#MeToo makes our experiences—with our bodies, consensual and non-consensual sex—public. And that’s a good thing.
There have been so many wonderful fallouts of the global #MeToo movement, one of which has been language—the way women are being able to articulate, publically, what would have previously been ‘private things about private parts’. In India, where flowers kissed instead of actors barely a generation ago, children aren’t even taught adult words for their su-sus and pee-pees, and families by and large serve as agents of society, silence and sabhyata, talking about sex with consent is hard enough. Without consent, even if you’re aware that the blame/shame is not yours, it has an added layer of reliving trauma.
Yet, #MeTooIndia has seen women display body comfort and talk explicitly about how their nipples, breasts and vaginas have been violated by hands, lips, semen and penises. This has not been easy. Although I have been talking and writing about sexuality and gender violence since college (my forthcoming book is even called Why Indian Men Rape), when Faye D’Souza asked to me to narrate, on camera, my #MeToo experiences I had written about that morning, I surprised myself by stuttering and stammering.
But speak we will, and it will be worth it. When women femsplain body parts, both male and female, and their consensual and non- encounters, it can change the mindsets of men.
In the absence of comprehensive sexuality education in schools, the onus of teaching children about their bodies is on families. Girls receive advice around two topics: puberty, where their mothers usually explain to them what happens to their bodies and why, and safety. Without such points of intervention for boys, they tend to receive their knowledge from proverbial locker-room talk, from friends as clueless as they are, and from porn. When a 25-year-old male domestic help saw the pads I had bought for my cook, he thought they were nappies!
Healthy knowledge about and the language for their own privates, the bodies of women and sex stay more inaccessible and taboo for men than women. Through these open conversations, men can learn these absolute basics.
When women talk about their consensual sexual escapades, it establishes that women have sex lives, get over it. They challenge patriarchal notions of honour and shame, and the angel-slut binary. This is good for women, of course, but also good for men.
When I was undercover in rural Madhya Pradesh with a man who had gang raped, a subject for my book, he told me of another rape he was accused of. He described a consensual relationship with an older girl when they were teens; when she got pregnant, she and her family accused him of rape. “But that’s not rape, she agreed!” I protested. “Yes, but would she ever admit to it?” he scoffed.
It all made sense when a village elder told me he would behead his daughters if they had pre-marital sex or married for love. In this milieu, it is easy to understand why the girl would cry rape rather than admit to consensual sex.
A criticism of #MeToo is its cultural and English elitism—but it could only be spearheaded by empowered, often English-speaking, women! Far from preventing less privileged women from telling their stories, we are paving the way, creating an environment of solidarity and support for them. Once the movement and the conversations it has engendered trickle down to other languages, from urban to rural, they have the power to change cultural norms.
(Almost) All women I know have been sexually violated, often more than once. A 2007 survey by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that almost one in two girls (42.70%) was a victim of sexual abuse in one or more forms even before she turned 16. When I would tell male friends this, I was met with grudging belief. All women? Really? Then last year a friend sent me a message: “This #MeToo thing is exactly what you’ve been talking about, eh?”
When women talk about their negative experiences, it could broaden men’s understanding and empathy, making ‘the Other’ less alien. It could make them understand our preoccupations with safety. Women you know, beyond your mother-sister, have everyday experiences that are different from and more complex than yours. Those that think that women get preference at job interviews because the bosses want to ‘use’ them (read on Twitter) may understand that these ‘compromises’ are not ‘dues’ that working women want to pay.
It may further educate men about the nuances of consent and courtship, so far informed by the stalk-her-until-she-catapults paradigm of our film industry.
And, whether or not men have a collective epiphany about the humanity and human rights of women, they can certainly no longer count on the silence that has allowed gender violence to breed. Where once there were no consequences for their actions, particularly in the workplace, there can now be socioeconomic if not legal ones. Even if MJ Akbar has escaped the axe for now, some serving journalists have had to go and many others—not just journalists—are facing the heat. These are important precedents.
I believe in the power of words, of language, to change to world. (I’m a writer, I would.) #MeToo will prove that the pen is mightier than the penis after all.
An edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost.com on 15.10.18.