I grew up on a healthy dose of stalking, or as I now know it, sexual harassment. We’ve always been told that men have to work hard to get the girl, that everything is fair in love and… well, you know how that goes. Men have to write love letters, sing songs, beat up other men who are troubling the poor helpless girl, and then stalk her until she says yes.
Oh, and all this while, we must stare at her. From a distance.
I am an Indian man. It is culturally accepted – and encouraged – that I go after the woman I like, and really go all out for her. She is weak and vulnerable, she is too shy to express herself, and she just doesn’t realise yet that she, too, is into me. I have to do whatever it takes to impress her, because it is only a matter of time – if I am persistent enough – before she will start seeing me for the sexy beast I am and become “my girl.”
I am an Indian man. I struggle to understand and empathise with ideas that contradict and challenge this culture, the only one I have ever known. I grew up with a “pornified” view of sex (consent what?!) where men are the dominant force in any sexual interaction. I have been told that I must dominate, be in control, and guide the poor, shy, docile girl into having great sex. Girls want to have sex with me – they are just shy so they hope I will be the one to make a move on them, as aggressively as is necessary, so that they can then enjoy the sex.
Oh and yes, it all starts with staring at them, from a distance.
I am an Indian man. Watching pornography has subconsciously informed my understanding of sexual interactions. Pornography taught me that women are to be used and abused; they love choking on penises, they like it when a man takes control and dictates how and when they have sex, and they are always ready for action. It taught me that women absolutely don’t mind being touched and groped, in fact - they quite like it. Sometimes when they are not willing, I just need to be persistent and even a little forceful. She will thank me later, after some mind-blowing sex.
This is the culture that the average Indian man grows up in, reinforced and even shaped by Bollywood (for instance, in movies like Tere Naam, Toilet, Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya, and so many more) as well as in advertising and most other institutions within the country. In this culture, men get together to judge women as either “wife material” or “whores.” We call ourselves liberal and open-minded, but when a girl smiles at us, we assume she wants to have sex. Every time a girl refuses to have sex, we assume that we must try harder. We often justify our actions by saying “men will be men.”
It is about time we question everything we know about consent and harassment.
My understandings of these concepts come from a culture that has paid no attention to consent or harassment, so I struggle to comprehend the new lessons I’m being taught. When I hear about women fighting for equal rights or calling out their harassers and abusers in the #MeToo movement, I might have the urge to argue against them, to doubt them, and to debunk their efforts by calling their stories extreme and over the top. “Of course women should get justice if they are wronged, but what about all the men who have been falsely accused? Why did she stay quiet for 10 years? Why didn’t she say something when it was happening?” are common thoughts amongst even the most “progressive” of men. But in a country where sexual and domestic abuse is the norm and the percentage of false accusations is not even a visible fraction of “true” accusations - these impulsive reactions by men are deeply flawed.
I must realise that these urges to critique #MeToo stems from my conditioning as a man. I must realise that my ability to empathise with Indian women is severely hampered because I am none other than the Indian man holding all the power. My reality and my experiences are so drastically different from any woman in the country, or anywhere in the world, that to fully grasp what women are fighting for is not possible in my position.
As an Indian man, I have to take a step back and reflect on my own actions, unlearn and then learn again. I have to challenge the societal understandings of what it means to be a man and actively work towards a more equal society. And I definitely must stop staring from a distance – that, too, is harassment.
Aditya Gautam is the author of Pornistan: How to Survive the Porn Epidemic in India, read more about it and get your copy here.
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