CHENNAI: "Was it a smile”, I wondered. It was a bright noon in August 2016, and I was seated in a crowded bus in the high-raised seat right before the conductor’s near the rear door. Next to me, a school-girl, who looked no older than 15, dozed off with her head leaning on the seat in front of her. A tall large-framed man standing in the aisle smiled at me condescendingly.
Like he was somewhat cleverer than the stranger he was smiling at. Used to unwarranted cat-calls and unromantic noises of seduction, I did what I usually do. I lowered my eyes to look away, only this time, I was confronted with the sight of his hand stroking at my face-level. He smiled wider looking at the shock on my face. Holding his cap in front with one hand and masturbating with the other, he licked his lip in a disgusting way.
I quickly turned to the conductor behind for help. He averted his gaze, after seeing the man and pretended like he didn’t understand what I was saying. Before I could confront the man, he zipped his pants, wiped his hands on his cap, wore it and stepped down from the bus.
After reaching office I discussed the incident with a few women colleagues who unsurprisingly said that I wasn’t alone. My colleague Kannalmozhi Kabilan, who was walking at Velachery was stopped by a man in his bike asking her to help him find his way.
“Beneath the piece of paper the address was scribbled on, he was masturbating. He smiled at me and kept saying ‘come here’ and pointed to his penis,” she said. Maria Kuruvilla, another colleague said, in 2015 she encountered a man stroking it off at a railway station. However, she swiftly drew out her camera having him flee on his toes.
In the wake of the incident in New Delhi last week, when a girl recorded the man on the seat next to her masturbating and asking her to calm down, several female friends of mine opened up about similar encounters from their lives. While violations such as rape and assault deserve more attention, public masturbation is not an incident that happens behind closed doors. The incident happens with many witnesses and yet there is very little action taken against it.
From the personal experience and from people I have spoken to about this issue, being the object of someone’s public masturbation usually feels violating some way. Not physically violated, as the victim is not being touched or harmed in any physical way, but personally violated. Being masturbated at would easily be passed off as an act of ‘victimless crime’.
While it is illegal in several countries, nowhere in Indian Penal Code (IPC) or Indian law for that matter, ‘public masturbation’ is listed as a crime. However, a case can be filed under Section 354, which deals with “assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty”, Section 509 which deals with “gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman”, and/or Section 268 IPC, which handles cases of public nuisance.
Public masturbation poses an odd array of questions as the incident happens primarily in public. What do these men get out of it? “I love to masturbate with the thought of being caught. I once masturbated on a train with a pretty lady at the side of me. It was winter so I had my winter coat on my lap?” a man writes on a website that allows people to share their masturbation stories anonymously.
“The thrill of pleasure at being seen, of watching people’s reactions, of inciting fear, may all be part of the turn on for the perpetrators,” says Hema Tharur from Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) adding that public masturbation is a classic case of exhibitionism under paraphilia- a condition characterised by abnormal sexual desires, typically involving extreme or dangerous activities. “It could be a part of sexual addiction or part of compulsive behaviour...”
She adds that treatment is usually never done for such people as they never come voluntarily. “We’ve had family members in distress complain that somebody stripped in front of the servant, but exhibitionists never think that they are doing something wrong,” she said emphasising that public masturbation is always more distressing to those around than the ‘perpetrator’.
Another woman, on condition of anonymity, recalled how her schoolmate reacted to an incident of public masturbation. “She cried and thought that something was wrong with her. She thought she’d done something evil to have seen this. Given that my friend was fairly rational, I was surprised to see her act that way,” she said.
Vivian Kapil, a psychiatrist from Sri Ramachandra Medical College. says that such obscene incidents could affect children in irrational ways. “I recall a young girl who came to me with obstructive thoughts and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Turns out, she was once in the train alone, when a man masturbated in front of her, triggering these visions later,” he said adding that the girl hesitated talking about it fearing stigma.
Prasanna Poornachandra, founder of The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) too admits that these incidents can set off unwanted trauma in young children. Even older women accept it instead of fighting against it, she claimed. “When we were doing a social audit, we encountered many college students who said that they always wrapped themselves in dupatta in a bus or carried a change of clothes in case somebody masturbated at them in public,” she said.
These incidents do not often happen in a mall or an airport where men are being watched. It usually happens on a crowded bus or an empty street where the victim has no choice but to watch the man in silence. "The more women report such incidents criminally, and understand that it's nothing to be ashamed of, we'll have a constructive dialogue about this in public spaces," she said. If the issue of public masturbation continues to be silently accepted, and deliberately ignored, then the message we send to perpetrators is that they are doing nothing wrong.