New Year 2019 Issue

What Does a Woman Want?

Madhavi Menon is professor of English and director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University
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The politics of desire

THE METOO MOVEMENT HAS HAD A VARIETY of effects. At its most exhilarating, it has challenged the sexual assertion of patriarchal privilege across a variety of spaces. The anger it has expressed publicly is shared by billions of women around the world; it is an anger born of frustration, helplessness and enforced silence. But at this tumultuous moment, we also need to start asking ourselves about our desires, rather than focusing only on the harassment to which we are subjected. On the one hand, I want to make the case that harassment of women is a widespread phenomenon that takes many forms, and we should learn to recognise them all and call them out. But on the other hand, even as we do this, we also need to spend some time thinking about what we want. How do we think about sex? What is our desire? How do we recognise our needs?

Let me begin by clarifying that what follows is not a meditation on sexual violence. I am not talking about rape or battery, because to my mind those are crimes and should be punished under criminal law. But what is interesting about the MeToo movement thus far is that it seems focused on crimes rather than the stuff of everyday harassment, even though the latter affects women everywhere on a daily basis. We seem to have limited our understanding of harassment to spectacular events. The space of the everyday, filled though it is with repeated instances of demeaning behaviour—sexist ‘jokes’, prejudicial put-downs, casual misogyny—has not yet been tackled. If we tend to believe accusations of rape because we know how much it costs a woman to announce publicly that she has been raped, then we also need to start thinking about the costs of ignoring everyday misogyny. People tend to ignore it because standing up to such behaviour gets them labelled as troublemakers, party- poopers, killjoys. Women are trained so deeply to please people that these accusations sting painfully. We tend not to speak up on an everyday basis, then, because we don’t want to be friendless. And since speaking up about everyday harassment is also an ongoing exercise, we don’t want to be exhausted.

But this is precisely what needs to be done. Everyday harassment often feeds on our complicity. It feeds on our desire to be liked and popular. It feeds on the certainty that women have been socialised into not creating difficulties for men. We need to expand the ambit of what counts as harassment—a verbal ‘joke’ is as misogynistic as a physical grope. And we also need to start thinking about ourselves and what we do in the world rather than only about what gets done to us.

The MeToo movement has by and large painted sexual interactions in monochromatic colours in which there are predatory men and vicitimised women. While it is exhilarating to hear women’s voices in the public sphere—angry and fed up—we also need to ask whether we want to raise our voices (only or even primarily) to assert our position as victims. Might we perhaps be squandering our energy and volume on something conservative rather than radical? Are we underselling the tumult of these times?

Because right now, the story we are telling does not seem to be new at all. We have known for a long time that men are taught to exert power sexually over women. (And by ‘we’ I mean all of us, men and women, supporters and detractors of feminism, alike.) We already know that in a patriarchal structure, men are rewarded for being aggressive, but that this reward can also weigh heavily on their shoulders. We already know that in a patriarchal structure women are rewarded for being docile, but that this too can wear us down. We already know all this. So how does MeToo’s eruption constitute a new chapter in women’s empowerment? How does MeToo raise consciousness in the world? The effectiveness of naming and shaming will fade from public memory unless it creates some radically different ways of thinking about desire, men, and women; unless it starts treating women too as having desires.

Which brings me to the important question, infamously articulated first by Sigmund Freud: What do women want?

For all the tumult of the MeToo movement, all the accusations coming to the fore, all the talk about empowering women, this question has not yet been asked. We have been speaking in terms of punishment for men (this is something we seem to want a lot), and about the need for legal and institutional mechanisms to safeguard us (as though they have done much good in the past). But we have not, and are not, asking about our sexual desires. What do we want? Do we want to be admired? Do we want to be ogled? Do we want to be groped? Do we want to grope? Do we want to ogle? Do we want to admire? We are asked all our lives not to recognise or act on our desires, and we are vilified and satirised if we do so. But is MeToo asking us, once again, to erase our desires, to narrate them as simple, and not pay attention to the textures and complexities of how and who and when we want? How can the present moment allow us to radically rethink women’s desires rather than only underline men’s perfidies?

Thinking about women’s desire and thinking about women’s desire as agential rather than only victimised makes some people uncomfortable. But there is a politics of discomfort that we will need to embrace if we want to change the world in which we live

LET US GO BACK BRIEFLY TO WHAT passes as desire in the MeToo movement. In addition to the desire for punitive retribution, there is a desire to recognise consent. But if consent were that simple to recognise and ascertain, then why would we be wringing our hands over it? Yes, a no is a no. But can a yes become a no? Does a yes remain a yes? Can yes and no be held together in tension? Do we slip and slide between the two? Might slippage rather than certainty be our most common experience of desire? And are we being asked to ignore that ambivalence?

These questions need to be unpacked a little further. Women growing up in India are taught that our bodies are dirty—witness all the men supporting the ban on women of menstruating age entering Sabarimala. Even worse, we agree to our degradation— witness all the women supporting the ban on women of menstruating age entering Sabarimala. Considering women’s sexual bodies as dirty is everyday business in India. We grow up being taught that our bodies and their desires are dirty and need to be hidden from sight. And we are taught that men are always to be obeyed, especially when they make demands on women. With this double whammy, we grow up afraid of our own desires, and afraid of not pleasing men. We are afraid of recognising our desires when they conflict with the image of the obedient woman. And since the obedience of this obedient woman is measured by the fact that she contains her sexual activity within the constraints of marriage, any non-marital sex is seen as the downfall of the woman, and an indicator of her badness. This is the space in which ‘harassment’ and ‘violation’ and ‘dishonour’ become the keywords associated with sexuality because women cannot even pretend to get pleasure from sex. Sex is a dirty word that must be converted into ‘harassment’, ‘violation’ and ‘dishonour’ if we are to continue to be upstanding citizens of a misogynistic democracy (it is democratic because men and women seem equally misogynistic).

In such a framework, there are very few situations in which sex can be seen as anything other than violative and dirty. But if we flip these terms on their head—if we question the self-doubt and self-reproach and self-hatred that women are constantly taught to nurture—then can we begin to see that violation and dirt are the very conditions of sex? Sex violates the integrity of the body by joining it to another’s body and mind. Sex is socially messy because we don’t always consult astrological charts and caste purity before we have it. Sex is both physically and emotionally draining. In other words, sex can never be neat and clean. It only becomes neat and clean when women are taught not to associate sex with pleasure. It only becomes ‘safe’ when we are told to think of it as a duty. Desire is what separates sex from duty. Desire is what makes sex dangerous.

But when we are taught to consider our desires as dirty and frivolous, then potentially any recognition and exercise of our desire will register as traumatic. In a country that still does not recognise marital rape, if we have sex with someone other than the person to whom we are married, then there is a very high chance that the next day we will consider the sexual encounter to be a violation, even and especially if we have acted on our desires. Because the trouble is that acting on our desires is a fraught phenomenon and can fill us with guilt and horror and shame. Instead of thinking desirously about our own desires—which we are never encouraged to do—we often find it easier to internalise the horror of sex and find someone to blame for it. Sexual desire must be someone’s fault because we have been taught to think of desire as shameful. Historically we have blamed women, and now we blame men in some cases. But can we start dissociating desire from blame?

This is not to say that men do not sexually exploit and violate women. But it is to use this moment of reckoning to reckon also with our own desires. Because our desires can be messy and dirty and unsafe. We might want to court danger. We might want to be debased. We might want to be on top. But we need, first and foremost, to take our desires seriously instead of seeking to assign blame. We need to acknowledge that we too have desires and they are not only about being victims. We need to think about and recognise our desires, knowing at every step that these desires can be contradictory, unclear, and even shocking. We must realise that we can often make mistakes in acting on our desires, and that sexual and relational failure is part and parcel of the learning process. We should allow ourselves simultaneously to be fragile and strong, aroused and uninterested, sexual and bored. It’s alright.

Thinking about women’s desire, and thinking about women’s desire as agential rather than only victimised makes some people uncomfortable. But there is a politics of discomfort that we will need to embrace if we want to change the world in which we live. Discomfort with old narratives that tell us desire is dirty and violative. Discomfort with the way in which the new narratives tell us not to think about the complexity of our desires. Discomfort with erasing ourselves yet again. We need to be uncomfortable that no one, not even women, asks us what we want. And we need to be discomforted if that question is an easy one to answer.

MeToo, then, has the potential to paint a different canvas from the one its rhetoric currently seems to be feeding. Let us use all our anger, accumulated over centuries, to insist that women too have desires. Let us realise that it is impossible to make these desires coherent and consistent and self-contained. Let us feel empowered by embracing messiness rather than subscribing to being victims. We need to ask, always and with all seriousness: What do Women Want? And know that often, this question will have multiple answers.