised the pervasiveness of gendered and sexual violence. 

Through the narratives of women across locations, it becomes clear that for people coming from marginalised communities, it is tougher to be recognised as the survivor and to be heard, both by their own community as well as by the stranger on the internet. When the survivor and the perpetrator come from vastly different socio-economic locations, even if the survivor gathers the courage to speak about the violence, they are not believed and often shamed. This has been seen in cases like those of Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, and of Nafissatou Diallo, a Black immigrant in New York. 

In cases where both the abuser and the abused are from similar locations, often the response of the community is to protect the men of the community. This becomes especially relevant when both the survivor and the perpetrators come from marginalised locations. Men from marginalised communities are often stereotyped as sexual predators. This is true for African American men in America and for Muslim and Dalit men in India. These men have lesser access to the criminal justice system and are also convicted more because of the prejudice towards them. Given this power structure that villainises men from marginal locations, the first instinct of the community is to protect the men who have been systematically marginalised, even if they are aggressors. The onus of protecting the men falls on the community, and women of the community have to bear the brunt of it. 

When people from oppressor communities support the survivors, there is also a constant fear of them appropriating the resistance. Their support may also come from their desire of protecting the survivors from men in marginalised location who are considered to be incapable of protecting their own women. At the same time, the survivors also have the onus of protecting other women from their community who may also be abused if the perpetrator is not called out. Thus, the onus of protecting fellow women as well as safeguarding the reputation of the men in community becomes the responsibility of the survivors of abuse. A famous case bringing this issue to light was that of Anita Hill, an African American woman who was criticised for complaining against a man belonging to the African American community because it would hamper the African American cause (Zarkos and Davis 2018). Even in India, we have seen that when a Dalit, OBC, or Adivasi woman comes forward to share her experience of harassment, she is often asked by members of her own community to not take the complaint forward or to seek punishment for the perpetrator or face backlash within the community (Hargreaves 2018; Firstpost 2018). Under such circumstances where do the queers of marginal locations belong? 

Gloria Anzaldua (1987), a mestiza feminist, wrote that culture puts the rights of the community over those of the individual. While referring to marginal communities she writes that culture becomes necessary for the survival of the tribe especially when they are fighting off intentional genocide. 

“The queer are the mirror reflecting the heterosexual tribe’s fear of being different, being the other and therefore lesser and therefore sub-human, in-human, non-human.” 

For marginalised communities who are fighting off other kinds of violence, acknowledging the queers renders their existing struggles more complex. Thus, the queers do not belong completely even in the communities into which they are born. In the context of the #MeToo movement too, the survival of the marginalised communities is at stake and they are constantly at the receiving end of systemic violence. In the process of trying to match up to the hegemonic, the queer begins to be seen as a threat and hence, needs to be made invisible. 

Exclusions within Redressal Mechanisms

The law also deprives certain categories of people from their status of legal subjects. Certain people become incomplete citizens in the eye of the law. Laws like Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 strip the basic rights of people by offering complete impunity to the army, that can get away with any level of violence, including sexual violence and murder in the garb of maintaining order. The perspectives by Kashmiri women and women from the North East highlight the challenges of coming out with experiences of sexual harassment and asking for justice from the Indian state that has been colonising them. 

Queer people are also rendered incomplete citizens by the Indian state. It was only in 2014 that transgender persons got recognition through the NALSA judgement and in 2018 that Section 377 was read down. Even while transgender persons are being recognised as Indian citizens, other laws such as the Section 375 and Section 354 continue to be in binary genders. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill is yet to be passed. Until Section 377 was not read down, queer sexuality was criminalised. There was no possibility to seek redressal for queer individuals in case of sexual violence. With the Section 377 being read down, there is acknowledgement that queer sexual acts can be both consensual as well as non-consensual, and non-consensual sexual acts need to be brought under the purview of sexual harassment and rape. While feminists have resisted laws from being made gender-neutral so as to protect the structural marginalisation of women, with the growing awareness of harassment of queer and transgender individuals, it has become necessary to identify vulnerable groups and bring them within the purview of these laws. As of now, sexual harassment and rape laws are completely cis-heterosexual in nature, whereby there is no redressal mechanism for queer people. Under such circumstances, when queer people are deprived of both civil rights as well as rights for protection against sexual violence, they are rendered incomplete citizens. 

Will women from marginalised communities and queer individuals be able to come out with their experiences of violence when they are not even recognised as complete citizens? 

Queers within #MeToo

People from the queer community are already stigmatised, ostracised and vulnerable in society. Moreover, queer bodies and the community at large are highly sexualised. Lesbian women have been seen as the object of fantasy for men and gay relationships are often reduced to just sexual relationships. Sexual violence against queer individuals and queer bodies has to be understood in that context as well. Further, what is also a cause of concern is the cis-heterosexual nature of the #MeToo movement. Even as more people are taking cognisance of sexual harassment as an issue and are forming groups to discuss these issues, these forums also often have an "only women" policy, thus excluding trans and gender non-conforming individuals. For instance, the calls for support to #MeToo in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Chennai and Ahmedabad shared on social media were to “sisters” and had strictly said “no men.”[3]

So, who can be a sexual harassment victim? This is a question we will have to keep asking continuously when we discuss the issue of sexual harassment. Is the due process being able to provide justice to all? Is the due process being able to recognise everyone as worthy of justice? What kind of assault, and by whom, gets recognised? These are some questions that the legal mechanisms and due process may not be able to address adequately. 


The #MeToo movement has brought the pervasiveness of the issue of sexual harassment into the mainstream. It has also highlighted the inadequacy of the due process. The conversations that the movement has opened up have emphasised the need for psychosocial support mechanisms alongside the legal due processes, whether this support is in terms of platforms where people can speak out without being blamed, ways to heal the trauma, or seek legal support if they so desire. There is, perhaps, a need to reimagine justice and the importance of law when it comes to addressing sexual harassment. Equality before the law is inadequate, because one’s social and political location determines the degree of access to the legal process. The law is not enough for justice to be achieved. There is a requirement to examine and change the language by which we understand sexual harassment. Until that happens, justice is a distant dream. 

Ditilekha Sharma (diti.mitu@gmail.com) is a PhD Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
11 December 2018