Tag Archives: rape culture

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Opposite Of Rape

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What is the opposite of “rape”? Most will say it’s “sex”, with the understanding that rape is an abuse of power and sex is something that happens with consent. But what if the opposite of “rape” was not just “sex”, but “pleasure”? Sex does not automatically mean pleasure, after all. But does that make “bad sex” tantamount to rape?

These contemplations emerge in the wake of the published account of “Grace”, the pseudonym of a woman who briefly dated comedian Aziz Ansari some months ago. I opened the link hoping its headline was merely clickbait, wanting to believe that Ansari was the feminist he publicly seemed to want to be. But as I read, I saw that his guilt or innocence were not what was at stake. The larger stakes are about what people, women especially, experience while dating within a rape culture.

Even taking the position that what happened between Grace and Ansari may not meet the legal criteria for sexual assault, the profound unease of the situation and the distinct coercion and mounting disgust that Grace described cannot be dismissed as a lousy date. “Bad sex” is when you wanted to sleep with someone but you lacked chemistry or one or both of you was unsatisfied (this can still be respectful). Performing sexual acts under pressure due to shock, fear of violence and imbalanced dynamics is not “just bad sex”. So what’s the correct term for it?

Again, I will say that I’m less interested in Ansari’s situation than in the big picture. Are unpleasant sexual encounters, with undercurrents of manipulation, common? Absolutely. But their prevalence does not make them acceptable. Let’s forget the celebrity angle, and the starstruck (and the other thing that rhymes with “starstruck”) angle. Take gender and orientation out of it, too. What’s left is a nebulous space in which a discomfiting number of memories lurk. Affirmative, enthusiastic consent is not a grey area. This is.

It’s from this space that many women’s confusion about how to react to Grace’s narrative comes from (this does not include backlash that is purely rape apologia). It can be very painful to acknowledge that some of one’s past experiences were damaging, or simply wrong. We do not know who Grace is, and cannot attribute personality traits to her, so our responses may be projections. These projections cannot simply be classified as internalised misogyny. I truly believe that if the story was more explicitly violent, for example, most would lose their doubts. But it’s not a violent story like that. It’s a story in which a woman could have called the police from the bathroom, or screamed, or just left.

And it’s a story in which she didn’t, but you’re certain that you would have. Or more accurately, you would now. Why? The truth is that it’s a familiar account, and to hear it told this way complicates, then unravels, certain precious memories or padlocked narratives. And that’s why it’s so very upsetting. Because if this is wrong, then what else is too?

Let’s create the right language, the in-between words, for what is neither rape nor pleasure. It will help us heal.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo, Obviously

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Last week, a young attorney collated a privately-verified, anonymity-assured list of male sexual predators in Indian academia. The list revealed Indian feminism’s splinters: a dozen senior feminists rushed to condemn it, a move seen as being protective of their own interests based on kinship, institution and caste. One defensive response heard often was: “Women have always had a whisper network, so why go public?”

I was recently interviewed for a documentary on workplace sexual harassment by Lime Soda Films. It so happened that the Harvey Weinstein allegations had just broken, and a cascade of #MeToo posts filled social media that day. My hands shook after the first segment we shot, in which I detailed one particular incident in a corporate scenario. But my anger was neither at the perpetrator nor because of the incident itself, but because of the environment in which it had happened. The hostility in that workplace was fed by numerous characters – among them women, too. It made my hands shake with emotion even years afterwards. But I could only circle around it.

The story of a particular predator in that environment was only the easy one to tell, the starting point. I named him off-camera, but didn’t bother to onscreen. He was irrelevant to my trauma, ultimately, despite being illustrative to the conversation on why people don’t report sexual harassment. At the core of that story is something else, another story based on my consent and how it was abused, a story too painful to tell about a man deemed by those around him as too desirable to be a predator. No, story is the wrong word. Experience. And other experiences too terrible to transform into tell-able tales. Friends who attacked their partners. Abusive partners who turned out to also be predators in their fields. Manipulators so dazing that we’re inside their lies before we realise they are labyrinths. Above all: the way I use the plural because to use the singular already feels too specific, too much like a story and not a secret.

The whisper network doesn’t suffice because the worst experiences are ones we don’t share. I looked at that list and thought: What’s 70 names in a rape culture of 1.3 billion people? A few women were brave enough to whisper loudly enough. That’s all. And we know of, but are still circling, the worst of it. How can I protect someone from going through what I did when I cannot even speak of it? I can’t. Most of the worst people walk free in the world. Perhaps that’s why we who see the private struggle behind a public list fight so hard for the hypothetical. We’re tired of women being cautionary tales. We want the villain to be the protagonist for once.

Justice is a long shot. We get used to the idea that we’ll never get it. So we count and recount our stories. The ones we yell out loud. The ones we whisper. But mostly, honestly, the ones we don’t divulge at all. And the ways we tell and retell them to ourselves anyway, whether we keep track that we’re doing it or not.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.