About a month back, a 20-year-old man—a university student—was accused of sexual harassment and assault by multiple girls who came forward on social media. Following the circulation of posts exposing his alleged behavior, he faced, at max, a blast of “angry” emojis and hateful comments. So, he approached my friend Nuzhat’s organisation PrivaC, which mediates cyber-crime solutions—claiming that he had been wrongfully accused, defamed and victimised. She was already acquainted with him through common friends, but since I didn’t know him personally at all, she passed the case over me to orchestrate a matter-of-fact evaluation of his claims relating to three distinct cases.
The first case was verified by Nuzhat’s team after the victim had reached out to PrivaC earlier. It was later posted by the victim’s friend as a cautionary tale and gained furious traction online. The screenshots reflected conversations between the two from when they were both 14 years old. His messages to the girl starkly displayed ferocious coercion: “You have to do it tomorrow, you said you would do it today.” The girl’s messages indicated unmistakable helplessness: she was ill with a fever and yet she was trying to satisfy him but she just couldn’t. His responses were, “Can’t you watch porn and learn?” His words also mirrored emotional manipulation: “Can’t I be a happy boyfriend?” (referring to the victim’s unwillingness to “perform an act”)
Prior to questioning, I had to dispel my first impression from reading the texts—particularly, the feeling that he was probably guilty, as those chats spoke for themselves to his solid disadvantage.
I asked him, “Were you in a relationship with the person you wrote these messages to?” He replied, “I had only one girlfriend and a few flings. I don’t remember which girl I could’ve said this to.” I tacitly framed the next question, “If you don’t remember who you said this to, could it have been one of your girlfriends?” And he replied, “Well of course, I, like other guys, would only talk like that to a girlfriend.”
However, soon, he admitted otherwise. “I’m not proud of it, but I’ve had many girlfriends… I didn’t say it earlier as I didn’t want anyone to judge me.” I corrected his misplaced observation, stating that dating women was clearly not the issue in question. This misunderstanding seems to be a common one among teenagers today—which comes as no surprise as adults in our society continuously reinforce this misconception. For instance, in the comment section for one of the posts, a middle-aged man wrote, “First teach these kids that these relationships before marriage are illegal.” The legal age of marriage is 18 (Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017) and the legal age of consent is 14 (Act No. XLV of the Penal Code 1860), so the claim that its an “illegal” relationship is incorrect. Sanctioning pre-marital relationships as taboo ensures that young adults don’t learn what constitutes a healthy one and a toxic one. By drawing focus to the prejudice against dating itself, teenage men tend to duck the implications of the real problem: the inability to behave like a proper human being and their thorny, endangering behaviour towards others. In this case, the perpetrator’s ambivalence heightened by the minute.
We arrived at a conclusion regarding who the victim could have been, and Nuzhat requested the girl to give him access to their past chat logs (she had blocked him), so that he in turn could provide the same screenshots from his end. If the two versions matched, he would be proven guilty. But he arrived with no clear answer, rather empty chat threads corroborating his empty claims that nothing happened, ever. Her screenshots, on the other hand, clearly showed the “seen” stamp beneath her sent messages. We showed these screenshots to the boy, and yet the evidence didn’t carve even the slightest dent in his denial, even as his stories became more confusing and directionless.
One of his clumsy defenses was that his phone had been stolen when the conversations happened back in 2015.
I took that into account, but the events still didn’t quite match—who was she speaking to about something that had happened offline the day before, if not him?
And then he mumbled, “If these were to be true, don’t these situations happen to every couple anyway at some point? That doesn’t always mean it’s sexual harassment.” He was right; we weren’t speaking about sexual “harassment”. It was much worse: saliently coercing someone to perform sexual activities, which in some legal systems such as in the US, would constitute rape. “Just because others have also engaged in inappropriate behaviour doesn’t negate the fact that it is still wrong and harmful, so just answer my questions only,” I said. But he seemed to believe he had the right to exact unsolicited sex. He didn’t see anything wrong with it.
As the evidence against him continued to pile up, the perpetrator swiftly changed the narrative and claimed the chats were actually fabricated. “It’s easy to fake these things,” he said. So I gave him two days to fake a chat with me and prove what he claimed the victim had been doing. He couldn’t, so we moved on to the second victim, his alleged second “bully.”
This second victim had exposed him herself, mostly narrating her trauma, rather than providing snapshots of their exchanged messages. In her public post on Facebook, she mentioned that she had deleted the conversations with him, and added mostly screenshots of her retelling the incident—that happened in person in 2017—to her friend. I contacted her and asked if she could recover the texts. I didn’t question whether the incident had happened or not, but since she had not posted any evidence, for a split second I subconsciously sided with the man’s claim that he had never met this person in real life, that she was simply capitalising on the Facebook community’s distrust towards him. But once again, the man was in the wrong.
I made a mediation group-chat with both the perpetrator and the victim, pretending it was a trial room of sorts. I first instructed him to provide his screen recordings. Next, I asked for hers. She stated, “It seems that he has deleted all the chats, but no worries, here’s what happened,” and then fired out recordings that bespoke his malicious guile. The chat-heads, his display picture, the phone number, all matched his current legitimate icons. They also included the same “seen” labels. He still maintained that these chats were fake. I once again gave him two days to fake a chat with me.
He never came up with a single one to disprove even one incident, even after four days, as sexual harassment cases against him piled up at his university abroad. Nuzhat and I, at that point, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry that he would go to such lengths to avoid the truth, whereas it would’ve, honestly, been easier to just admit it from the beginning. At the end of the never-ending “fake trial” of sorts, I concluded that he was not innocent. In response, he dropped a familiar statement, “Nuzhat, you’ve known me for a while, are these things I would do?” This phrase that mobilises a preconceived trust—ensconced in a past image of likeability—to absolve oneself was one that I’ve heard from my own abuser, and my friends’ ones, especially the ones in friend circles.
It became clear to me that he was one of “those” boys who didn’t know how to behave with girls, who rendered their sexual urges uncontrollable, like men portrayed in pornography and pop-culture stories that sell sex as a need-based commodity; teenage boys who crossed the line of consent, even if it were accidentally and ignorantly, but who have too much patriarchal ego to acknowledge their mistake even years later when karmic conscience comes calling. But this immaturity doesn’t justify their aggression and violence. Not even an apology or excuse such as, in this case, the perpetrators’ final words: “These things happened years ago, people change; you can’t just decide to bring this up after five years, just because a movement has started.”
We never moved on to the third case and the victims did not wish to pursue lengthy legal cases. To a large extent, the main goal had been retribution—to make him understand what he had done wrong. But to me, his unfaltering denial pointed to the sexual entitlement and the grit psychology it emerges from. I learned that the perpetrator didn’t know what “sexual harassment” meant. His friends, who were also accused of circulating images of girls they had been in relationships with, were probably unaware of the difference between right and wrong. Taking a wild guess, I assume their behaviour as a teenage group was boorish, and didn’t include a proper understanding of respect in friendships or relationships. Without any form of constructive education or even casual conversations on sex or relationships, teenagers don’t know what a respectful encounter means—and that is everything that had gone wrong in this case, and all that a society can learn from it.
The writer is a member of the Editorial section, The Daily Star.