By Surabhi Grover
Over the past few months, I have been shocked by the lack of press covering Sigrid Maurer’s case, considering how pertinent it is to women outing their abusers/harassers on social media all over the world.
I have primarily been following fresh developments using the somewhat clumsy Google translations of German news sites (where it has been covered in abundant detail), supplemented by a friend who speaks fluent German.
This case is particularly relevant to the present times when the fire of #metoo is exploding across different countries of the globe.
Whether it is Chinese women cleverly using an alias for the hashtag to escape censorship (#RiceBunny, followed by emojis of rice and a bunny, the local words for which are mi and tu, respectively) or women in the Philippines rallying up for the basic right of divorce (the only country to not have divorce rights apart from the Vatican), women have been speaking up against systemic sexual harassment.
Imagine a local shopkeeper sends you explicit and vulgar messages. You go on to share them on your social media, warning other people (especially women) that they should at least know who they are buying goods from.
The shopkeeper drags you to court and you get punished instead – all for outing a sexual harasser and warning neighbourhood women.
This is not a story from some comically dark tragedy, but something that has just occurred to Maurer. In the words of her lawyer, this is a unique case of ‘perpetrator-victim reversal’.
Sigrid Maurer, an Austrian woman who has been a Member of Parliament in the past, got Facebook messages with explicit sexual harassment from the proprietor of a craft beer shop she had recently passed by in Vienna.
The messages said, ‘You went to my shop today and looked at my dick as if you wanted to eat it’. The messages got worse – the next time she could ‘put it in her mouth without words and suck him down to the last drop’. He also wrote ‘I would like to fuck you in your fat ass’.
These are simply some translated extracts from the slew of messages sent from the personal Facebook account of Albert Lastufka, the shopkeeper.
(Note: I considered not reproducing the messages here because of the explicit content – but why shy away from phrases we are subjected to and harassed within our daily lives?)
Maurer then tweeted a screenshot of his messages, appropriately captioned ‘Now I have the feeling that his business is not very successful, but maybe in a city full of hipsters, it’s good to know which female-despising asshole you buy your beer from’.
The shopkeeper then sued her for libel and credit damage, demanding damages of up to 60,000 euros, plus legal costs; for damaging his reputation and negatively impacting his sales.
The case of the shopkeeper
The shopkeeper claimed that he did not send those messages. Lots of people used his PC, and someone else could have sent it.
It was pointed out in the Court that the messages were sent in the same style and voice in which he wrote his Facebook posts, along with the idiosyncratic punctuation.
He further claimed that he was on a phone call with his partner at the time the messages were sent and produced phone records. The question is, in this day and age, who isn’t aware that it is extremely easy to talk on your phone and send Facebook messages from your PC at the same time?
Maurer was told that she should have asked for the shopkeeper’s position on the issue before putting up his messages.
Even if we assume that his PC and his personal Facebook account were used to send the messages, wouldn’t the first reaction of an innocent person be horror and apology at the nature of such detestable messages sent in his name?
Maurer has been ordered to pay 3000 euros as fine for reputational damage and 4000 euros as compensation. Her lawyer Maria Windhager has stated that they shall prefer a full appeal.
Lastufka notably stated that he felt like the defendant at the trial.
Social media and the #metoo movement
While Maurer did not use the #metoo hashtag, the question that is often asked by critics of such social media postings is, ‘Why to use social media and not follow “due process” instead?’
Under Austrian law, Maurer did not have too many options as private messages of this kind are not yet criminally punishable in the country. This drives home an important point – everything that is sexual harassment is not always criminally punishable under law.
In light of the absence of such an appropriate criminal remedy, a mockery will be made of victims by misuse of already existing laws. The urgency for such a remedy cannot be overemphasized.
Survivors are criticized that they do not speak up when the incident happens and speak up years later; here, Maurer spoke up immediately.
Why women are speaking out on social media
First, everyone who is harassed or assaulted does not have the onus on them to go through a lengthy, gruelling legal trial. The survivor’s mental health needs to be put into perspective. They have already survived one ordeal – the society should not force them to go through another immediately after.
We need to stop seeing rape/sexual abuse/sexual harassment as equivalent to other crimes – when you are robbed of your wallet, the bank asks you why you did not immediately report the theft.
The same principle cannot be applied to sexual abuse because of many reasons – the traumatic aftereffects, the conditioning of shame and the society we live in.
It takes a lot of time to speak out about a traumatic incident, especially in a country like ours, where we have an insensitive, victim-blaming police response in most cases.
This is perhaps the key that the detractors miss – women are speaking out on social media for many reasons. It is a way to warn fellow women, it is a way to out systemic abusers.
It is a way to support other women who have been wronged and to give them courage in numbers. A lot of these women would not have been able to talk about these painful experiences but for this.
It is important to understand that a victim cannot be forced to talk about her abuse unless she is ready to. A lot of times women recall complete details, if at all, years after the incident, because of the brain blocks out traumatic memories.
Sometimes, they remember every gory detail, but they need years of therapy (if they are lucky, most people in India don’t get treated for trauma after rape/abuse) to be able to even speak about it.
Both the psychology of the victim and the society we have been living in condition women to blame themselves for the act. Even when a perpetrator is a person in the family, little girls are taught to shut up rather than malign the name of the family in society.
The stigma of sexual assault is such that it supersedes the act itself. Think for a moment about how depraved that is.
Once the victim overcomes such barriers, very often it is years afterward and there really is no proof left. But the aftereffects of such trauma, more often than not, linger for a lifetime. Survivors report panic attacks, insomnia, avoidance symptoms, symptomatic drug, and alcohol abuse and other destructive habits, not to mention a loss of self-worth.
Professionally, too, most survivors suffer and some are never able to get back to the same place. In India, there is a negligible support system for a victim. Therapy is a far cry. Family and friends often advance the self-blame or give terrible advice. There is literally no one to turn to.
Lots of survivors walk this extremely thorny path alone, surviving their day-to-day life while going through PTSD, clinical depression etc.
Moreover, it is crucial to factor in that going through the process of reporting and a trial, even if someone beats the odds to report a matter, creates life-long scars and makes the victim re-live the worst moments of her life countless times, through repeated questions like ‘Why did you not scream?’ ‘Why did you let him open your legs?’ with close scrutiny of private life including irrelevant habits like drinking or smoking that somehow become relevant to a case of forced consent.
Almost every single Indian woman I have talked to who has pursued the legal route has horror stories and regrets about going through the process.
No, I’m not claiming that trial by social media is a perfect retort to this abuse. It is imperfect. But it is the beginning of women rallying against a system that has been wired against them from the beginning.
The sheer number of perpetrators exposed, even just tweets that share the phrase #metoo without naming anyone, goes to show that these perpetrators did not expect women to speak up; that they expected women to stay silent like they have been taught to since centuries.
This is just the first shaky step of a long, winding, tumultuous road, not the end. This is simply a plea for understanding, empathy, and support.
Yes, one day, I hope, every woman will be able to fight her perpetrator in court. But before we reach that fight, perhaps we need to let them learn to simply speak up first.