India has a public masturbation problem: Trivialising it emboldens men and discourages victims from speaking up

By Shruti Sunderraman

This may sound strange but if you are a woman ask yourself these questions: Do you worry that men in public places will masturbate looking at you, even if you subtly and/or obviously try to avoid it? And whether the desire to avoid being masturbated to is a constant thrum of thought? Did you say yes? God, me too.

But isn’t it strange that while we complain about the strokers, the pokers and the feeler-uppers (sometimes even the flashers), one act of public masturbation is enough for most of us to avoid talking or even thinking about it?

 India has a public masturbation problem: Trivialising it emboldens men and discourages victims from speaking up

Image courtesy: AFP.

Here we are, in our cramped and nosy households trying to find a quiet spot to do (what my punster middle school friends used to call) khud-khushi and while these men very desperately air their desires.

Is it that much more pleasurable to do it in public? Like eating sandwiches at a picnic as opposed to at home? But we also know that public masturbators needlessly involve us in their picnic so it can’t be pleasure alone.

FYI, cases of public masturbation can be filed under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 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, which handles cases of public nuisance.

But nowhere in the IPC or Indian law for that matter, ‘public masturbation’ is listed as a crime. Rashi Vidyasagar, a Mumbai-based criminologist said, that like all sexual crimes, targeting women to masturbate at is also about power, not sex.

Vidyasagar said the picking on strangers to masturbate at makes it easier for these men, unlike say a Harvey Weinstein who found it easier to do it at actors in business meetings.

“There might be an aspect of depersonalisation on part of the man since he might not know the woman.” This gives public masturbators a peculiar pleasure. For example, voyeuristic masturbation might make them look at the woman less like a victim until they get caught.

Take the 19 October case of an Uber driver in Hyderabad who allegedly masturbated in the cab while the passenger, Uma Sharma travelled with him to the airport. He kept looking at her through the rear view mirror and masturbated while driving, while she went about talking on the phone or reading texts throughout the journey.

Sharma noticed him masturbating and confronted him. But he nonchalantly asked her "what was wrong?" as though nothing had happened. Sharma screamed, asked him to stop the vehicle and found another one to take her to the airport.

Or the other recent story by a woman about a man masturbating while staring at her niece on a train from Dehradun to Delhi on 1 October. She said, “The niece’s friend filmed the entire incident and informed the woman about what was happening. The man appeared unfazed in spite of knowing that he was being filmed for his crime.”

The woman and her niece must have been astonished before the horror set in, when they first realised why exactly he was moving his hand up and down under his blanket, while watching the niece talk to her aunt.

What are men getting out of this? Vidyasagar believes that there is some amount of voyeurism working here. That for the men, not knowing these women and still getting a peek into their lives and imagining them sexually makes it is easier. Easier to not think of these women as victims, or themselves as criminals, until (surprise!) they get caught.

But the psychology of a public masturbator may go beyond voyeuristic tendencies. Some public masturbators fetishise it. Dr Rajan Bhonsle, head of sexual medicine at KEM Hospital in Mumbai, said, “A lot of public masturbators may suffer from paraphilia — a condition where one has fetishes towards unusual objects or phenomenon. Voyeurism is just one of them. It’s not a disease as much as it is an uncontrollable fetish. Everyone has fetishes—some people have foot, role-play and cross-dressing fetishes. But with public masturbators, the difference is that their fetish harms the object of their fetish: Women in public. The difference between most fetishes and public masturbation is, that acting on the former is consensual, while the latter isn't.”

Bhonsle believes that a large portion of these fetishes are influenced by environmental and psychological factors. Sometimes, their physical environment is not conducive to express sexual pleasure.

A city like Mumbai hardly finds space, let alone favourable ones, to express sexual desires with a partner. So, some men find themselves wanting release from their frustration at women in public places like bus stops and trains.

Experts offer another plausible explanation. That these men gain pleasure through shock or reactions of shame from women and this is another form of validation which keeps them coming back for more. Mumbai-based counsellor and therapist Sonali Gupta says, “The first reaction from women to public masturbation is shock, which leads women to freeze on the spot. The mind doesn’t immediately jump to action after being subjected to something unexpected and unpleasant. The shock causes or adds to the arousal of public masturbators.”

Gaining pleasure out of shock is reflective of their psychological environment. According to Gupta, in a country where masturbation is still spoken about in hushed whispers, many men find it difficult to express themselves sexually without judgement. This creates a repressive attitude about sex with some men and results in their sexual urges popping up in unfavourable situations, primarily public spaces.

However, one can’t rule out instances of psychological illness as a possible reason behind why some men masturbate in public. Exhibitionism, is one such example. Gupta believes that lack of studies and conversations around public masturbation make it even more difficult to separate those who fall into the spectrum of public masturbation as a psychological illness and those who don’t.

“Some men can control their urges but want to assert their authority through public masturbation. But those who suffer from exhibitionism find it difficult to control this urge. But it’s difficult to tell the difference unless there’s proper studies done about this bearing Indian context in mind,” she says.

And let’s not discount the comfort these men get from knowing that they can get away with the crime. “Public masturbation is taken less seriously than other sexual crimes like assault or rape. When you show that you are not going to let him get away with it, it shocks the offender and they immediately stop masturbating,” says Pooja Nair, a sociology student who was publicly masturbated at in a Mumbai local train in July 2017. When she complained to the railway helpline, they laughed at her. This attitude of frivolity attached to public masturbation also emboldens public masturbators, according to Nair.

And with assumptions surrounding sexual violence, we all wonder, is it us? Nair said she wonders if men who masturbate in public prefer the modern-young-girl type: The ones men believe they can’t control. Vidyasagar doesn’t disagree.

“I think 'modern' women could seem unattainable and hence fantasised about. Plus, risk is higher with 'such' women which makes it pleasurable for them.”

Gupta completely disagrees, saying that men have masturbated at all kinds of women across ages in public spaces. It’s lazy to assume that they go for the “modern young girl”. The truth is, asserting power over any woman is satisfying to sexual offenders.

Then there is the assumption that public masturbators are only from one class. Dr Bhonsle says he has treated patients from different economic classes who have public masturbation fetishes.

“The reported cases of public masturbation may point towards economically lower classes, but fetishes have nothing to do with class, just environment and personal urges people develop at a young age,” he says.

The attitude that public masturbation is not a “serious” crime only emboldens perpetrators, especially with a culture of wanting to bury embarrassing sexual advances under the carpet which public masturbators know and take advantage of.

Trivialising it reduces fear of the law and the consequences of masturbating in public. It actually leaves a victim feeling the same way other sexual crimes do: Disgusted, enraged and violated. It takes up space in our minds that we could all use for something else. Meanwhile the jerks continue their crude acts.

A year ago, Dubai-based journalist Anita Iyer had a screaming match with another friend at Mumbai’s Marine Drive for asking her to calm down when she yelled at a man for masturbating in public at her. She was angry that she was being told ‘at least he didn’t touch you’.

The message she was getting was loud and clear: Public masturbation is not an act of assault, so why cry wolf? The whole time, the man who masturbated at her did not move from his seat and just watched these two friends fight.

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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2020 14:32:13 IST