India has a public masturbation problem—and no real solutions

It happened here.
It happened here.
Image: AP Photo/Saurabh Das
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A woman has alleged that the driver of a TaxiForSure cab that she took in Delhi last week was masturbating while driving. She was travelling from south Delhi’s Saket to Faridabad in Haryana.

“As I was roughly 25 minutes from my destination, the driver got impatient and started driving brashly. Moreover he seemed extremely restless, anxious, and kept mumbling something to himself,” the woman wrote in a Facebook post on July 2. “I discontinued my call and asked him to drive properly in the most polite manner possible. I was about to make another call when I noticed that he was masturbating while driving.”

The woman works as a creative strategist for a Mumbai-based digital and social media consultancy. In her post on Facebook, and later on Twitter, she tagged India’s three major taxi aggregators—Ola, TaxiForSure, and Uber—adding that the driver was registered with all the companies.

So far, TaxiForSure—which was acquired by India’s biggest cab-hailing service provider, Ola, earlier this year—has blacklisted the driver, and terminated his services. ”We will continue to work closely with the passenger, and will support the authorities in every possible manner, as and when required,” the company’s CEO Arvind Singhal said in an email to Quartz.

No law

Although the complainant in the recent TaxiForSure case has stated on social media that she wishes to take a legal recourse, there is no specific punishment for public masturbation under the Indian legal system.

“Laws are enacted for conditions, not specific situations. Broadly, it is an obscene act and is punishable,” said Dushyant K. Mahant, a lawyer in Delhi. “New amendments in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) inserted voyeurism, stalking as well as other crimes. Laws are always evolving.”

In the absence of specific laws that punish this crime, it is hard to find data on how many such cases are booked in the country. However, incidents of masturbation in public in India often find mention on blogs and social media.

On March 15, a British travel writer, Lucy Hemmings, described the multiple incidents of public masturbation that she encountered during her travels in India.

“Chances are, if you’ve ever been to India, you’ll have bumped into at least one traveller who has experienced this sort of behaviour, or heard of someone else who it has happened to,” Hemmings wrote on her blog. “I’ve spent countless hours with other travellers picking apart why men do it; why they seem to think it’s okay, why dignity seems to disappear when there’s foreign female flesh on show.”

After the blog post went viral, Hemmings reportedly received “countless messages” of support and apologies from Indians.

“We hear of these cases from social media and friends all the time. Most of the women I know have encountered this at some time or the other. But I have hardly ever seen such cases come to courts,” a Supreme Court lawyer, who deals with women-related issues, explained on condition of anonymity.

As far as any punishment is concerned, legal experts told Quartz that offenders can be booked under several sections of the IPC. Among others, they can be tried under section 354 of the IPC, which deals with “assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty,” and section 268, which deals with public nuisance.

But, the Indian law does not use the word “masturbation” anywhere.

“Women do not report such cases to the police often, due to many reasons, including the inconvenience of getting involved in legal tangles,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told Quartz. ”Police complaint is not the only solution to this problem. There is a need for developing cities in a way that the streets are safer and not secluded, and a woman can find help at hand whenever needed.”

Masturbation in public is illegal in several countries, with varying degrees of punishments. In Indonesia, the offence can attract imprisonment for a maximum of 32 months. It can also lead to imprisonment in the UK.

States in the US have different punishments. In North Carolina, for instance, masturbating in public is a “class 3 misdemeanour” with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a jail sentence of up to three months.

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