There’s a story I try to tell often. It’s about the first time I was sexually harassed at the workplace. I was interning for the very first time with a High Court lawyer. He had a tremendous reputation, words like legend, genius, maverick would often be thrown around. It was only much later in life that I understood it was mostly men who are described this way, usually by other men, but back then at 18, I joined his chamber for a month and I found myself in the text book definition of a hostile environment.
There were only men in his chambers. He only ever hired men because he didn’t think women could keep up with his practice. The rigours and the demands of it. His office was a small, cramped, and smoky cavern with thousands of books and documents making up each wall. There was always a musty smell and everyone caried an air of doing Very Important Work.
The harassment started immediately. On my first day I was given a laptop where Pornhub was bookmarked and the male associates sniggered while I accessed it. I was ‘asked out’ by two seniors in his office on the same day. There was a constant barrage of sexist commentary about what women cannot or should not do. And one time during his regular sermons on why his genius was not appreciated enough by the world, where his office would be packed to the walls with lawyers and juniors sitting on top of each other, rapt with attention, he challenged me to sit on a male colleague’s lap if I wanted to prove that men and women are equal. It was exhausting and uncomfortable and embarrassing and made me extremely conscious in the workplaces, hesitant to make friends, and aloof from male colleagues till today. This is usually where I end the story. Always angry and very annoyed that this ever happened.
But there’s something I leave out. And that is five months after the internship I reached out to him thanking him for his support and the opportunity to learn from him and how much he had taught me. Today I want to write about why I did that.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know that sexual harassment was wrong. I literally maintained a document with everything that was happening just so I wouldn’t forget it. And I shared my experiences with supportive friends who all confirmed and comforted me that I had indeed been sexually harassed. And even as I was writing the email, I distinctly remember thinking how it closed all doors for me to ever speak out against the lawyer and his chamber. And yet I did it in some naked and needless attempt to still be in his good books. It was because I had very much brought into his cult of personality.
As young women trying to make something of themselves, we crave validation. Validation we are good enough, smart enough, that we have what it takes to succeed. It happens at various levels, we seek validation from our batchmates, from our seniors, from our professors and later from our bosses. Very often these dynamics are gendered. Male disapproval hits us harder because many of us our socially engineered to make it hit us harder. It sticks more when we get called names by men. Whether ugly, bitch, easy, slut or in the professional space; bossy, frigid, incompetent.
The flipside is that we also crave men’s good opinion. During my internship, the lawyer took a special interest in me. He assigned me some work that I put a ton of effort in and I heard from someone who heard from someone else that he liked my work. That’s how he operated, in a dense cult of mystery. And then one day I got invited to his den of vice, where behind the thick smoke I saw him—the genius, legend, maverick. For the rest of the internship he ensured that he took time to talk to me every day. We sparred about the state of the world, feminism, the opera. Winning an argument against him was specially thrilling. He told me about new authors and great thinkers (all men), about his various victories against various judges. He invited me to see how highly his clients regarded him. And I guess I fell for it all. Even as I was being sexually harassed I was actively seeking his validation.
This part of the story still brings me residual shame and so I usually avoid it, sticking to the easier sanitised black and white parts. But the truth is that almost all sexual violence, be by an intimate partner, child sexual abuse, domestic violence happens to people who are more than passive victims. And we all have host of emotions because of the nature of our relationships with our perpetrators, or have hidden parts of the story where we feel actively complicit in the harassment. And I think sanitised stories like mine only make it that much worse for women who believe we weren’t blameless.
Today I can see a more holistic truth of the events. And that is even as he was actively putting himself in a position of power over me, he operated from a deep sense of insecurity. I hear it now in his deeply caustic remarks about the national law schools he didn’t attend, about big law firms where he felt rejected, about senior Delhi lawyers by whom he was never accepted. But like many men, he sang the song of his own genius so often, that those around him, including me, often got carried away in his narrative. But today it’s clear that even as I was seeking his validation, he was a pathetic dissatisfied lawyer seeking mine. And so even as I am still abundantly angry that any of this ever happened, I’m also just a little bit satisfied.