Polarised responses to the Ansari story expose the generation divide of feminism. Women need to talk to each other before we talk to men.
I first sensed that a generation gap was splitting the feminist movement wide open during the unlikely debate around mandatory menstruation leave. I took an aggressive position against the inevitable gender ghettoisation such a move would create for professional women. All our adult lives we have battled to bring down walls that keep us out of male fiefdoms; we want women in combat, more women reporting from the war-front; more women in space, more women to lead corporate boards, more women in Parliament — we have always fought against exclusionary tactics and have seen patronising cossetting as a ploy to kill our spirit with ‘protective’ kindness.
Yet, here were young women perfectly willing to be defined by what I call oppressive biological determinism. When I shared that I reported the Kargil war while I had my period and managed with painkillers (and no loos), or when I argued that we can’t ask for women to fly fighter jets or stomp into forests of Chhattisgarh to hunt down Maoists and then have these women declare time off for their monthly period, the backlash from some was ferocious. Frankly, I thought period leave was a stupid and self-indulgent idea that would further drag down diminishing female labour force participation numbers in India (20 million women quit their jobs between 2004-2012). For this view, an online portal said I had “let down women”.
Something similar happened this week. I was accused of ‘victim-shaming’ because, though repulsed by him, I was not willing to place the Aziz Ansari story in the #MeToo basket. Inoculated by years of abusive trolling, I am pretty unbothered by other people’s opinions. But as an outspoken and proud feminist, just for a second, I was horrified by the description. As I dived deeper into the issue, it was clear that a generation gap was pulling this conversation in two completely different directions.
Because too many people have waited for our movement to fail and are sniggering from the sidelines in the hope that women will collapse under the weight of our own disagreements, it’s important to first underline what everyone agrees on.
As we read the details of Golden Globe award-winner Aziz Ansari’s sexual encounter with 23-year-old ‘Grace’, I think we all agree that he comes across as a callous, insensitive, tone-deaf and odious narcissist who pays little or no attention to the discomfort and lack of pleasure for the woman he is with. We also concur that if a public figure who commits himself to the feminist cause falls short of it in real life, it is certainly newsworthy.
It’s a story that brings home the harsh and sad truths of a sexual culture where women are socialised to say ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’. It points to the severe limitations of a 1960s-style textbook feminism that sought ‘liberation’ for women in sexual revolution, unwittingly creating a new set of performance anxieties and obligations to be ‘cool’. And yes, of course, sex can feel awfully violative and sometimes creepy, even when technically consensual.
But, the debate in this case is because Grace identified her experience to be that of ‘sexual assault’. It is well documented that in cases of harassment, abuse and assault, women often mute their own voices for fear of consequences. But usually, the pressure points are easy to identify. Mostly, it is the power hierarchy that is the great silencer. Women did not speak about Harvey Weinstein’s harassment for years because of his ability to have direct consequences on their careers.
Closer home, newsman Tarun Tejpal, now accused of rape, allegedly abused someone for whom he was a direct boss. Sometimes, women are uncertain because it would embarrass someone among their families or friends. In this case, horrifying as the evening was for Grace, it’s less clear what the pressure or fear was.
Yes, consent can often be blurry. But then think of Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old woman called Monica Lewinsky. Though Lewinsky always insisted that theirs was an entirely consensual affair, the sheer imbalance of their equation raised complex questions about choice. Isn’t the onus on the man wielding the power rather than on the woman? In my mind, Lewinsky, as a twenty-something intern in the White House courted by the President of America, probably had more inevitability attached to her sexual assent than the Grace-Ansari one-night stand, which afforded the young woman more options than Grace apparently thought she had.
Yes, her experience possibly points to the broken compact between men & women in our private spaces. And that’s something we all need to talk about. But as feminists, we have always insisted that Words Matter. Nomenclature is important. Assault and abuse are criminal; a terrible sexual experience with a self-obsessed creepy guy is psychologically scarring, but not punishable by law. We must always choose our words with precision. And while we are on the value of words, the somewhat salacious reporting in the Ansari article, with absolutely bizarre side comments of fashionista approval by the reporter on what Grace wore (‘It was a good outfit’) and what wine was consumed, seem somewhat flighty and pointless for a matter so serious. It’s more ‘Gossip Girl’ than ‘The Post’ if you know what I mean.
Yet, I think there is enough about Grace’s experience that shines a valuable light on what tens of thousands of women experience in their personal spaces. If millennials were to stop lashing out at older feminists who are only arguing for accuracy in the adjectives that are being bandied about, we may have a deeper, better and dare-I-say-it, more grown-up conversation. And silence those who would like #MeToo to end as #ThereGoesThat. Before we talk to men, we need to talk to each other.