Picture this. While going about daily life, a girl logs onto social media or turns on Netflix and sees a face that she had pushed to a dark corner of her mind. Each time she sees it, she finds herself back to lying helpless in a room, pinned under, or with sweaty hands exploring her, even as she tried to rouse herself and do something, anything. Run maybe? But she couldn't. She'd had one drink too many, her mind was foggy, her body wouldn't move.
Or she was on Snapchat, and suddenly a semi-famous person popped up and said Hi. They started chatting. They liked her pics. They followed her on Twitter or FB, seemed interested. They're funny and smart, and all her friends are low-key jealous. She's chatting or flirting a little, her guard is down, they ask her for a picture. Then a different one. And then they ask her for a naked picture. She's confused. She doesn't want to do this, but this person is famous and cool. And they're interested in *HER*. She could deny. Or hit send. And boom, a picture of them in the buff lands in her inbox.
That's not supposed to be her introduction to sex, is it?
The next day, she was ashamed, hurting, confused... what was that situation that she placed herself in?
And then the messages. Any variation of • I'm sorry •It won't happen again •Send more, I loved what I saw, can I see it again? •You were drunk! •I mixed drinks with my ADHD medication! •With my anti-depressants! •Why would I even touch you?! •You don't remember it right! •No I didn't ask for your nudes, you sent them to me, I was joking. •Did you ask <friend>? •You're overreacting. •Hey I didn't think you were a prude, don't be so uptight!
Then she tells her friends. Some call her names behind her back. Some say - oh it's just Z being Z, that's how he is. Some tell her to keep evidence. But she has now learnt her first big-girl lesson - avoid troublemakers. Do. Not. Confront.
Except, all that time later, here they are on her screens, holding forth on feminism, consent, their superiority over uncouth desi males who flash or try grab girls in public transport. They've always known how to talk a good line...heck, they have cool friends who are girls with whom they exchange borderline inappropriate jokes because they're all cool like that.
But one day, something snaps. She's seen one show too many, read one tweet too many, heard one whispered story too many. And she hits social media, where she has a voice, her own true voice. She types out "I want everyone to know.." as she tweets, hands shaking, a mix of nervousness, bravado, fury, humiliation coursing through her veins, naming her tormentor, her inbox starts pinging.
Me too! He did it to Me Too! What happened to you, happened to Me Too! Me too! Me Too! Me Too!
Almost a year ago, I was browsing through my Twitter feed, unable to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. As I scrolled, the NYT exposé of Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates. For decades, he had run rings around established movie studios, with edgy Oscar-darling Miramax. His proclivities were revolting, and folk speculated on who knew, who suffered. Careers ended for Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd who won't submit. From Lupita to Miramax's princess Gwyneth, everyone had a Harvey story. These were beautiful, famous women with agency, who had all kept silent about his horrific harassment. It was impossible to look away.
Soon, the actress Rose McGowan asked everyone who had ever been sexually assaulted, to use the hash tag Me Too for solidarity and to show the breadth of the malaise. Within minutes, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with stories by women who had repressed memories for years, decades even. Their near and dear ones didn't know, or were the perps themselves. Unprocessed feelings of shame, regret, and grief had eaten into them. For the first time, in the land of the free, where every 98 seconds someone is sexually assaulted, women had found a voice, a community, a rallying point.
#MeToo was the brainchild of a woman fighting the good fight against sexual violence on people of color. 12 years ago, Tarana Burke was sitting in a class of 30 odd girls. Instead of asking them to raise their hands to indicate sexual assault survival, told them to discreetly write *Me Too* on their answer sheets. When the sheets came around, to her horror, she counted more than 20 Me Toos. She then dedicated her whole life to stand by survivors, & put the focus back on them.
As a direct fallout of WeinsteinGate, #MeToo went viral. Industry after industry had shameful secrets. Famous authors, scientists, academicians; politicians; Hollywood directors, actors, agents; movers and shakers across new/ digital media and old MSM; comedians; the demonic pediatrician on the US Olympics Gymnastics Team. All fell to heartfelt stories, some anonymous, many open, of mental & physical abuse, sexual assault, violation of consent, hidden behind charming public façades. Organizations acted swiftly after internal enquiries, and heads rolled. Most of the accused/ perps had professed to be avowedly Feminist and allies. This made the hypocrisy stand out in sharper relief, the chasm between practice and preaching even wider.
Among women in their 20s and 30s, the debate centered on the new rules of dating. At what point is consent violated? When is she going along, only because she's terrified of the consequences of saying No? The movement also began to face *backlash* from folk who felt that with a call for socially *outing* and imposing penalties on perceived violation, men were being placed under unfair scrutiny. Indeed, with the fractured socio-political climate in the West at the moment, there's frenzy around clearly distinguishing *inappropriate behavior* from sexual assault, violence and statutory rape.
Sexual harassment in the workplace first blew up in 2010 when Phaneesh Murthy and David Davidar were accused by their respective subordinates. That wave claimed many folk who hadn't realized that management trainees and interns now refused to ignore their charged innuendo or sexism. The Aughts was the decade of the 33.5% year on year growth Call Centre. The IIT-IIM-Banking career path of its most famous bard, Chetan Bhagat, enhanced his slim reads on the explosion of hook-ups & career confusion. Mixed living in B School hostels and MNC chummaries was now open to all. You *crashed* at someone's place, you got smashed with them. Folk straight out of college made insane amounts of money. Our generation was caught off with that amount of socio-economic freedom but the decade's impact on teens and tweens, is now evident in the worst of #MeToo.
Last year, Moire Donegan created a spreadsheet called the Shitty Media Men List, originally intended for NYC, but later crowd-sourced and expanded. Women keep track of who to avoid in workplace situations through unofficial networks, and this list - along with its Indian avatar on academic predators by law student Raya Sarkar - was a formal warning document. After appropriating the loaded socio-political badge of *Woke* from the Black Lives Matter movement, sheltered predators in desi slam poetry and supper clubs found the Fall of 2018 more instructive.
First, there was confusion about the intended consequences of the outing. An apology? Well, the perps apologized handsomely & wept to save their careers in the face of well-preserved screen caps. Public shaming? In many cases, the entire batch knew of the perp, their wingmen, and their female friend-enablers. They knew of the non-consensual pornographic fantasies, the sharing of intimate pictures among boys. As it turned out, many of the women needed to be believed, to be able to release unresolved trauma, and most of all, warn the sisterhood.
And why not?! As a woman I am appalled beyond measure that bare backing, the ultimate sign of trust, is practiced casually and non-consensually. It's also appalling to see that pretending to be *woke* to get laid is a feature, not a bug. The men in question were *not like that*. They said they respected boundaries. Most of all, unlike your colony waale tilak-sporting bhaiyya or your fuddy-duddy family, they said drinking didn't equal loose morals. Yet somehow, when one was drunk and incapacitated, they took immediate advantage of the opportunity to assault.
Within days though, older women turned this outing of predatory men in journalism schools, in comedy clubs and new media, into a rapidly snowballing chronicle of predatory, exploitative establishment figures. These have a stranglehold on power across journalism, theatre, movies, mass entertainment & mass media and are plain dangerous to work with. The power imbalance baked into official reporting structures, fame, and believability (vs. unreliable survivor) gets many men (and women) off. That's where the real damage to careers, mental and physical health is done, and where #MeToo makes the real difference.
These older women wanted accountability and punitive action. As I type, the comedy collective AIB is considering disbanding after two founders were removed for predatory and enabling behavior, and their entire roster outed. Editors named and shamed, are stepping down. Hindi media is disowning its black sheep. Actors and directors - all of whom made hay in the progressive values complex - are being shut out of publicity. Several of these women have banded together to take legal opinion, made more folk aware of existing laws, or forced new age cos to invest in HR practices.
India is a very early and quick adopter of the Western meme complex, since all our ideas are translated Western themes anyway. There, the #MeToo sisterhood went intersectional and political soon; and in India, at a time when women across the table should be banding together, fissures were apparent within hours.
By dint of the sectors being torched, male perps were nearly all against the current Government of India. Technically, a feminist ally can vote however they please. But these predators established their cred in the socio-cultural marketplace online and off, by putting themselves out as *progressive*. It may well be that Right leaning women will be excluded from the healing. With such less solidarity online, where the action currently is, possibilities of real change grow slim.
The second fissure is that of power. The most vocal feminists (and allies) held back their fire when their in-groups were being exposed, and continue to do so. Women in positions of power routinely ignored complaints against powerful colleagues, peers, and bosses. These enablers want their own uninterrupted access, and to gate-keep the non-compliant and the rebellious.
The last fissure is that of moral superiority. #MeToo is a teachable moment. With each moral science lesson, vulnerable men and women lie in public, and make things more unsafe for themselves.
Perps vouch for each other's innocence and try implicate their entire gender and race to shift blame and guilt. Powerful female enablers vouch for their friends and relatives, and turn it into a political witch hunt. The morally superior forcefit a #NotAllMen or #HimToo, perfectly valid, but for another time and place. All three then define sexual harassment/ assault, taking agency away from the survivors, who are coerced into limiting their exposés to closed socio-political circles. Young boys may never know of consent and young girls may never know how to speak up if they feel unsafe. .
Increasingly, individual rights in the new workplace with blurred personal and professional boundaries, is the new battlefield. To be with whoever you want to be, but safely and consensually. To navigate power structures, and litigate if needed, but with sanity and employability intact. Sex, power, betrayal are universal themes. They demand open dialogues and iron-clad redressal systems, not silos around folk with mismatched socio-political, socio-cultural or economic circumstances.
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