Tag Archives: rape culture

The Venus Flytrap: False, Or Incomplete?

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Last week’s column was spurred by reactions to a potentially false sexual harassment allegation, but did not delve into the catalyst for the same: (potentially) false allegations. Over the past two years, with more women than ever sharing their experiences of harassment and assault, the question of veracity has come up repeatedly. It’s a fair one. But it’s also a good-faith practice to acknowledge that very few people stand to gain from such fabrications. Outliers (or plain liars, if you prefer) who do benefit are outnumbered by those who risk, and face, consequences for telling the truth. We can objectively accept that a tiny percentage of fraudulent cases exist, but that they should not cancel out the rest. We can also attempt to talk about what falseness means.

Firstly, there’s a difference between potentially false and incomplete, and the latter is often tarred with the same brush as the former. An incomplete story can have complicated factors, like: being in love with the perpetrator, being pressured by sources other than the perpetrator (like their “cool” friends) to go along with a situation, and so on. It can be difficult to respect people who distance themselves from their earlier allegations, especially if they’ve made it challenging for others to come forward afterwards in the same environment. But our private character judgements should not cloud principled stands.

In certain uncomfortable situations, wherein I did not have a good intuitive reading of the accuser or their desired outcomes, I’ve found it possible to consider the spirit of what was being said, if not the letter. This has been true in cases in which an unreliable narrator blew the lid open on a well-connected and gregarious accused, who had long been protected. What we can believe then is not the speaker’s testimony as much as the many crusted layers of silence, denial and complicity that allowed the perpetrator to carry on as they had. Within these layers are the stories we’d quietly known all along, always whispered or implied, as well as our own secrets – such as how prided ourselves on being street-smart enough to escape, or how we had experienced trouble too, but mollified the situation, or how much we liked the alleged perpetrator.

A series of particularly gruesome rapes and murders were reported in India last week, and some will wonder why I’m still writing about sexual harassment when “more serious crimes” are happening. But it’s an obfuscation to place crimes on a continuum of violence without acknowledging how a continuum functions, how actions increase in violence the more we allow leeway for what we perceive as minor infractions. Ribald jokes in the office aren’t on the same scale of egregiousness as assault, but both are wrong. We must see how they are related: how being okay with one wrong leads to the next worse thing being possible, and then the next worse, until… The webcomic Sanitary Panels said it best with a cogent new take.  “This is horrific! Why don’t women talk about sexual violence more?” says a stick figure holding a newspaper. “We do. But you don’t believe us if we’re alive…” responds the other.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When Misogynists Fantasise About Feminist Revenge

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Is it alright to comment on something one has not seen? It’s a risky choice in this era of fake news, when we are all in danger of forming opinions not only borne of ignorance but from actively being manipulated. When I read that a sequence from a TV serial – described as being horrifying and which had since received a slap on the wrist from a regulatory body – was still available for viewing online, I toyed momentarily with whether I should watch it in the interest of journalistic duty. Then I chose not to. Surely, when it comes to depictions of gratuitous violence or injustice, the answer to that question can sometimes be Yes.

Instead, I read news about that scene, from the TV serial Kalyana Veedu. The violence described was both physical and verbal: a gangrape, ratified by dialogue that’s clearly an anti-woman fantasy. In it, a woman plots against another woman, hires a group of men to enact her instructions, and is then punished by them in exactly the same way. A further revenge sequence, involving fire and male genitalia, is something Freud (or better yet, Camille Paglia) would probably have analysed as the projection of male envy. A TV serial has more than one mind behind it. Just the thought of the kind of discussions that happened behind-the-scenes is hair-raising. I’ve been in enough work meetings with men who hallucinate that they are creative and cutting-edge to know that there was almost definitely someone there who imagined that castration by fire is what feminists want.

The Broadcasting Content Complaint Council, responding to viewers’ dismay about these sequences, fined the TV channel what seems to be a token sum, but more meaningfully has ordered a week-long apology to be played before every episode of the same serial.

To take umbrage against such content is straightforward. This is a good thing, to have internalised healthy protest so deeply, but the hope is that by now our sociocultural politics have evolved so that calling out such objectionable material isn’t enough. The Me Too movement worldwide, and the revelations it has provided into the way workplaces have functioned for so long, has made it crucial for us to no longer stop at disgust and anger but to delve into how such contraventions of integrity happen, and how they can be prevented.

The TV channel that aired this vicious sequence claims that the TV serial has family-oriented values. Perhaps our next line of enquiry should begin there. Among the public who made the complaints, was it only the visual violence that was the problem or the logic behind it as well? In other words – were they upset because rape is perceived to be a violation of chastity (a completely oppressive concept) and a taboo topic, or because rape is wrong, full stop? There are some interesting dinner table conversations ahead, if we choose to take this incident as not just a teachable, but an eminently learnable-from, moment. Those who wrote those scenes, produced them and were perplexed by the reaction to them didn’t conjure those ideas out of nowhere. Like I said – they’re not really that creative…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Pollachi Crisis

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The media shorthand for the situation is “the Pollachi case”, but with possibly hundreds of people directly affected by it, it might be better to call it the Pollachi crisis. A violent scheme in the town, in which women were lured, filmed while being assaulted, then blackmailed, was exposed recently when the brother of a survivor pursued her assailants. The police were alerted upon discovering the videos on their phones. The number of women who have been assaulted is estimated to be as high as 200, partly based on one of the five accused claiming that “99 women” consented to sexual encounters (Did they consent to being recorded? Did they consent without coercion? If not, it’s still assault).

The organised nature of the racket has induced widespread horror, but the reality is that the violation-and-extortion method is not uncommon in the digital era. It happens in less organised ways too, mostly by abusers exploiting the fact that women (and all queer people) have a precarious standing in our society, especially when found to have exerted agency or challenged patriarchal morality. Blackmail cannot happen otherwise. The societal rot goes so deep that photos of a sister of one of the accused were circulated with calls to rape her. Those seemingly outraged by the crimes of this racket actively encouraged further crimes, revealing how little they understand or care for the personhood, autonomy and right to safety (which is completely different from right to protection) of women.

I drew a distinction between victim and survivor, just as I drew a distinction between safety and protection, because the quantum of damage inflicted is almost certainly larger than what we know. Reports say police are reopening investigations into women’s suicides in the region over the past year because there may be a link. Given the entrenched societal misogyny, it’s likely that certain cases within this larger crisis reached such a harrowing conclusion.

It’s equally likely that the families of victims, having internalised that misogyny and thus only able to reach for its lexicon, will use terms like “love failure” or “spoiled her/her life” to explain events. It’s similar to how the original media shorthand for the crisis was not even “Pollachi case” but “Pollachi sex scandal”, as though an affair coming to light and criminal assault can both be described using the same tabloid terminology. The inability to distinguish between violation and sex – an inability that can trickle all the way down to survivors themselves, who may or may not have unlearned misogynistic conditioning – is what allowed this crisis, and others like it, to occur in the first place.

Because ultimately, “the Pollachi crisis” is also a misnomer, for it’s not restricted to Pollachi alone. The crisis in its broadest scope envelopes us all, and makes vividly clear how boasts about South India, or Tamil Nadu, being safe (or comparatively safer) for women are purposefully illusory. If hundreds of women were silenced by just five men, imagine the bigger picture. The façade of safety is maintained through denial and complicity at every level. And define “safety”. Once again, let me remind you that it isn’t the same as “protection”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.