I began dating my first boyfriend when I was 16. I wish I could say it was wonderful, but almost ten years later, all I remember are a handful of memories that coat my tongue like plastic, making me gag.
Him, rubbing his erection against me in a public place. Him, telling me the men who had followed me in broad daylight had done so because my breasts were jiggling. Him, asking me to keep the relationship a secret so that he could continue to date his previous girlfriend. Him, telling me I was not meant for love because I told him I would not prioritise him over my friends, family, or work. Him, asking repeatedly for oral sex despite me saying no. And me, giving in to it all, because even that early in my life, I knew love was nothing if not painful, sacrificial, something I would need to compromise my own values and self worth for.
Also read: Boyhood And The Dangers Of Toxic Masculinity
I remember feeling like I was a bad girlfriend, that I truly did not deserve love, because he was so unhappy with me. I remember feeling worthless because he made me believe, just as he believed, that I was nothing if I did not revolve around him. But I was never the moon, I was the sun.
Masculinity is so often incapable of de-centring itself, and so cannot encounter women as human beings in their own right, with dreams and capabilities of their own. Women are always mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives. The ones who don’t belong to anyone are whores. Even today, I continue to be marked by him – those who knew me then continue to ask if I know that he is now married, has a child. They continue to see me as someone who once belonged to him, and wonder how I feel to be replaced. It does not occur to them that I can see myself as my own person, define myself and map my world without men.
By the time this relationship ended, I had started college, and would take public transport. Those months are a blur of male erections pressing up against me. An avalanche of skin memories of men trying to hold my hand, graze my thighs, feel my breasts, rub my waist in broad daylight, in the bus, and on the street. How do women continue to be housed in their bodies, how do they see their bodies as comfortable, pleasurable, as the skin they live in, when our bodies are attacked everyday, with physical touch or men’s gazes? Women so often do not occur to men. We are not people, we are not even an afterthought. We are to be touched and seen but never heard.
It didn’t matter what time of day it was, what I wore, what I did, how I walked. All these days run into each other in my mind now, even though when it was happening, each instance was a violent event. I was constantly afraid that if I yelled or said something wrong, these men would hit me, rape me, kill me, throw acid in my face. Each of those moments divorced me from myself, made it harder to breathe, made me wish I did not exist, because there were too many men to even think they would ever disappear, stop, become less confident in their harassment, rage, or entitlement.
Now when I talk about these moments with a necessary detachment, many tell me the men who do this are lower class, lower caste. This is so often how middle and upper class Savarna people make sense of harassment. Neat, serving a purpose. At these responses, I tell them about the time my extremely rich upper caste friend groped me at a party after getting drunk. I tell them that my equally rich and upper caste friends told me to let it go because it was not a big deal. That it was fine to be grabbed and touched by someone because they were drinking. I tell them that the men I have had relationships with, all middle or upper class, all Savarna, have hardly behaved better. To a woman, what is the difference between two unwanted touches, two unwelcome erections?
I have to navigate my life around masculinity everyday, because I have to constantly protect myself from being raped, molested, murdered, stared at, groped.
Misogyny and the belief that women are inferior to men does not differentiate between class, caste, or political affiliation; perhaps only the manifestations change. In my master’s years, I met many left leaning, Marxist boys, most of whom courted me by demonstrating how well they understood the class struggle. It did not occur to them that there was no space for women in their revolution, that women were to always do the care work for these Marxist activists.
Their policing was not as obvious, they were our favourite “woke boys” after all; at least they did not utter rape threats like their sanghi counterparts. But they consistently argued that gender was not as important as class. At best, they let women struggle for their own rights, but demanded that women also participate in their politics and their activisms. For decades, so much of the feminist movement has been invalidated by men like these, until feminists prove that they, too, think about class, employment, and development, even though these men never feel the same pressure to demonstrate their ally-ship.
It was in those years that I had a short lived encounter with someone who has been accused of rape in the past two weeks. Reading the woman’s account of what had happened, I had felt my blood run cold. I recognised what she was describing so instinctively; those flesh memories came flooding back to me. He and I had met almost 7 years before when he asked me to meet him in a public place but without asking me, drove me to his house. Nobody was there, and he took me directly to his room.
By this time, I was already uncomfortable, deeply aware that the situation was dangerous. He kissed me, and tried to take off my clothes a few times; I refused each time until he stopped. He kept suggesting we have sex. I – knowing a direct refusal could make things worse — started to read a book from his bookshelf. Slowly, he lost interest and I could leave. A few days later, I received messages from him, calling me a slut, a bitch, a whore. It was astonishing that he had not felt that he needed to treat me with courtesy, or see me as a human being. Looking back, I am no longer sure if this was the first time I felt the danger of being with men set into my bones, but it was not the last time. Masculinity is so often predatory I have forgotten what it means to not be constantly hunted by men.
Soon after this incident, I began a relationship with a professor, while I was his student. He had been courting me for two years, carefully, in a way that would not make me feel suspicious. When I asked him why he was interested in me, someone so young and also his student, he told me it was because he had fallen in love with me. Years of romance novels, Bollywood, and a collective conscious told me that this made sense – love is often found in unlikely places. Nobody teaches us how risky it really is for women to fall in love with men. It amazes me now how little control I had over the situation back then, how much he controlled me. He did not want to me meet other men, because he did not trust them. He constantly belittled how much I knew about the world, and gaslighted me. Because he was two decades older than I was, he knew better than me.
He was aggressively bothered by my past relationship history, but failed to tell me his. He refused to use protection during sex. He did not allow me to tell anyone we were in a relationship because it would be shameful for me if people found out I was in a relationship with a much older man. Slowly, and in insidious ways, through ‘love’ and ‘care’ and ‘concern’, he distanced me from my family and friends so that I would depend only on him. I, too, found myself his secret-keeper. I was in love with a man who was not raping me, hitting me, or telling me that sexual harassment was my fault; to me that made him perfect — I had been trained by then to expect this little from men.
When it ended, I discovered he had had countless such relationships with other students. He only established relationships with women who were his subordinates and much younger than him. When Raya curated a list of academics who had sexually harassed students, his name was there. He continues to be involved with students to this day. Like him, four other professors who had taught me were, or are, in relationships with their students, or have crossed professional and ethical boundaries with them. Of course, I did not learn this until much later, until it was too late for me to not have gone through what I did. Because I was so carefully looking for physical abuse and sexual harassment, I became completely blind to the psychological abuse, and the manipulative behaviour I was on the receiving end of for two years.
Jeanette Winterson, in her book, Gut Symmetries, writes of a husband and wife stranded on a boat, where the husband carves out the flesh of his wife and eats it to survive, exclaiming, “I had no choice. I had to do it”. The irony is that they are rescued soon after – there was no real threat to his survival. Masculinity so often feels like it is feeding on my flesh and bones in order to thrive. I am depleted because of masculinity. Because I have to navigate my life around masculinity everyday, because I have to constantly protect myself from being raped, molested, murdered, stared at, groped, because I have to constantly fight against the glass ceiling, because I have to constantly fight with family and friends in order to have a career, I am always using my resources and energy to simply exist in this sexist world, energy which I could have devoted to my work, family, or friends, or simply, to myself.
Slowly, and in insidious ways, through ‘love’ and ‘care’ and ‘concern’, he distanced me from my family and friends so that I would depend only on him.
I write this to demonstrate that it is not a few men who participate in this culture of misogyny, but all men. Many men engage in rape and sexual harassment, many more men are dictated by a more implicit and insidious belief that they are better than women, that women are for them to possess or protect. Even more men remain silent when they encounter such beliefs and behaviours, either because they do not think it is wrong, or because they do not want to give up their privilege.
All men benefit from patriarchal and misogynistic cultures in the courtroom, bedroom, workplaces, and public spaces, because even if they do not seek it out to be so, they are the beneficiaries of such cultures. It does not have to be a rape threat each time, but can be a man explaining how I should do my job, even though he is not from my field and I am an expert in mine. There is a wide spectrum of behaviours that manifests from the same underlying belief – that men and masculinity are superior to women and femininity.
I am not suggesting that masculinity reserves its aggression and abuse for women. The men who are unable to traverse these cruel journeys of aggressive masculinity (masculinity can be aggressive without manifesting as aggressive behaviour) are also punished by masculinity. It is also true that women can be equally abusive towards other women – moulded by patriarchy, they learn to be close to men and power to feel protected from gendered violence. When misogyny is so widespread, danger so ingrained, survival so much in question, and when you have been hunted for so long, it turns women against women. Women being against women is also evident from how Dalit women experience more violence than Savarna women; in our daily existence, we continue to make Dalit women’s lives more unsafe so that ours can be a little more secure.
Ever since the list curated by Raya last year, and the burgeoning of #MeToo in the past two weeks, what bothers me is how quickly we speak of turning to law, as if legal procedures are what will save us (marital rape is not considered rape in the Indian constitution to this day and the two-finger test still continues to exist).
Even though sexual harassment and rape laws are extremely vital, I know that so much of my experience cannot be evidenced under law. Even if I were to seek legal redressal, what justice can I hope of achieving? What will it take to make me forget what I have experienced at the hands of men, when that violence is written into my psyche, etched onto my body? How do I recover from having spent most of my 20s piecing together the fragments of myself that I have had to dissociate from in order to survive? Masculinity so often robs women of their ability to experience a robust sense of self, so often steals from them the ability to conceive of pleasure and security together.
In the aftermath of the LoSHA and MeToo, that we continue to perceive these experiences as unrelated, as an example of “some” men, that we continue to doubt whether each instance is true or false, that we continue to ask women to bear the burden of the behaviours of the men in their lives, are all signs that we are failing to sense what this outpouring by women is really trying to do. By saying #MeToo, we are saying that there is a larger and more widespread problem of misogyny and patriarchal beliefs that makes all women’s survival difficult, if not impossible.
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