This piece has been written by Mukta Joshi (Batch of 2019). Artwork by Marcella.
This past week has been a confusing time for many of us – shocking and disheartening for some, reassuring and empowering for others. I’ve heard the phrase “law school is having its #metoo moment” more than once, and many of us (myself included) have felt like we’ve been caught in quicksand, at times – struggling with questions that we’re unable to escape or ignore. This is natural, of course; everyone takes their own time on the learning curve. But the problem with taking too long when it comes to something like practicing feminism is that the collateral damage caused by missteps taken by those who are still on this learning curve can be devastating to those who are already been left vulnerable.
Why should we dissociate ourselves from men who we know have sexually harassed? This question was thrown open during the run up to the SBA elections this year, and naturally turned into a shitfest of gargantuan proportions. Is this not a form of mob justice? Do we not believe in the ability of a perpetrator to reform? Is it not inconsistent with mainstream law school opinion on the death penalty? In a nutshell, the need for social sanction, or dissociation, is precisely this: when men commit sexual harassment, which is an abuse of power and privilege, it is their social capital which allows them to not only commit the act in the first place, but to silence the victim after the act has taken place. While this silencing may not be active or even intentional, it functions in latent ways – by instilling fear and self-doubt (not to mention a constant feeling of dread) in the mind of the victim, which intensifies when she eventually comes to the realization that the perpetrator will never be held accountable.
In law school, in addition to the social power structures that naturally exist, additional forms of privilege act as shields – studliness, mooting achievements, sporting stardom, and committee convenership, to name a few. The higher up you are on the law school ladder, the more quickly you are likely to be forgiven for your abuse of this status. Does a class bias not exist in how we’ve seen social sanction pan out over the past couple of years? Of course it does, and it shouldn’t. But the logical extension of this ought to be that we take all victims of sexual harassment seriously, and sanction their perpetrators equally, regardless of their law school status – and not that nobody should receive any sanction at all.
With regard to reformative justice and forgiveness, I believe that nobody has the right to forgive a perpetrator for violating someone else. But obviously, expecting someone to remain a friendless outcast is not viable forever. Focusing on the consequences of ostracization (but what about his job? what about his mental health?) could not be further from the point, though. When trying to devise a practical solution to deal with a practical problem, we cannot ignore the fact that we still very much live in a world, and in a law school where, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, sexual violence is not taken seriously. A perpetrator is never going to be rendered an absolute pariah, unless maybe the victim manages somehow to go through a gruelling SHARIC trial and secure a conviction (and maybe not even then). What we must keep in mind though, is that the best (and only genuine) apology is changed behaviour. Until we are unequivocally certain of that, ensuring that we do not continue to reward perpetrators with the same social capital they have abused is one small but necessary step we can take to see to it that we are, in fact, taking sexual violence as seriously as we think we are.
As a fifth year student, I’ve spent four years now living with a deep sense of regret for not having spoken up (and other times, not having spoken up forcefully enough) about the sexual violence I’ve experienced during my time in law school. And I know I’m not the only one. Perhaps if the community had reassured me, as a first year, that each experience amounted to something more than just minor infractions that I should get over and let go, I wouldn’t have struggled for so long with feelings of distrust and hopelessness. I think we’re further along the learning curve now. And I think we owe it to those still struggling with these feelings (and those who haven’t had to, yet) to let them know we’ve got their back.