Sexual abusers list is problematic – but gives victims a sense of regaining control

Support systems for abuse victims are almost non-existent. A name and shame list gives survivors the satisfaction of having taken action against perpetrators.

All too often, to make an allegation of sexual abuse is to run a fool’s errand. Even if one is ultimately believed, the process of establishing one’s credibility can be torturous, the costs – both intangible and material – can be extraordinarily high, and the returns far too low for an abused person to choose to formally invoke the legal system.

This sense of injustice is perhaps what launched the online campaign to name and shame academics at Indian universities accused of sexually harassing or assaulting students. The campaign has sparked a furious debate, with some feminists calling for it to be withdrawn because “anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability”.

Support mechanisms for victims of abuse are all but non-existent. There is, these days, rarely a dearth of people to post a quick message of encouragement online signalling the wonders of their own politics, if not anything else. But despite the deluge of social media supporters, finding people who make, and honour, concrete commitments to support a victim through the process of formally addressing abuse is usually difficult. The difficulty tends to increase exponentially if the abuser in question is a well-placed man.

For women who have been abused, particularly by men not on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, this has often meant that they report nothing formally but rely on informal networks to share what ultimately become “open secrets” about men they have found abusive. The trouble with open secrets, of course, is that there are always people outside the informed group who would benefit from knowledge of the secret but who don’t know of it. Sometimes, they learn of it the hard way.

In such circumstances, creating an open, crowdsourced list of alleged abusers can seem to make sense. If it is accurate, such a list can potentially act as a warning to those who have not been abused by the men named. It can provide actual victims the satisfaction of having done something to retaliate against their abusers and help them regain some of the control the abusers likely stripped them of. And if the list does not name the accusers, it accords the victims these benefits without endangering their safety or jeopardising their career paths.

Question of credibility

The problem with such a list is that, at first glance, there is no way at all to determine its accuracy. It is ultimately the public collation of unverified gossip and, where the list contains only the names and professional affiliations of alleged abusers, it taints everyone named with the same brush. A casual reader of the list cannot know whether the people named have been legally defamed.

For that matter, it is unclear if a person compiling such a list based on purported victim testimonies can be certain of the veracity of the testimonies. Presumably, an individual would not have the resources to investigate each allegation for accuracy, so she would have to simply take the accusers at their word. In effect, the list would lack substantiation and, consequently, its credibility would be assailable.

Truth is a defence against claims of civil defamation and, coupled with a demonstration of public interest being served by the disclosure of information, it is a defence against complaints of criminal defamation. Other exceptions to defamation too could conceivably come into play. For example, the Ninth Exception in Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code states:

“It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interests of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.”  

That said, without the possibility of establishing the list’s accuracy, it remains deeply problematic. On one hand, there is no chance of actual abusers being brought to account on the basis of the list alone. On the other, there is no chance of people who may be wrongly named being able to definitively clear their names. In both cases, the problem is that the identities of accusers and the specific conduct they have complained of are not clear.

It would appear that the solution to all these concerns is to create mechanisms through which allegations of abuse can be fairly and impartially investigated. But our reality is that social structures are deeply inequitable, the legal system is difficult to navigate, and speaking out against well-placed men can be more formidable a challenge than many victims are able to face. Understandably then, vague assurances of support may not be enough to convince the victims to identify themselves. What is required are concrete commitments to see the victims through the process of formally addressing complaints of abuse. Thus far, such commitments do not appear to have been made.

Nandita Saikia is a media and technology lawyer in Delhi.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.


The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.