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Can a man be raped?

January 21, 2004

Nearly ten years ago, in the company of three women, I watched a Hollywood flick called Disclosure, adapted from a Michael Crichton novel.

Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) looks forward to becoming vice-president at a Seattle hardware company. But a superior passes him up and appoints Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore), Sanders' old flame and an intrepid corporate climber.

After hours, she invites Sanders over to her office and attempts to seduce him into oral sex. He rebuffs her. The next day, Johnson complains to the CEO that Sanders sexually assaulted her at a meeting.

Sanders suffers a humiliating demotion, his colleagues sideline him, and no one stops to think he might have been 'raped' instead.

I remember how the women looked a little smug at the end of the movie, but I was left feeling sick, shaken and vulnerable for being a man.

I had the same feeling reading about the alleged rape of a delegate at the World Social Forum two days ago. I am no jingoistic town crier for the aggrieved male bastion, far from it. But to me, the chronology of the event has the smell of rat sprayed all over it.

Here's what is supposed to have happened.

Two colleagues -- a noted 53-year-old South African judge and a 27-year-old Cape Town resident -- who stay in different rooms at the same Mumbai hotel, share a drink or three and return to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning. The woman visits the man at his hotel room, alleges that he got physical with her and raped her.

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Complete Coverage of World Social Forum

Here's where the stench starts. She is carrying a condom and insists he wear it as he rapes her. The next day, she calls a press conference, announces she has been raped, and also accuses the hotel staff of not providing ample security.

The man is still in police custody in Mumbai, though he told a national newspaper he was confident of the charges being cleared. Both parties were medically examined. The reports, though not conclusive at this time, indicate there is no clear evidence that the woman was raped.

Newspapers say while the man has denied the rape, the woman claims he may have mistaken her intentions at visiting his room at 3 am.

Reportedly the man, who is of Indian descent, is a distinguished judge in South Africa with an anti-apartheid track record and a strong stand against rape. He is also vice-chairman of the South African Human Rights Foundation. She is a project coordinator of the Foundation.

Could this be a personal row aggravated into a malicious public battle? It may be too early to say.

But look at the irony. At a gigantic public forum like the WSF, where voices defending virtually every stratum of society nearly drown out each other, there is not a single whisper for the cause of men. Can't a man be just as aggrieved as a woman?

It is common and most often heartening to see the solidarity women can have. They flock like worker bees to the rescue of other women. But men fall like drones, alone and unwanted.

It is not hard to stereotype a rapist. It is easy to imagine him as a drunken, licentious tormentor with a shallow heart and a pockmarked conscience. Who would want to take up an alleged rapist's cause?

Seldom do men stand up for men when one of them is in a sticky mess such as this. When confronted with an allegation of rape, a man frequently finds himself disowned by his own fraternity. Suddenly, other men are ashamed of being men. They wallow in self-pity and seek to make peace with the 'weaker' sex by ostracising the man who brought them shame.

Where can a man go if he is raped?

Was there one organisation at the WSF that sought to defend men's rights, which recognised the naked truth that men, too, can be vulnerable to indignity at the hands of women? How can a man pick up the pieces and erase the taint of a rape accusation?

Think about it: Is another world possible for men?

In Disclosure, Sanders eventually hires a tough lawyer, a woman, who believes he could have been raped. He finally wins his way. But everyone knows movies have happier endings.

The WSF rape episode is not concluded yet and it is too early to comment on the virtues of either party. In the days to come, one hopes more information is unearthed that shows the true colour of the incident and names the guilty party not on the basis of convention, but on grounds of solid evidence.

As policy, journalists do not name rape victims. Note that I did not name the man. Let us first know who the victim really is.

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