Why Jerry Pinto's Facebook post about the Tehelka case made us angry

Margaret Mascarenhas

Why would not one but several level-headed women writers explode over a Facebook status post, and revisit a case of sexual harassment that was reported two years ago?

Just last month, author Jerry Pinto, who at that point I still considered a friend, posted the following public status on Facebook:

 Why Jerry Pintos Facebook post about the Tehelka case made us angry

Jerry Pinto. Image courtesy Facebook

"Out there, a brave woman has spoken out. May her tribe increase. May more women find the courage to speak about sexual harassment. May we, in the media and the social media, find the grace and strength to support them without trivialising or sensationalising what they are going through.

I hear that the brave woman's emails are being passed around with her name on them. If this is so, I think, whoever it was who has done this, male or female, deserves to be pilloried too.

And no, it is not an internal matter, whatever anyone may say."

You can’t see it now because it appears he’s deleted the post. When it was first put up, several women writers reacted explosively, both privately and in the comments to that post. They exploded because of a ‘untoward’ incident that took place in 2011 with the Goa Writers Group, of which Jerry Pinto was a member at the time.

Several women made a complaint against one of the group's male moderators, claiming chronic sexual harassment via private email, chats and phone calls (the details of which they had saved). They also alleged that once they had rebuffed these unwelcome interactions, they had been subjected to a pattern of bullying by him on online fora. I was never a member of the Goa Writers Group, but I had my own encounters with the man who had been accused of harassment (more on that later). I had also seen electronic evidence of the harassment they had faced from one of the group’s male moderators.

Senior members of Goa Writers Group —all male—responded by asking the moderator to recuse himself and tender a written apology. Far from being advised to approach the authorities, the women were requested to keep the matter “internal”. (Sound familiar?) According to several of the women who made the complaint, the group then took a vote to erase the minutes of the meeting on this incident. The perpetrator decided to leave the group, after submitting an apology in which he acknowledged his “sexually inappropriate misconduct”. He was followed by a few other senior members, as if in protest and solidarity. Among this batch of writers Jerry Pinto.

As the women told me later, far from lending a feeling of closure that a sexual predator had been exposed, these departures left the writers with shame for raising their voices.

Meanwhile, that the perpetrator had admitted and apologized for some of his highly inappropriate behavior was kept secret. Outside the group, the women’s claims had no validity nor could it serve as a public deterrent to the perpetrator.

Fast forward to Jerry Pinto’s update, which I quoted earlier. Outraged and emotional responses followed in the comments and I supported them, because that is what we are supposed to do when we perceive something that looks virtuous but is riddled with hypocrisy. I wrote that although I knew Jerry to be a caring individual, in this case, it seemed as though the right hand knew not what the other was doing.

Instead of feeling the pain, acknowledging our feelings of betrayal and engaging as the feminist he was posing as, Jerry ill-advisedly responded by deleting all the comments concerning the Goa Writers Group incident, leaving only the laudatory ones, which only served to further aggravate the situation. In effect, he had erased the voices of these women, an action in complete contradiction to what he was advocating as appropriate response. The damage was later compounded by deleting the entire post, but not before several of the women had shared it, and their response to it, preserved for posterity, on their own FB pages. He then ‘unfriended’ them.

“If a woman had posted that status on FB, and received over 300 likes and numerous congratulatory remarks for having said it, nothing would have happened. But when Jerry wrote it, I was furious, and all the feelings of betrayal surfaced as if it had happened only yesterday,” said one of the women who was also a complainant in the Goa Writers Group case.

Once the media was alerted to a possible story, it jumped in, on occasion failing to recall it is illegal to print the names of victims even if they're named in Facebook posts. The other women and I fend off the press all day, and still the stories keep coming. And they are all wrong.

I am a woman. I want to direct my own story, to provide it with its appropriate context.

In 2009, I wrote to several of the writers spearheading Goa Writers Group (not including Jerry) with a similar complaint of sexual harassment by the same person who would harass the women writers in 2011. I attached the porn links he had sent me and my response telling him to cease and desist. I received private responses from some of these writers expressing disgust at the links (supplied with the heading “Dog lover for dog lovers”). I also attached the sender’s response to me, in which he insisted the porn was not porn. I then blocked the sender from my email,chats, FB page, and retreated from all online fora where I may encounter him.

One would imagine that my claim would have been taken as additional evidence when several women complained about the same person two years later. One would imagine the appropriate response would be more severe than a slap on the wrist. One claim might be an isolated incident, but several become indicative that the perpetrator is a serial offender. In such cases, the behaviour is not about sex or flirting, but about power and psychological intimidation. When it comes from a familiar, who has patiently spent months benignly befriending the victim before acting out with overt sexual harassment, the cognitive dissonance a woman experiences is severe. This is why it takes a long time to process and determine a course of action, even though the laws under the Vishaka Guidelines are quite clear on what constitutes sexual harassment and the appropriate response to it (there is no mention of the word “fiduciary”).

I did not take punitive action. I just disconnected from anything to do with him, which also meant generally steering clear of mutual friends, though sometimes this could not be avoided.

However, upon receiving a clearly frightened account from one of the complainants in the Goa Writers Group case in 2012, I became alarmed. Until then, I had assumed that I had been the only one to be targeted by both sexual harassment and cyber assault. I also learned that the ex-moderator was to be invited back into Goa Writers Group. Again I wrote to the same writers who were his friends (and mine, I thought), this time including Jerry Pinto. I copied portions of the letter I had received concealing the identity of the author. I detailed the degree of abuse I myself had experienced and insisted that my story and that of the other women be heeded, that some action be taken to deal with this individual that would both contain him and get him some help. “Connect the dots,” I wrote. “If you’re his friend, do something.”

At the time Jerry Pinto indicated that he did not know the perpetrater’s “side” and in the meantime would side with his friend against “anonymous women making accusations”.

The fear of facing this kind of doubt in the face of mounting evidence is every woman’s nightmare when she speaks up about sexual harassment. And this is why his public post in November set off such an emotional chain reaction.

From the responses I received to my revelations, it was clear that none of these men truly believed the perpetrator to be capable of continuing with this behaviour or even the gravity of the behaviour itself. One wrote, “he sends porn to men too.” As if that made it okay and not really a crime, except of course that it is. I wasn’t even sure whether my account of what had transpired was believed.

I also approached an Inspector of CID (a woman), explained the case to her and gave her the name of the perpetrator. “I can act on this right now,” she said. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.

“He has a wife and children, and this is why I have hesitated,” I said. “I hope it doesn’t happen again. But if there is any new complaint, I will come forward.”

And I will. And I hope the men who have shielded him thus far, and all men in comparable circumstances, will too. I hope that all men who publicly call for an end to sexual harassment will practice what they preach. This story is not about Jerry Pinto. This story is about all of us.

Margaret Mascarenhas, of Indo-American descent is a novelist, poet, independent curator and occasional op ed columnist. She the author of Skin (Penguin India), The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos (Hachette USA), Triage -- casualties of love and sex (Harper Collins India). She has been based in Goa, where she has ancestral roots, for over 20 years.

Updated Date: Dec 03, 2013 13:33:10 IST