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She Said/He Said

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Photo courtesy of Times of India

Much has been written and said in the last few days since the news was released that a Sri Lankan cricketer has been charged with sexual assault by an Australian woman.

Between the memes, lewd jokes and knowing digs, what is clear to many is that Sri Lankans have a very woolly idea when it comes to what entails consent in the area of sex. The immediate assumption is that if a woman invites a man to her home, she has given him consent to have sex. Starting from the fact that the accuser met the cricketer on a dating app, Tinder, this in itself has been touted as proof of her intention to have sex.

No means no

Consent with regard to any kind of sexual activity involves the ability to withdraw consent at any point during the encounter and this is clearly articulated in the current Australian law in the jurisdiction of the State of NSW, where the alleged incident took place. Many Sri Lankans – women as much as men – are making remarks on social media along the lines of “it takes two to tango” and “she invited him to her house so she was asking for it”. This kind of response highlights the ignorance which is normalised in our culture about rights and responsibilities in the sexual realm.

The idea of withdrawing consent even during an act of sex is alien to many Sri Lankans, as evidenced by the arguments presented on social media. The lines are blurring between morality and sexual deviancy in a very troubling manner where it is apparently considered almost expected or acceptable for a woman to be raped if she invited a man to her home and a cultural double standard portrays her as desperate or amoral for wanting to have sex with someone.

A male friend recently described how there have been instances where he was invited to a woman’s home with the intention to have sex but did not even receive a kiss and they just spent the night together without any kind of sexual activity. And this is perfectly acceptable. Even if at some point the intent was to have sex, anyone is free to withdraw that consent and is under no obligation to go through with an act with which they are not comfortable. This applies not just to women but for any person concerned.

Sri Lanka’s laws are quite clear on certain aspects of consent without which a sexual act would be considered rape. Consent obtained through threat of force, fear and intimidation is not considered consent for sexual intercourse. Furthermore, a person who is not sound of mind – including being unconscious, or intoxicated – cannot give consent for sexual intercourse as per the law. These guidelines are quite clear although they do not explicitly articulate at which instance consent can be withdrawn.

What is clear is that everyone exercising their right to free expression on social media is also exposing their own beliefs about gender rights, sexual violence, the status of men and women in Australia and Sri Lanka respectively, differential sexual freedoms and, above all, what constitutes sexual consent between adults.

Australia has recently clarified its definitions of consent, as recently as July this year. Under these new laws, consent to sexual activity must be positive and explicit, not assumed in the absence of a no or reluctance on the part of one of the parties.

The accused in this case is said to have had disciplinary inquiries in the past with regard to his conduct in terms of training, team discipline and conducting himself in a manner suitable for a national cricketer. Of course, a person is innocent until proven guilty and one cannot arbitrarily use instances of the past to prove a present day situation. However, there are many accounts that speak of interference from management and figures of influence who have aided in his impunity all these years.

If this is the case, it furthers the jock mentality of Sri Lankans, who feel that certain athletes should be excused for their bad behaviour because they possess a talent that is seen as a national asset. This recalls the Brock Turner judgment in the US where a young man was given a light sentence by the judge so that he could further his swimming career, regardless of the fact that he raped a woman. Such instances really question the moral compass of a society that is willing to excuse a heinous crime like sexual assault on the basis that the person possesses a talent that must be guarded.

Having his past actions overlooked or excused may have emboldened the accused to behave in the same way he behaves in Sri Lanka in a foreign country, not appreciating the differences in cultural norms and values or believing he will not be impacted by them.

What has not been highlighted in the media is the alleged perpetrator’s refusal to wear protection. There is a segment of Sri Lankan society that takes pride in not wearing condoms or using contraceptives as they feel it adversely affects their sensory pleasure in the experience. This is very problematic, as contraceptives like condoms prevent STIs and pregnancy and are a precautionary measure that should be taken seriously. A cavalier attitude to such things points to an undue reliance on patriarchal privilege, which Sri Lanka unfortunately seems to exalt.

Much of the commentary on the case has shown the interest taken by the Sri Lankan public in the processes by which the case will be investigated and assessed under Australian law because the accused has been denied bail and is in custody in Australia.

Consequences of male entitlement

In Sri Lanka, justice for victims of sexual assault, rape and abuse is a slow, tortuous and inequitable process and many perpetrators are never held accountable for their actions. Women who accuse men in cases like this, in their subjugated and disempowered condition of implied inferiority and second class citizenship status, are routinely mocked and disbelieved; toxic masculinity and gross entitlement are evident in the assumptions made about who said and did what.

The way Sri Lankan women as well as men have rushed to judgement and assumed that the accuser in this case is of low moral character because she met the accused on the Tinder dating app is indicative of the misogynistic beliefs to which they have been subjected and by which they now judge and assess others.

In the middle of all the social media chaos, there are many men standing up for women in general by refusing to share the abhorrent memes that have been churned out ad nauseum and who have publicly said they are ashamed at how many people are rape apologists openly siding with the accused, calling him our boy, diminishing his responsibility and saying he needs to be defended against being victimised. He is not a boy but a man in his early thirties.

The racist and sexist stereotypes imposed by defensive citizens of Sri Lanka are most repellantly and raucously manifest in the way some on social media have described the accuser as white trash and a gold digger. Australian women are often seen by Sri Lankan men as sexually liberated and formed by a permissive culture because they enjoy greater freedoms of all kinds and exercise these with less shaming and hostility directed towards them than women do in a comparatively repressed Sri Lanka.

These hypocritical and classist projections fail to take into account the background of the accused. Because his status as a celebrity cricketer brings him admiration and respect in the performance of his sport, positive assumptions are made about him in contrast to the woman who has accused him of disrespect and violence towards her.

In Sri Lanka, a charge of sexual assault made against a prominent man would most probably not even reach the courts. What would such a claim achieve, in terms of justice, in a jurisdiction like Australia, where women’s rights are not routinely dismissed?

The correlation between macho sports and toxic misogyny is well established. Celebrity golfers, tennis players, athletes, cricketers and rugby football players are often in the news headlines charged with sexual offences.

Re-victimising the victim

The expatriate Sri Lankan community in Australia, in a spirit of hospitality, has been organising night parties for the cricket team since they landed, according to media reports. The team has gone to clubs and casinos and accepted invitations to house parties. Some had even shared their rooms with women, sharing their living spaces. Members of the team attended booze parties until the early hours of the morning on days when they were representing their country in international matches. Athletes cannot perform well on the field while representing their country with a lifestyle like this. The codes of conduct that appear to have become normalised as shown by this incident are below the standard required of international cricketers. It is not only the irresponsible individual who needs to re-evaluate his behaviour but the administration and management who  have enabled it.

There are hugely normalised beliefs in sports loving societies that boys will be boys and that those superstars who play hard on the field should play equally hard off it, and in fact should play the field hard as a socially acceptable badge of male prowess and virility. But Australia in recent years, with the progress of its Me Too Movement, has successfully shown that such narcissistic affirmations disempower half the citizenry and should therefore be challenged, re-evaluated and changed.

There are many who see this as a landmark case because both societies are at a tipping point. As one elder statesman recently said: “Social media commentary shows up Lankan attitudes in general, and especially the nationalistic miasma that lurks among chauvinists.  The complainant is ‘deadmeat’ in the minds of Lankan confreres.” But she is not in Sri Lanka and her right to privacy is respected in Australia.

The dude bros of all genders on both sides of the Indian Ocean are, of course, busy belittling, objectifying and slut-shaming the “girl” (who is 29), saying “It is a common occurrence in all big time sport. To the victorious hero or sportsman goes the spoils.”Women draped around prizewinning athletes like trophies, publicly showing their adoration, their respect, their attention and their admiration are seen as part of the rightful gains of a winner in toxic masculinist culture.

The accused’s legal team and supporters will say he is being scapegoated. People in damage control mode trying to rectify Sri Lanka’s public image will say this is a one off incident and try to make the case that although the accused represents Sri Lanka in international cricket, he does not represent the attitudes of the culture which formed him.

The gold digger or extortion claim made by the court of public opinion against the accuser seems baseless, in the current economic situation, where the disparities between Australia and Sri Lanka are highlighted. The accuser’s legal team has apparently demanded 100,000 Australian dollars from the accused as settlement.

This amount would purchase about ten days of legal representation by a barrister at 10,000 Australian dollars per full day in court in Sydney. This does not seem like gold digging in Australian terms. Australia is – and has been for many years – one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in. But in Sri Lankan currency, currently devalued due to the ongoing economic crisis, this amount is currently over Rs. 2.3 million.

It will not be fair or just to scapegoat one man. However, if this incident is treated as a one off national embarrassment and hastily buried and glossed over, it will conceal the fact that under the myths and golden legends we prefer to believe about our society is a veritable hotbed of pending issues. There are many other cases of violations of decent and ethical conduct, locally and internationally, that are occurring regularly but which do not emerge into public knowledge because the nation as a whole would prefer to feel pride rather than shame.

However, the more such coverups go on, the less genuine self respect and more shame and embarrassment the citizens of the country will feel.

Australia – a good act to follow

If we look at Australia as a civilized country today, it is because its citizens have increasingly chosen laws that uphold the rights of its citizens and clearly define what is and is not a crime and an offence. This positive trajectory has happened slowly, over many years, and with a lot of activism and protest that gradually made the majority of its citizens aware of issues about which they had formerly been ignorant.

Australians two decades ago bravely investigated child sex abuse charges even against public figures against strong opposition by people who felt that it was wrong to question the conduct of such people. The rights of the vulnerable have been far more greatly recognised in recent decades in Australia as a result of these public debates. This has resulted in a more decent and respectful, civilized society. But it is the product of collective effort.

Australia is not perfect. However, in this area, in its willingness to choose to do better, to create greater justice and equity for its citizens, it could be seen as exemplary. But only if in the areas of greater respect for the status and dignity of women and clarification of consent, its example is followed. This case could be a wake up call for the citizens of Sri Lanka. The outcome has a better chance of occurring through the matter being judged in the legal system of Australia. That in itself is a truth worth facing.

Sex education is the need of the hour

The question that we need to ask in Sri Lanka is: What do we do about educating people on consent? Education on ethical and moral values needs to start at home, at schools, among families and youth groups. This is why sex education with an understanding of present day requirements is important. Many think sex education means teaching children how to have sex and equating it to porn. Religious authorities, politicians and various elements have interfered in this process, which has resulted in youth not knowing where to make and respect boundaries or draw the lines with regard to sexual conduct and not knowing how to manage natural feelings of desire and dealing with issues of self worth, self awareness and consent in a society where their sexual desires are stigmatised and forcefully suppressed.

There is currently a huge problem in urban schools of nude photographs being shared on social media as a form of blackmail and extortion. These are glossed over and denied because of Victorian era codes of morality and shame factors which only exacerbate the situation and offer no relief or recourse for people. The more we pretend and hide behind these veneers of touted culture, the more these things fester and grow. And the results are what we are witnessing today.

For many women who have been victims of rape or sexual assault, this incident is a reminder of how much further Sri Lanka has to progress in this regard. With a rape conviction rate of less than 5%, the country’s track record for justice in these instances is shamefully inadequate.

An acquaintance was relating her experience with rape in Sri Lanka where she was told by the police that since she was sexually active it cannot be considered rape as it is rape only if it is a virgin who has been violated. She was also told that since she is physically big, she should have fought him off. Arguments like this are symptomatic of the judgmental attitude many institutions in this country have with regard to victims of sexual assault. Who wants to come forward to seek justice if this is the attitude and the response from the authorities concerned?

There is a fine line between wanting some semblance of puritan morality for oneself and then imposing that on others who do not follow a similar belief system and imposing punishment on them for wanting to do so. The forbidden fruit – sex – has always been the measurement of a woman’s virtue in a very patriarchal sense and this incident is highlighting to what extent it is still so.

Sri Lankans can grow from this and see it as an evolutionary challenge and a prompt to progress or reveal our wish to continue to shame and blame and evade accountability. We can grow up or stay morally immature as a culture. What is clear today is that remaining in stasis legally, ethically and culturally in a world that is progressing, developing and advancing will result in our going backwards rather than forwards as a nation. And the younger generation are watching to see what our celebrities, authority figures and decision makers are putting forward and endorsing as models of good behavior.

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