Trigger Warning: Graphic images and text messages objectifying women
A male acquaintance V. from my circle of good friends texts me one late evening, “What was the shade of the lipstick you were wearing?” Surprised, I check and unsuspectingly text back, “Strawberry”. “So will I get the taste of strawberry if I were to kiss you?” reads his next text. I am stuck between deciding on whether to undercut him with a witty rejoinder or call him out for his impropriety. I take the latter course and pat comes the reply, “Hey, you are not as cool as I had thought.” He professes to be a feminist and has the greatest “regard” for women and proclaims he is committed to “smashing patriarchy and sexism” in all forms. In our subsequent meetings, I find it a little awkward to talk to him with the same candour and one day I get a text, “Our friendship should not lose the warmth it once had.” I am somehow unable to summon that warmth.
The other day a close friend M. with whom I had not discussed this incident with, texted me: You write about so many things; I think you should write about this and along came an image in my Whatsapp window:
Assuming that she must have received this on a WhatsApp group, wherein a lot of misogynistic posts are circulated, I texted back saying she should leave the group. What she said next whelmed the daylights out of me as did the image that followed:
This wasn’t being posted on a group. This was a man from her social circle sending her these images; someone she was cordial with, the father of her college-going daughter’s friend who lived in the neighborhood.
This reminded me of what I had pushed under the carpet and kept under wraps. A voiceover artist from the entertainment industry whom I had absolutely idolised and had worked with on several occasions but now wanted to train under. He called me over for a demo session with one of his other trainees. After the demo, we had a casual conversation and somehow I got around to talking about Foucault and sexuality and then it digressed into non-monogamous relationships.
That conversation most clearly marked the beginning of a spate of messaging from him and what can only amount to inappropriate and non-consensual digital flirting. The images and videos had one thing in common: they were all sexually explicit images and videos of women with some witticism or rejoinder that was supposed to have a humorous effect.
All the messages objectified and sexualised the women and were deeply sexist and misogynistic. Once I wrote back saying, “This is sexist”, I was asked to “chill” and reminded this was “just for laughs”. I entirely dropped the idea of training under him and thankfully the lockdown helped as a pretext.
“Violence sometimes starts with a joke” says the home page of the Human Rights Channel of the Council of Europe. It goes on to say: “Individual acts of sexism may seem benign, but they create a climate of intimidation, fear and insecurity. This leads to the acceptance of violence, mostly against women and girls.” Among others, it condemns shaming and sexualisation of women and the use of sexist language and jokes. It affirms its contribution to an all-pervasive environment of oppression and a rapidly shrinking egalitarian cyberspace.
The problem seems to be more for women who are friendly with men and who have some radical and unconventional views about sex and sexuality or who challenge feminine stereotypes of modesty and propriety. When a woman openly talks about concepts such as consent, the female sexual autonomy, challenges the “virginity” imperative, engages in discussions pertaining to dismantling normative gender behaviour or portrays a worldview that accommodates the idea of non-monogamous relationships, a good number of men conclude that the woman is trying to indicate something.
It is not her views or take on a subject like this that matters but the fact that she has so unflinchingly aired them, despite being a woman. Since her candour and openness is diametrically opposite the censored expressiveness which is determined by a very clear demarcation of conversation considered “proper” for women in patriarchy, she is quickly categorised as a “forward” and “available” woman.
Available here could imply a lot of things – available could mean someone willing to engage in a sexually explicit conversation, someone with whom the man can “flirt” with or be “frank” with or a likely candidate for a fling. The full extent of inappropriate digital “flirting” ranges from something as seemingly innocuous as a sexist joke to a tiktok video or a gif of a sexualised woman to a video that can show intimate body parts or the act of sexual intercourse, always or mostly with some witty message embedded in it or a song playing in the background to create some kind of a humorous effect.
What is surprising in all this is the utter oversight of the inherent misogyny that is organic to these images and videos, the stereotyping of the woman and her derogatory projection as an object of consumption, intended to titillate.
And very soon, the digital space becomes the ground to prey upon and hound the woman. It is as if the digital space acts as a guard or a shield for these predators where even if there is a backlash they will not have to “face” it. Being virtual empowers them and enables the otherwise ‘in line’ men to push and bully and sometimes even conveniently back out by professing that it was the “wrong window”.
A female friend S. tells me how a former classmate once commented on her Whatsapp profile photo through private chat saying how he loved her perfectly shaped breasts. They had just reconnected after twenty years through the school group and begun catching up.
Andy Favell cites instances and categorises the various kinds of gendered tyrannising that proves beyond a doubt that digital bullying and online sexual harassment is a reality. Unfortunately the instigator and the recipient often share a common circle of friends or can be acquaintances or colleagues or even members of extended family which makes it so difficult to call out cyber-harassers. In India, cyber stalking and online sexual harassment, both are punishable offenses but while the former is premised on the logic of an anonymous stalker, the latter restricts itself to workplace harassment. So the liminal space populated by harassers who can be friends or acquaintances remains shrouded.
A distant brother-in-law of mine who is in his early 60s, texted me once that he had had a dream in which I had a different name and he would address me by that name from now on but only in the digital space and that it should be a secret between us. It was an awkward situation for me as he had had my back in a number of situations. Plus, he would be perfectly cordial when we met face to face. I humoured him for some time but then I realised that when he addressed me by that alternate name in the digital space it gave him more leverage to make the conversation more intimate, till one day I had to call him out and remind him that I had a name and that I’d like him to address me by my name.
What is difficult is that it becomes nearly impossible to cancel these men since most of the time they are a part of our social circle. How does one cancel one’s best friend’s husband or cousin’s husband and how does one tell them about it? One might argue that there is always the recourse to block such people and exit such spaces but that is not the same as addressing the problem head-on. Even if one were to take recourse to these measures, the men who are engaged in cyber harassment will keep at it. And why should a woman, who has waged entire battles to assert her space and mobility in the public (including digital) arena choose to limit herself because a man cannot lower his gaze?
It may have a great deal to do with the gender socialisation process wherein cis-het men internalise hegemonic gender behaviour along with internalizing gender stereotypes which glorify men and berate women and men too who display feminine traits. Sexism is so inherent to patriarchy and normalised to such an extent that it ceases to be treated as offensive and women who take an offense are suddenly seen as men-haters and some firebrand variety of “feminists” who are out for men’s blood.
What needs to be addressed is that the men who are sending these forwards actually find them funny and appealing. And the women who are ignoring it are doing so not because they find it funny or appealing but because as Felicity Menzies puts it, they fear “the possibility of being discredited, penalised, humiliated, dismissed or rejected.” Women at the receiving end of sexism and cyberbullying will need to objectively respond by stating how exactly it offends them and the impact it has on them and their mental and emotional well-being as well as their dignity. Women will need to call out every time this happens and men will need to sit with the discomfort of this realisation that they have lost an opportunity to be a friend or an ally to a woman, along with the cordiality and the warmth they once shared.
Featured image source: Ritika Banerjee/Feminism In India
All inserted images as provided by the author.