Tag Archives: infidelity

The Venus Flytrap: Imaginary Women, Imaginary Villains

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Neha Gnanavel, who is married to film producer Gnanavel Raja, obviously wants us to forget the objectionable things she posted about women in the cinema industry last week. Which is why she deleted the Tweets in which she threatened to name those who she believes have had consensual affairs with married men, referring to them as being “worse” than sex workers (she used less polite language). As yet undeleted, however, is her long defense of her views. Fair enough. There’s no need to scapegoat Ms. Gnanavel. She was only expressing the same sentiments that many in our deeply misogynistic society hold. Let’s talk about those sentiments, two in particular: that women – rather than the men who chose to be with them – are to be blamed for destroying families, and that sex workers are contemptible.

Infidelity is complicated, just as human desires, emotions and decisions are. Of course we want to simplify it, if only so that it becomes less painful. That doesn’t have to be done by painting women as villains by default. A recent meme I saw went so far as to hold culpable the woman who raised the woman who became involved with a married man – that’s two generations of woman-blaming! Anything to protect a man from taking responsibility for his choices. Whether blaming a married man’s lover, her mother, or his own wife – any culprit will do. As long as the only one who behaved dishonourably, the one who did the cheating, is absolved.

In heterosexual contexts, when the gender roles are reversed, the partnered woman who has an extramarital affair is still the one who is condemned. I cannot think of even one instance, anecdotal or celebrity-related, where the other man in the picture had his name forever tarnished by his involvement in what is called “home-wrecking”.

This is where the second of Ms. Gnanavel’s expressed sentiments comes into play. Why is calling someone a sex worker (using less respectful words, or not) a slur? This prejudice is premised on the idea that sex workers have agency and own their bodies entirely – something which it’s worth noting that most other women in patriarchal societies are not allowed to. Just as the imagined sex worker has control over her sexuality, so does the imagined mistress and the imagined adultress. Their imagined autonomy challenges the status quo. They choose (while married men do not – ha!). So consumed is the average, often incognisant, patriarchal agent with these hypotheticals that they don’t stop to ask themselves what they find so frightening.

Aside from a fundamental lack of understanding about capitalism, the idea doesn’t even hold water against that other favourite bugaboo – that girls and women will be kidnapped and trafficked (thanks, Mahanadhi). So which is it – that sex workers have volition, or are forced? How does the muddled misogynist mind hold these contradictions at once?

I wouldn’t know, but it’s a contradiction that the feminist mind also manages to hold, and engages with through the concepts of consent and desire. And there’s space in this discourse for even the heartbreak of betrayal, without resorting to either the assumption of villainy or the presumption of victimhood.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dear Mrs. XOX…

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The other day, I received an email that could have been a threat, a case of mistaken identity, a prank, or a strategy by some slick operator. The sender warned me to stay away from their boyfriend – let’s call him Mr. XOX. They’d even created an email address expressly for this purpose – “Mrs. XOX” was their chosen pseudonym. Considering that I don’t know anyone by that name, I had no initial clue what to make of this.

Bizarrely enough (and this is where the slick operator suspicion comes in), Mrs. XOX told me, in explicit terms, that women crave her boyfriend due his impressive appendage. She also told me to delete a particular number (which, of course, I never had to begin with). Yup, my poison penpal gave me the phone number of a well-endowed man.

First, I laughed. And then, just in case this sender was real, I felt very sorry for anyone who’s been driven to such insecurity in a relationship.

So, Mrs. XOX, if you’re reading this – I want you to know first of all that I don’t know and have never met your boyfriend. I’d never want to meet him either, because something tells me he doesn’t treat you right. And I don’t like to be around those who disrespect women.

Maybe you’ve written to me because your boyfriend put the idea into your head that he’s involved with a stranger. This tactic is called gaslighting. It’s when someone controls you by convincing you of a false reality, wearing away at your reason and intuition, until you can no longer trust yourself. As a result, you become paranoid and are driven to extreme behaviours. Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional abuse.

I want you to know, Mrs. XOX, that emotional abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it by its name. It happens to the best of us.

You’re not crazy. You’re not possessive. You’re not desperate. These may be words you have been called. But they are not who you are, they are just the effects of this abuse.

But those harsh words are not what other women are either. If he has cheated on you, remember – that was his decision. The fault is entirely his and you can blame no one else. If he has made you hate and punish other women, he has made you hate and punish yourself. You must look squarely at him and see him for who he is. And then, freed of the need to possess or belong to him, begin the process of rebuilding who you are.

Most of all, Mrs. XOX, I want you to know that I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. You probably know all of these things already. I’m only here to remind you: you deserve so much better. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.

Maybe you’re Mrs. XOX. Or maybe you’re someone like her – pushed beyond your pain threshold out of love. My wish for you is this: walk away. You will heal. You won’t need to be Mrs. XOX when you can truly be your own person.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Infidelity Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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Infidelity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The lines we draw and how we negotiate them are all that varies between who we think we are and what we could be capable of. We are all that person.

What wounds me most may be nothing to you; what devastates you may be a mere trifle to me. The trick lies somewhere between hopscotching around the bare nerves in the battlefield of relationships and pretending they don’t exist, or subverting them altogether.

The old rules didn’t work. Women wept, men slept (around). No one asked, no one told. But no one needs that anymore. We are each more independent as individuals today than we have been throughout civilization. Nothing high-maintenance makes it, only that which is straightforward and obvious in its function survives. The single exception to this rule is love.

But what constitutes cheating? It varies from couple to couple, from context to context. The man in the sexless marriage who stays with his wife for the sake of his child but keeps a bachelor pad is no worse than the woman who claims eternal devotion to her boyfriend but has intense emotional affairs with other people. The loving gay couple with the everything-but-the-kiss rule may be truer and more loyal to one another than the anything-but-the-physical rule so many relationships abide by.

Our moral spectrums are like rubber bands. We believe they hold things together, but it shocks us how much they can accommodate. Circumstance and opportunity bend us, reshape us, twist up all we know of ourselves and deliver us – changed but wholly the same.

And yes, we have all seen it – the way the heart shatters, the jealousy, the rumours, the tragedy. We’ve had it done to us, we’ve watched it unfold its heartbreak within our families and the lives of our friends. We believe it is the worst thing anyone could do, a crime against love, the deadliest sin. And then we do.

And then know, in a way we never knew before, a way in which we never dared to know ourselves before: loyalty is not about what one does with one’s body. It’s about what one does with one’s mind.

Once, I knew a man who thought he could believe in an open relationship only in theory, never in practice. Once, I knew a woman who thought she would never be with anyone but him. Today they live in separate countries, and she is Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife. And who he is, whether he too climbs the table in that dark, dangerous café, or remains on the threshing floor with an arm raised for the bride’s bouquet, she does not dare to ask now.

And so what? If that to them is the only way they know how to love (themselves, one another, others), then leave them to it. I’m with the writer Lisa Carver on this one: “We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.” I can’t speak for the man I once knew, but I know his gypsy wife does.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.