A FEW YEARS AGO, I found myself in one of the upper floors of a high-rise, gazing out of a balcony. It was a pleasant evening. Below, at one end of the building compound, there was a sort of a garden with a walking track. Children could be seen running about, chased by nannies and grandparents, many of them in nightwear and pyjamas, looking as if they were sleepwalking.
This was a plush building. Several Hindi cinema celebrities and their families lived here. And if you didn’t lift your gaze from the garden below to the horizon above, to the cramped lanes and houses lumped together with so little breathing space, you could easily forget you were in Mumbai.
“Good view, right?” my host asked me in Hindi.
He was a man in his seventies, healthy although a bit overweight. He had been a relatively well-known film director and producer in the 1970s and 80s. He had continued working into the early 90s, though less successfully, before dropping off the scene. He survived now, he told me, on the fees he earned from TV channels that played his old films.
He took me around his house—two flats bought and merged into one— showing me the bedrooms and living rooms, and, strangely, even the lavatories. He wasn’t showing off. He had a somewhat genial air about him. He hadn’t been particularly rich growing up and seemed genuinely surprised to find himself so comfortably off in the late years of his life.
At one point, after his wife and grandkids moved to another room, he began to talk about a woman actor who featured in one of his films. The movie had made that actor quite popular, although mysteriously she never featured in another film again. She was a young woman from a distant small town, he told me, when she had approached him for a cinema role.
And then, out of the blue, my host told me, “We (him and the co-producers) became friendly with her.”
I didn’t quite understand. So I smiled.
My host then placed his arm around my shoulder, pulled me in closer, winked at me lest I not get his drift, and, still smiling from the memory, repeated himself: “She became very friendly with us.”
It wasn’t clear if he was simply bragging about something that never took place. Or if whatever it was that did, if it actually did—between her and him or her and his colleagues—was exploitative, perhaps in lieu of a role in that film, or consensual; and if the latter, then to what extent that consent went.
It would be dishonest to say the story shocked me, even though such an admission of the industry’s infamous casting couch from someone who indulged in it (which he seemed to suggest) was new to me. But what stayed with me later was not so much what he said, but how he said it: the knowledge that this was too indecent to be recounted in the company of his wife and grandchildren, but okay to be whispered to me, a stranger he had only met recently, in some form of male camaraderie with the expectation that one man would understand another. Over 40 years and different cultural and social milieus separated the two of us. But that gesture of his—arm over my shoulder, the wink—was expected to bridge that gap. I didn’t say anything. I smiled, gulped my tea, and carried on with some other conversation.
Such behaviour—getting someone into bed for a job, in this case a role, if it was that—is clearly not acceptable. It never was and will never be. However, it does happen, and will probably continue to do for some time. But now, after a fortnight of the MeToo campaign in India, this everyday recounting of stories of sexual harassment and exploitation, I wonder if any man will consider it okay to so uninhibitedly—proudly even—speak of the exploitation of a woman.
Change in social behaviour occurs slowly and incrementally over decades, rather than an explicit moment. The MeToo campaign began one year ago, and has gained force only now. But the manner in which it has taken off here— the way women have come forward to tell their stories of subjection and workplace misdemeanours, the breaches of trust by male colleagues and friends and the abuse of power by bosses, one disclosure emboldening another, not necessarily to seek legal redressal but to lift a weight off their shoulders and place it instead on their abusers —has had a momentous effect on both sides of the gender divide. For two weeks, women have described being crushed into silence, denied their voice and credibility at work. The chasm between the male and female worlds has suddenly become extraordinarily visible.
‘Toxic masculinity’ is sometimes discussed in reference to a male need to betray our better natures as part of a go-getter instinct. The thinking that to achieve anything, one needs to go out there and make a grab for it- be it a business opportunity or a woman
Men are being held accountable, named and shamed and removed from their jobs. There is a creeping sense that something is profoundly wrong with the institution of masculinity. Where does this toxicity emanate from? Men—all men—are suffering from an image crisis. A cultural reckoning is underway.
IDOLS AND HEROES have been pushed off their pedestal. Sanskari uncles outed. Friends outed. Companies dissolved. Young likeable ‘woke’ men, the sort one would assume navigated the modern world of women at the workplace with expertise, found to be just as clumsy and sometimes predatory.
For women, MeToo is an act of catharsis, an unloading of suffering and past guilt. For men, it is something else— a history sheet of bad behaviour, an instructional manual on what, moving on from here, is going to be acceptable and not. A line drawn in the sand. Screenshot by screenshot, with wipers clearing grime off the windscreen. Screenshot by screenshot, the world becoming clearer for what it is.
It isn’t just a few outlier cases, the clear- cut cases of rape, abuse and harassment. The MeToo campaign may have started as something confined to workplace sexual harassment. But what we are now presented with are recollections of a wide spectrum of actions, from the outlandishly horrific to greyer areas of intimate encounters. The MeToo campaign has been called a social purge. But perhaps it is more appropriate to call it a purge of a certain type of male behaviour.
The French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, who has written some interesting books on modern love and relationships, recently described, in an interview to The Irish Times, the deep impact of the campaign. “[Until MeToo] it was very difficult to convince men that sexual harassment was not a marginal offence… It was often assimilated to white-collar crime. The dominant view was that you cannot create a whole agenda based on 5 per cent of men who are outliers and criminals,” she said.
An acquaintance of a male friend had once told his female colleague that he hoped her legs opened as wide as her mind. The friend recounts this today jokingly. “I thought it was quite witty,” he tells us over lunch. But there is no laughter. The solitary woman at the table is furious. “How is that okay?” she asks. He goes quiet.
Men are also having conversations, among male friends and in their minds. Every case brings up something new. Was this a harmless remark or sexual harassment? Did such and such person cross the line? What is the line? Have I not crossed it myself?
Several men I know search their names on social media every few days. Some have set up Google Alerts. Many are mentally replaying past sexual encounters, pondering, filtering through imperfect memories to recall conversations and facial expressions. Did she seem hesitant? Was I too aggressive? Did I ignore the signs? It is not a brave new world. Men are assessing their own past; possible missteps and complicity, wrestling with the distinction between ‘I am a bad person’ and ‘I made a mistake’. Some men I know have reached out to old acquaintances and girlfriends, asking with genuine curiosity if their conduct has been poor in the past. Some are doing it simply to preempt their names from appearing on harasser lists.
“We’re all kind of guilty to an extent,” says a male acquaintance in the advertising industry. “Most of the focus is on some men, the infamous abusers. But those people are just a drop in the ocean. In reality, almost every man is guilty at some point in his life of having done something inappropriate, from some unwelcome flirting to pushing a little too hard for sex.”
Is the issue here that of a certain narrow concept of masculinity, as many suggest, of what it means to be a man? Conventions that turn male attitudes into sexual aggression? The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is sometimes discussed in reference to a male need to betray our better natures and submit to something low and mean, even misogyny, as part of a go-getter instinct. The thinking that to achieve anything, one needs to go out there and make a grab for it—be it a business opportunity, career or woman.
To many men, and some women, MeToo is a campaign that has gone too far. They argue that while rape is a crime, trying to seduce someone—even persistently or clumsily—is not. They seem to stretch their noses in the air and discover the odour of a new puritanism
Illouz, whose 2011 book Why Love Hurts which explores modern romance and has been hailed as the ‘emotional atlas’ of the 21st century, presents an interesting view of masculinity and sexuality in the modern world. She highlights the theory, first put out by historian John Tosh, that masculinity is aimed at attaining ‘social status, demonstrated in specific social contexts’ and that it traditionally occurs in three arenas, which she calls the three pillars of masculinity: home, work, and all-male associations. ‘Authority in the household, the capacity to earn a wage in a non-servile independent way, and the capacity to form meaningful bonds in voluntary associations, taverns, and clubs that effectively excluded women,’ she writes. The modern world has upended all these pillars. The feminist movement and its influence on the political, economic and sexual spheres have challenged and eroded male authority in the household. This phenomenon is not as pervasive in India, although it is evident and growing. The rise of salaried work and bureaucratic organisations has curtailed male independence, with men now often working under the supervision of women. And perhaps with the exception of sports, all- male arenas are disappearing. In its place, Illouz argues that sexuality has thus become one of the most significant status markers of masculinity: ‘To an extent, sexuality has always been associated with masculinity, but in many societies, male social power is a condition for obtaining access to women. Men affirm their social power over women and over other men by exercising sexual domination over numerous women. That is, if sexuality is a field of struggle, then in traditional societies, powerful men are clearly those who dominate it, because male power is usually translated into greater sexual access to a wider variety of women... for men whose status in the three arenas of work, home, and male sociability had been eroded it transformed sexuality into status.’
In her book Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit, one of whose essays gave the term ‘mansplain’ currency, writes about the everyday suppression of women and their experiences at home, in the workplace and on the streets, the casting of suspicion on their testimonies and feelings, the making of their voices inaudible. ‘At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give... workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible,’ she writes. In reality of course, attempts to silence women continue. She wonders jokingly if American politics, and perhaps the world’s, wouldn’t have shaped up differently had women in important public roles been listened to: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, and it was certainly shaped by a Bush administration to which you couldn’t tell anything, including that Iraq had no links to al-Qaeda and no WMDs, or that the war was not going to be a ‘cakewalk’. (Even male experts couldn’t penetrate the fortress of their smugness.)’
There are other points to consider as MeToo evolves in India. Although this country is excessively patriarchal, from a female perspective, India—or at least some parts of it—is hurtling towards modernity. Most measures of female welfare are improving. India has many more girls in classrooms and fewer child brides than it did some decades ago. More and more women are joining urban offices.
But this is not without its tensions. A 2010 survey by Pew Global Attitudes Project found 84 per cent of Indians agreeing that when jobs become scarce, men ‘should have more right to a job than women’. Surveys on men in India and their thoughts are rare. One such, conducted by the International Center for Research on Women and United Nations Population Fund in 2014, found that about two in five men hold ‘rigid and discriminatory’ gender views, meaning that they believe women are not equal to men, and strongly support actions to control women. Only one in four men expressed a strong belief that men and women are equal. Most of the rest were somewhere in between the two ends of that opinion scale. The youngest age group (18-24) had the largest proportion of ‘rigidly masculine’ men.
Sexual harassment complaints have also been increasing over the years. According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2,164 complaints by women at work were registered across the country from 2015 to 2017. On all indications, the phenomenon is still largely under-reported. A recent all-India online survey on sexual harassment at the workplace, conducted by LocalCircles, found that as many as half of all respondents claimed to have faced some form of it during office hours; and that 78 per cent of them never reported these cases to their Human Resources department.
ALL OF US play to a social script. How much is social conditioning and how much the natural order of things is difficult to assess. Men make an advance. Women either accept or decline it. A hand on the knee is an oft- cited example. By global convention, any touch above that is unacceptable. Anything below is perhaps tolerable, with certain caveats of the power equation between the two.
But men often approach this courtship ritual like an aggressive sales pitch. Perhaps we haven’t been taught better. Persistence is assumed to be part of the rite, when it is not from the female point of view.
To many men, and some women, MeToo is a campaign that has gone too far. They argue that while rape is a crime, trying to seduce someone—even persistently or clumsily—is not. They seem to stretch their noses in the air and discover the odour of a new puritanism.
What will happen in the aftermath of MeToo? Will offices and companies be more guarded now? Probably so. Will MeToo signal the end of platonic friendships between men and women? Will men think twice before asking a female colleague out for coffee? Some seem to think so. Will male behaviour change? Hopefully. In any case, the image of men is in the dumps. It will take something to restore faith in it.
Illouz anticipates many of these questions. “I am sure that many men are more cautious about [sexual harassment]. This cautiousness is a source of great anger for men. You hear very often, ‘Oh my god, spontaneity has gone out the window’,” she says in her interview with The Irish Times. “What that means is ‘I could do whatever I wanted without thinking about it. And now I have to think about what I do...’ Men are going to think about the future consequences of their actions, which is something they did not do before.”