“What are men to rocks and mountains?”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“Listen, I support you all, alright? Girl power and all that jazz. But honestly, this #MeToo movement has killed any chances of romance. I mean, I can’t even make a move anymore” said a (cis-het male) friend though he was quickly getting demoted back to the acquaintance category.
“Well, clearly, your idea of romance must have been predatory or women calling out their abusers wouldn’t make you shit your pants like that” is what I said in my head. I actually said, “My Uber’s here” and walked away, a bitter taste in my mouth and one less facebook friend in my list.
Emerged As A Critique against #Metoo
The present sociological context forms what is being termed as the #MeToo era. It has, for the very first time, brought out notions of informed consent into the conversation. The movement has since then received copious backlash. While critiques against the redundancy of call-out culture are relevant and should be noted, the others are unreasonable, improbable accusations like “women implicating innocent men for fear or revenge”.
Consent is the focal point of the above debate, surfaced by stories such as the one on Babe.net (January 2018) written by an anonymous 23-year old woman about being coerced by comedian Aziz Ansari into a sexual encounter. Considering people like Aziz Ansari, Alok Nath, Ali Zafar are all getting work (without any real apology or acknowledgement) and the alleged victims remain invisible, it is safe to say that sexual harassment accusations do not destroy a man’s career and do not come out of a desire of fame.
Another critique of the movement is that there is visibly massive anxiety amongst most men about approaching women. Questions about the possibility of romance, sexual spontaneity, ‘instant attraction’ are being asked after the plethora of sexual harassment allegations. As a recent article contends, “Are we less inclined to approach strangers we find attractive? Are workplace relationships now out of the question? Do we need to ask permission before kissing someone for the first time?”
The idea of romance has altered significantly over time. Previously, the dominant narratives around female pleasure were intrinsically entangled with male desire. This can be seen in the way mainstream porn is constructed blatantly for the male viewership or the marketability of ‘instructive’ articles like ‘5 Ways to Please Your Man’ in magazines such as Cosmopolitan. It is untrue to claim that this situation has reversed itself but female pleasure is definitely being given more importance than before. There are easily accessible feminist conversations around consent on the internet. This is deeply connected to romantic relationships; there has been a slight improvement in making romantic courtship a level playing field.
Previously, the dominant narratives around female pleasure were intrinsically entangled with male desire. This can be seen in the way mainstream porn is constructed blatantly for the male viewership.
The two important takeaways from these necessarily turbulent times, I think, are clear definitions of consent and harassment. The #MeToo movement has generated discussion around ‘zero tolerance’ harassment policies, and many organizations (e.g. Microsoft, New York City Council) have already changed their sexual harassment policies in its wake. Within India too, most universities have stressed on the need to have an ICC board or a harassment cell. The working definition of consent has now come to mean ‘an enthusiastic yes’ and not merely ‘not no’. After browsing through recent scholarship with legal and social guidelines on sexual harassment, I found the ones on the Planned Parenthood website the most helpful. They came out long before the #MeToo movement entered mainstream media and also have video options on Youtube which are quite easy to follow.
In Pop Culture
If one talks about Bollywood, the list of ‘rape-y’ films, songs and scenes are endless and the situation has not really changed even now. The prime example of the old versus the new idea of romance then is the controversy surrounding the quintessential Christmas song Baby, It’s Cold Outside. The song was once an all-time favourite but now the lyrics seem like the man cannot take no for an answer. Composed in 1944, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written as a playful call-and-response duet. In 1948, the song was recorded for the musical Neptune’s Daughter; in the score, the male and female parts are labelled “the Wolf” and “the Mouse,” respectively.
I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside) The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)
There have been plenty of debates around this with radio stations banning it from their playlist and few people even coming to the defence of the song. They claim that in the twentieth century, this was exactly how courtship worked. It was unacceptable for women to say yes straight away and it usually required some convincing by their dates. This further complicates the consent argument as playing ‘hard to get’ was and is (tragically) a popularly endorsed strategy as “men like having to work for it”. Female sexuality was and is still frowned upon, which is why enthusiastic consent is something that does not come easy for women.
The solution to this is for men to take silence as disinterest rather than assume interest, always. In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley stops courting Jane as he feels she is reserved with him and therefore does not love him back. Elizabeth eventually intervenes and reveals that Jane is merely shy and inexpressive. Once Jane declares her love for Bingley, they are both happily married. This is besides the point, it must be noted that Bingley stopped. So, if you’re ever unsure or cannot understand the signals you are getting, just ask.
The Way Forward
Destroy the notion that asking for consent ‘kills the mood’. People don’t stop in the middle of what they are doing, turn into robots (unless you’re into robot sex, no judgement) and start negotiating terms of sexual behaviour. “What level of sexual activity do you give enthusiastic consent for? Sign this document, right here.” No! Here’s what I recommend, pick up a well-written modern day romance novel (Not Fifty Shades, please). Of course, they are unrealistic but to have them as an ideal for real-life relationships works wonders. Modern day romance novels are models of healthy, enthusiastic, sexy consent. Read the following passage from Alexis Daria’s Take the Lead?
Pulse pounding in his throat, he undid the clasp on her bra. Just to make sure he wasn’t reading the situation wrong, he asked once again, “More?”
Her head jerked in a slight nod, and a second later, he got his reply: “Yes.”
Or these lines from Never Loved, by Charlotte Stein, spoken by a hero who is standing a full ten feet away from the heroine:
“Or that you maybe think you can’t tell me to go in case I do something violent, even though I’ll tell you right now I’m never gonna put a foot out of place if I think for one second it makes you uncomfortable. You say the word, and I’ll take ten steps back. I’ll take a thousand steps back if that’s what it takes to keep that sweet face smiling.”
“Women are totally okay with being romance-deficient if your idea of romance is to tell every woman that you meet that you find it so hard to find women with your IQ. Our shoulders, mouths and behinds are saying: bring on the end of romance.”
Sigh. See? Asking for consent adds to the experience rather than taking away from it. Enthusiastic, romantic consent is possible! The previous predatory ideal for romantic relationships had to change to make space for healthy conversations around sexual desire. Since there is enough material available on it, one cannot plead ignorance or hide behind “This is just how men are.” No. That shouldn’t be how men are. We shouldn’t maintain a bar that’s that low for men.
To keep up with today’s times, a new standard for romantic relationships and sexual behaviour is required, especially in the context of online dating. An extremely witty Economic Times article says “Women are totally okay with being romance-deficient if your idea of romance is to tell every woman that you meet that you find it so hard to find women with your IQ. Our shoulders, mouths and behinds are saying: bring on the end of romance.”
Even though the legal response to perpetrators is less than satisfactory, women finally have a platform to speak up. There is a possibility to seek justice. Has this changed the dating game? Absolutely! But has it created a culture of fear that did not exist before? I do not think so. Men are right to feel uncertain about approaching women as it will further conversation around what constitutes acceptable behaviour and what does not. The ‘she was asking for it’ narrative needs to make space for experiences where men actually start doing the asking. I mean, a world where men have second thoughts before approaching women, sign me up!
Featured Image Source: Glamour