Feminism · Thoughts

Understanding #MeToo as a Revolution

When they are not paid trolls or a potential accused themselves, I pity the men earnestly and innocently asking after every #MeToo reveal, “But where is the proof?” and “What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”

They are struggling to understand what is happening. And in some cases, being too arrogant about it.

What is happening is a revolution. And revolution, by definition, doesn’t respect existing norms – social, moral or legal. It redefines norms. You can’t comprehend the new norms by using the old vocabulary.

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Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Another thing about revolutions is that they are messy. Don’t let neat paragraphs about all the revolutions in the History textbooks fool you. Once you get into the nitty-gritty, which those who are living the revolution have to compulsorily face, you wouldn’t be surprised if many people want to just crawl back to the predictable, old days, even if it was more oppressive. So many people, women included, are dealing with the loss of their heroes right now. I don’t even know what family members of the accused are doing to cope with it. Well, revolution doesn’t neatly skirt you to care for your cherished, little comforts.

An impactful revolution does not come out of nowhere. The dissidence builds over time. A few failed attempts usually precede the successful ones. Many martyrs are made before a successful person ascends the throne. As is resurfacing, it isn’t the first time that women have spoken out about the harassments. But they have been unsuccessful in getting redressal in past. Many have had to sacrifice their careers for their audacity. Other attempts at making it public and large-scale also didn’t take off. But now, the moment is there.

Why does a particular attempt succeed? Again, leave it to History textbooks to list down neat, lucid reasons. For those living it, it may not have succeeded, just like the earlier attempts. But somehow, this one time it did. Somebody made another attempt, and this time it caught on. You can be happy, you can be sad, you can be jubilant, you can be confused, you can feel whatever you want to, but the only actionable choice you have is to live it.

What happens now? Pretty unpredictable. Revolutions go in all kinds of directions. They almost never neatly lead to the world envisaged by the original revolutionaries. The almost never fully destroy existing power structures and horrors. They almost always bring new kinds of horrors. They often also result in splintering within the revolution.

The impact of #MeToo has been unprecedented because a significant number of people have stopped defending and started accepting the horrors of the situation and the current system’s inability to fix them. Almost for the first time abusers have been sacked or had to step aside. But here is the thing. One year down the line, many of them are likely to creep back. The power structure is still there, and it is still owned by men. I would like to see, however, that after creeping back, do they keep away from repeating their offenses? That would be something. And do others not yet outed learn their lessons and desist from now on? Does the definition of “cool” and “just a joke” and “just harmless flirting” change in workplaces?

One totally unintended and depressing outcome would be even more bias against hiring women. Because people don’t change that easily. All the existing biases against women will continue working, and now men in power would “fear” being “outed” for “even smiling at women”. So, no wonder if such people come up with the solution of not hiring women in the first place. If that happens, there is another fight to be fought.

A new kind of horror will, of course, be if too many innocent people are consumed by the fire that is spreading. There are a very small number of cases that look like it, but the attempts of high jacking the revolution by vested, conservative interests are obvious. I won’t worry too much about individuals trying to get personal vendetta out of it – I think those die down easily. But institutional bad faith can totally destroy it.

But even if that happens, a new norm has taken root and there will forever now be a tool to fight with. For those asking “What will come of it?” as persistently as the men mentioned at the beginning of this article asking “Where is the proof?”, it’s not going to become a gender-egalitarian world right away. So, don’t bother declaring it a failure because “x hasn’t changed” and don’t pretend to be wisely annoyed when another fight is started. Most of what has come out in #MeToo is the most horrible kind of outright sexual harassment and assault. If even those go down or are punished by the system, it will be a big success. But we haven’t even started on everyday sexism – the multitudes of ways in which women are denigrated and humiliated, the deliberate or unacknowledged biases that harm their careers and sense of self-worth, the thousands of ‘don’t’s and ‘can’t’s and ‘daren’t’s meted out every day! If we start calling those out at scale, nobody knows who will be left with any face to show at all. We have material enough for several more messy revolutions.

If you aren’t an abuser, congrats! Sit back, relax and make sure you don’t look the other way the next time an episode of harassment is going on around you. It might have been uncool, unsporting, puritan to protest it in past. Now you have the excuse of a revolution. And yes – stop being sexist in every other way too.

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Thoughts

Sexual harassment? No, let’s talk about sexual predators.

[Note: The language in the article below assumes victim and victimizer as a woman and a man respectively. That just reflects the majority of the scenarios I have seen. It doesn’t mean that the situation can’t exist with gender roles reversed, or even between people of the same sex.]

For all our Vishakha guidelines and progressive judicial stands and outrage at the normalization of sexual harassment, whenever a case pops up, the discourse gets muddled up with the same old issue. Who do you trust in the classic he-said-she-said scenario? Even when there are “electronic proofs”, there is always a question of context, consent, and that ultimate conundrum – was it harmless flirting or was it sexual harassment?

For this post, let’s step back from the issue of individual incidents. Let’s talk about a certain kind of person instead. And quite unabashedly, I label this person as a sexual predator.

I don’t know if I can define it in completely unambiguous and objective terms – a definition you can put down in a law and be sure that it will serve you right every time – but I know a sexual predator when I ‘see’ one. What is different about a sexual predator? It is the predictable consistency of his behavior.  You will know one too when you come across them. But if you are young, inexperienced, uncertain or in awe of the person, you may choose not to know it. Or you may not feel confident enough in your knowledge. You may question yourself, rather than that person. And you may go on pretending that nothing is wrong.

Have you known someone who casts his net wide? Whose default mode of interaction with someone of opposite sex (sometimes restricted to a ‘type’ they have) is flirting or behaving more intimately than their level of acquaintance justifies? Who makes women uncomfortable and leaves them wondering if something is wrong with that person or if their discomfort is the result of they themselves being too puritan, uncool and stuffy. For whom women’s sexual liberation means freedom for themselves to make any interaction with the opposite sex sexual in nature – subtle or otherwise? And who, if they were not slapped by the woman right then and there, claim that there was consent for whatever they said or did, and howsoever they behaved?

Don’t let your answer be affected by the fact that the person may be extremely successful, even legendary, nor by him being a nice and helpful person, not even by him being an avowed and fierce feminist. It is mighty difficult to believe that a person can be all of these and still be a sexual predator. So please keep these observations aside for a moment and think if the answer to any of the questions I asked in the previous paragraph is true? If it is, then you perhaps know a sexual predator, even if everything else about him is nice, inspiring and grand.

I know at least two such people. I have known them to be sexual predators since almost my first interaction with them. But I didn’t consciously acknowledge it until I was old and experienced enough to digest the idea. And until I got some external verification. One of them has a type (young women), the other is quite flexible.  They happen to be the kind of people I want to professionally keep in touch with, even if there isn’t something I need from them at the moment. They are successful, approachable, immensely articulate, well-connected, well-moneyed, and always eager to help. Both old enough to be my father too. The reason I mention age is that it is a factor that makes young people instinctively want to trust them. But they are sexual predators.

How can they be so? Especially when they have so much to lose? Successful people always have more to lose, right? I wonder as much as you do.

And I wonder if there is a point in fighting them? Not just because of the hopeless social discourse such a fight brings about. But also because of how they react to it. How confidently defensive they get. It doesn’t look like they would improve if you fight them.

I also wonder if we should give them a benefit of doubt. I am almost ready to concede that they themselves are victims. That sexual predation is not as much of a choice as we may think. That it isn’t as much about the power equation as we tend to ascribe it to, especially in the context of sexual harassment at workplace. That it is something pathological. That they have a problem in their brains because of which either 1) they genuinely “do not know what they are doing”. That is, they honestly believe that in a sexually liberated society they are not crossing a line, even when they take advantage of the weaker or vulnerable position of the other person, or 2) they know what they are doing, but their urges are so strong that they can’t control it.

Yes – I am ready to concede that they are victims. Or rather patients. Dangerous kinds of patients, though. Because they are a threat to other people.

So, let’s do this. Let’s not try to treat them like criminals. Let’s not try to analyze each individual incident to see if there is technically a power-equation or professional relationship that makes their behavior wrong and for which they can be convicted. Let’s not public-shame them. Instead, let’s start sending them references of good psychiatrists. Like you would do for someone suffering from depression. Or of behavior therapists. Like you would do for someone who has an uncontrollable, violent temper. If you are someone close enough to them, don’t let yourself be fooled by their well-articulated defenses on why they are not ill and don’t need help. Do the right thing and get them help. And till they get it, keep them out of the situations where their illness can show its ugly symptoms. Just like people with pedophilic tendencies should not be put in a situation where children have a reason to interact with them, people with sexual-predatory tendencies should not be put in a situation where others have a reason to interact with them.

The rest of us, let’s send them get-well-soon cards. And flowers, if they are not beyond your budget.