Cover Story

The Future of Desire

Rohit Chawla
Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist
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Man, time to relearn

WHEN DURYODHANA ORDERS THAT Draupadi be dragged to the assembly hall, she is menstruating and is covered by only a single piece of cloth. Her husbands have just gambled and lost her in a game of dice. She is now a slave. Her humiliation, Duryodhana and his brothers argue, is justified. Born out of fire, however, Draupadi is not one to take to submission or servility without a fight. The men in the room are her husbands, in-laws and acquaintances. She goes to each of them, and challenges these upholders of justice—Yudhishtira, Arjuna, Drona, Bhishma—to do what is right. They lower their heads. Some divine intervention ensures that Draupadi isn’t stripped, but the damage has been done.

It’s undeniably dramatic to compare a contemporary social movement like MeToo to the climax of an epic poem, but the parallels appear obvious. In the face of female rage, men fall silent. Their silence then makes them complicit. Every man that Draupadi implicates pays a price in the end, and we hope the same will be true for all those convicted as a result of the MeToo hashtag. In the Hastinapur assembly hall, no man comes up as a role model. Similarly, there are few models of masculinity one can aspire to today. Importantly, Draupadi predicts, “There will be blood.” Duryodhana suffers for not taking her warning seriously, and we too will be myopic if we take urgent demands for change lightly.

While every cause in the Mahabharata has several effects, and every effect myriad causes, the text never undermines the significance of Draupadi’s rage or of Duryodhana’s desire. Together, they ensure much bloodshed. Not all ancient Hindu texts, though, give women such agency. They especially don’t punish sexual greed so thoroughly. Writing about gender prescriptions in Manu’s Dharmashastra, for instance, Wendy Doniger says, ‘Manu is notorious for his attitude to women, whom he holds responsible for men’s desire. He regards women as a sexual crime about to happen.’ Manu, the first man, had arguably passed on the wrong gene. MeToo can rewrite that code.

A well-known woman columnist put out a tweet last week she perhaps felt would clinch a MeToo argument or two. She told a younger colleague, ‘Surely even an ‘innocent’ girl like you should have known not to go alone to a strange man’s house alone.’ Her sentiment was as clumsy as her sentence. Shifting the blame from men to women, she was making the case that victims of sexual harassment could not be taken seriously because they had willingly put themselves in harm’s way. Centuries later, women were still a sexual crime waiting to happen. By further punctuating the word ‘innocent’, the columnist sought to reduce a movement to a cliché: ‘Men are like this only. You should know better.’ The question does need asking: why are men continuing to behave like Duryodhana?

THE SPANISH POET Federico García Lorca had once written, ‘To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.’ William Blake made matters even more permissive: ‘Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.’ Both these canonical poets were perhaps unaware they were furthering a cult of instant gratification that would one day be ripe for appropriation. Few men, MeToo suggests, want their desire to be fettered.

The now public accounts of harassment help create a spectrum of male desire. A filmmaker, on one end, is said to have masturbated on a woman he thought was sleeping. On the other, men (some of them husbands) sent lecherous texts to colleagues and acquaintances. These transgressions are dissimilar and they do deserve punishments that are commensurate. But all these instances share an identifier— a vulgar or sudden articulation of male libido. If desire were a language, men come up as illiterate. Finally, MeToo brings with it a capacity to teach us the alphabet and give men a vocabulary.

Reducing women to things makes them easy to desire, and the male habit of objectifying women is often picked up in early adolescence. In the films that boys watch, the camera is more interested in an actress’ curves than her consequence. Pornography goads us to internalise the construct of male dominance. Comic books help us emulate impossible male heroes. So, adulthood, predictably, leaves us entitled. Not just do men feel they deserve what they desire, they believe they have a right to take it, sometimes by force. MeToo doesn’t prove male violence is inevitable. It shows it’s all too possible.

Reducing women to things makes them easy to desire, and the male habit of objectifying women is often picked up in early adolescence

By equating discrimination and sexual abuse, the MeToo movement proves one is symptomatic of the other. As Cornell Philosophy Professor Kate Manne puts it, ‘Misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women—instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance.’ That punishment is tragically physical at times. Margaret Atwood was on point when she said, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’

In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that gender inequity is not predicated on strength. Human history, he says, shows there is often an inverse relation between physical prowess and social power. In most societies, for instance, lower classes do the manual labour. He posits a more convincing theory: ‘Millions of years of evolution have made men far more violent than women. Women can match men as far as hatred, greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove… men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence.’

Those who believe in the inevitability of male sexual aggression often have one explanation for its recurrence: ‘It’s biology, stupid!’ They argue that since the desire to copulate is felt so strongly by men, they will forever be slaves to hormones. Nature can never change. Boys will be boys. The majority of these arguments fail to acknowledge that apart from material advancement, civilisation can also engender civility. We forget that like reproduction, truth, loyalty, justice and freedom are also evolutionary principles. We might not be able to change who we are, but we can change what we do. Women must be able to go alone to hotel rooms. The hope is they can trust the men they meet there.

WORKING AS A psychotherapist in New York, Avi Klein saw that most of his male patients were often either emotionless or only superficially engaged with the world around them. In the months after MeToo, however, they were suddenly animated. Their confessions came to include accounts of how they had coerced and manipulated women. While Harvey Weinstein had made them consider assault more gravely, Aziz Ansari forced them to rethink their notions of consent. One of Klein’s patients told him, “I didn’t rape anyone or anything like that, but I think I made [women I slept with] pretty uncomfortable.” Klein says that MeToo has had direct impact. It has changed the nature of his work.

Writing in The New York Times, the therapist details his observation: ‘I have found that for many men, underneath the anxiety that is always humming along are layers of shame. Shame at having feelings at all, shame because they believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, shame that they are not men, they are just boys. Shame is the emotional weapon that allows patriarchal behaviours to flourish.’ Klein says it is a fear of emasculation that helps men rationalise awful acts.

Not just do men feel they deserve what they desire, they believe they have a right to take it, sometimes by force. MeToo doesn't prove male violence is inevitable. It shows it's all too possible

In India too, masculinity takes many forms, but society usually only celebrates its dominant variation. The inveterate ‘bad boy’ is considered almost universally attractive. For many, these constructs prove impossible to live up to. Their violence, as a result, is compensation for their insufficiency. Accounts of female trauma make such self-reflection an imperative for men. With its focus on entitled male behaviour, MeToo helps provide an accessible template for actions that are empathetic and advances that are welcome. The movement can eventually reverse male conditioning. Men sometimes try and absolve themselves by saying they were unwittingly co- opted by patriarchy. The MeToo hashtag is a reminder—the agency to change behaviour and culture has only been theirs.

To gauge the impact of MeToo, GQ surveyed 1,147 American men in May this year. When asked if the movement had made them re-evaluate their past sexual experiences, 38 per cent said ‘yes’. There’s comfort in this number. If even one in three Indian men began introspecting as a result of MeToo, the hashtag would have realised at least some of its ambition. For women, though, the past is more of a haunted house. Recall remains involuntary for them. Trauma, psychologists say, is impossible to forget. We can only try and make peace with memories of pain. MeToo, thankfully, forces a confrontation. Its confessions are as much a cathartic acknowledgment as they are fierce accusations.

IN HER BOOK, On Hinduism, Doniger writes, ‘To control sex means to control everything else that stems from it—politics, power, everything.’ The MeToo movement seems to be as much about sex as it is about sexuality. Stories of harassment and assault make it obvious that in the imagination of predatory men, women remain passive objects. To articulate the narratives of intimacy, we do need a new idiom.

Published in 2016, John Gardner’s paper, ‘The Opposite of Rape’, helps revise our language and practice of consent. The Oxford professor of Law and Philosophy argues that when A gives her consent to B, she waives certain duties that B might owe to her. He writes, ‘The ideology associated with sexual consent confirms and perpetuates a stereotype of female sexual passivity from which women might reasonably hope to have been liberated by now, and the continuing ascendency of which is likely to work […] mainly to the long-term advantage, or reinforcement, of predatory and porn-addled men.’ Gardner’s vision of ‘good sex’ is simple: all parties are active, and they act together, ideally as a team.

By blurring the boundaries between public and private, several women in recent days have laid bare the average Indian man’s attitude to consent and control. Tinder, WhatsApp, bedrooms and offices are all possible sites for predation. The anger of women makes men uncomfortable, but it also reveals misogynistic behaviour to be pathological and transferable. If an employer is prone to closing the door when meeting his female colleagues, he emboldens men in his office to ‘check them out’. When fathers insist their sons ‘man up’, they only further a masculine ideal that demands emotional inertia.

While the MeToo movement seems to call for a repression of male desire, it also critiques its brutal nature. According to a 2016 National Crime Records Bureau report, 106 women are raped in India every day, and four of every 10 victims are minors. MeTooIndia has been criticised for being too urban, for not addressing the trauma of these numbers. While that expectation is in itself unreal, such criticism only broadens the debate by predicting what a yet nascent movement might come to include.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, ‘There is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.’ The crisis men are in presently is clearly one of compassion. With our brittle egos all in a twist, most of us have felt blamed and alienated by the MeToo movement. Accountability, we have failed to realise, can be a healthy step towards healing too. While MeToo has shown men that their culture of entitlement is toxic, it can also show them their potential. We can become better men, yes, but perhaps even better lovers.