Busting feminist myths about women's clothes and rape

Is all sexual objectification only evil and must we ban fantasy in the process as well?

 |  10-minute read |   04-09-2015
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In a country where the sheer number of injustices women face leave those speaking for their rights battling on many fronts, the space for a deeper dialogue diminishes. There are ways in which we argue for women's rights - some, however, have become problematic. I call them feminist myths and here's my attempt to bust them.

Rape is not sex

I have no idea about the origin of this myth, but rape is most certainly sex. What it is not, is consensual sex. Such statements only add confusion to a non-existent dialogue on sex, because to go by this measure, a hell of a lot of marriages in India manage to produce a phenomenal number of offspring without having sex. (Yes, I see you double take.)

To an average Indian man who has never had the benefit of a sex education, part A going into part B means sex. Consent is not really considered a deal breaker in a society that does not acknowledge female sexuality to begin with. The concept of ideal sex that includes consent by default escapes him. Heck, it escapes our government and judiciary as well in certain cases.

To the average Indian Hindi film educated male, it isn't rape unless there is screaming and kicking, injury and physical overpowering. In fact, there is also a misjudged perception of male virility in "persuading" a woman. Women say "no" when they actually mean "yes" logic is well and alive, and it doesn't help that average women "of good character" often actually propagate this, and confuse the matter further.

Many men are genuinely puzzled over the issue of consent. "What if she changes her mind?", "When they say no, but want it, and also don't say no with force to avoid offending - how can I know which no is real?" or "I will never get laid, because girls don't explicitly say yes." And I am not inventing this. I have researched the subject enough to understand perceptions on gender relations and how confused they are and am convinced that perceptions on consent are confused. Several men have even gone on to say they stay away from women altogether, because they aren't sure they understand what is okay, and whether their actions will get them in trouble later.

Leave this aside for a moment. Check out the media coverage of rapes. Media knows well that for publishing or broadcasting purposes, rape is sex and sex sells - even if you're selling it by saying "rape isn't sex". It is no coincidence that you have listicles like 5 brutal gangrapes across the world that shook the roots of humanity or Top 10 Widely Covered Rape Cases In India. There is no fathomable reason for such articles to exist other than presenting a spectacle to titillate the "predatory male aesthetic".

In other words, rape is sex, and inventing a different meaning for sex confuses the message and leads to a perception of an endorsement of rape, even when we speak of sex being a healthy and natural thing.

Revealing clothes is not sexual invitation

All revealing clothes may not be a sexual invitation. Take, for example, wearing shorts or swim wear in places where there is a need for them; even nudity in a nudist camp. Most certainly, we cannot correlate the "reveal" element with inches, as though seeing a knee and seeing a midriff are the same thing.

This also does not mean that rape or any encroachment of anyone's personal space is right; or that to reveal your body is an invitation for a free for all, but statements like "revealing clothes don't convey sexual permissiveness" are mockable and call for closer scrutiny.

They do little, for instance, to help women be more aware of their own power to exert and influence to the responses they invite - from being successfully seducive to "lay off". In our quest to protect women from moral judgments, we pretend they do not have sexual initiative, or for that matter they would never exert it in - *gasp* - the male world. This is a bogus argument. 

Fact is that women do like the attention of men, and it is completely normal. This is entirely different from their conditioning, which makes them sometimes a slave to male approval and compromises their own interests. For that matter, it may be undesirable, but it happens too. Young girls do flash their sexuality in ways that make them vulnerable, before they learn to calibrate their presentation accurately and temper recklessness to a more elegant purposefulness. It is because we care for them that we must create safe spaces for them to be themselves without danger. Nothing is achieved by pretending women are asexual beings and then compounding it by responding to "we have seen them invite" with "the dirt is in your mind". Wait a minute! Are we saying sexual invitation is dirty? Why is it dirty? Are we sneakily subscribing to moral police magazines? Whatever happened to the freedom to have sex as long as it is consensual?

For that matter, is all sexual objectification evil and must we ban fantasy in the process as well? What are the lines that we are drawing?

I refuse to believe women are not aware of the sexual potential of clothing... and the strategic lack of it. There is no such thing as a woman who looks into the mirror and does not intend to convey how she wants to present herself. We avoid recognising sexual attraction mechanisms by calling revealing clothing as something normal women do for themselves. ROFL! It is sneakily right. We do want the result of that trick for ourselves.

We have somehow perfected the fine art of being sexy for "no one". Sadly, because we still seem unable to admit that we like sexual appreciation from those we find attractive. We are even flirty with no one specific in mind, because we wouldn't mind meeting a potential someone. That is how we are. We are people. We have whims and desires. We are as normal as the man twirling his moustache or flexing his biceps and sucking his stomach in when an attractive woman walks by.

The existence of female sexuality cannot be an excuse to override consent and there is no need to strangle female sexuality to cater to a moral police that declares it illegitimate and justifies crimes on the basis of that.

Our silencing of female sexuality does little to help younger women discover facets of their own power, of which the well publicised "sexiness" is just one. Empowerment isn't in wearing a halter top only to find stray hands touching you while taking public transport. Empowerment lies in having a presence that invites responses that we desire. In having a lover itching to get that dress off, yes, but also in having a colleague spend hours trading ideas without having a single conversation with your breasts.

Empowerment is in knowing the personal authority you have in a situation and managing the playfulness of your provocation in a manner that allows elegance instead of a game of "dodge the creeps". It is in an evening spent with friends laden with sexual innuendos without worrying whether you're issuing invitations further than that. In accepting admiration without insecurity if you don't reciprocate. And in cutting off unwanted advances if need be. And your dress is a full partner in this personal power, though of course once you are really powerful, you will have enough ways to never depend indispensably on any one.

This is power. Not trembling rebellion, uneasy dodges of unwelcome limbs, and your attractiveness working to undermine the visibility of your intelligence, compassion or authority.

Most older women know this. Show me a woman who has enjoyed sex and has no idea what the sight of her skin does to a man (or woman), and I'll show you a completely unobservant idiot. The sad part is that in failing to speak about it openly, we let young women go through many avoidable and hurtful trials. In our desire to stress that the fault in a sexual encroachment of personal space lies with the aggressor, we infantalise women to a mythical innocence to protect them from unjust accusation, and in the process, deprive them of vital learning that we should be sharing. Because it is when we know how to dress to seduce that we recognise how we unintentionally convey seduction, and stop it when we don't want to. It makes us more effective and gives us more control over what we (want to) evoke in others.

In India, a woman's freedom to socially assert herself is relatively new. Very few girls have parents who would support them in their self discovery during adolescence, of which sexuality is one aspect. This is how curious girls turn up in cocktail dresses to college and fail to explore other facets of their power and presence that are more suitable for an intellectual environment. We pride in defending the right of women to wear a halter top and shorts to a place of learning, even as we would never do that to ourselves in our own intellectual arenas.

I am no prude. I am speaking of things we learn from experience. I would never dress provactively unless the intention is to flirt or seduce. Yet, do I explain the strategic considerations in such choices to girls I speak with about freedoms and power?

We are indignant at a rape culture that sexually objectifies women, yet how differently do we support them when our own endorsement of their "right to wear whatever they want" fails to make them aware of the potential beyond "sexy"?

Clothes do convey sexual invitation, and when done knowingly, it is a wonderful thing. When unaware of this, all kinds of unintended messages can and do get sent out. It is part of learning from mistakes, but cannot excuse crime.

Men rape deliberately and unforgivably

This is something I believed, yet I have been forced to conclude that rape, as sex without consent, is something many men have problems understanding. The issue is further complicated when we start talking about rape being sex without informed consent or rape being sex with consent obtained through lies and falsehood.

The only real public education many men have about rape is through Hindi films along with those who offer "asked for it" theories. Girl screams, fights off man, gets overpowered, and raped. Most men find this completely abhorrent and sometimes perplexing - how does one penetrate a moving woman? I am not trying to be funny here. I have heard more than one man say something to this effect.

I remember talking to a friend's husband years ago. He was telling me that his wife (my friend) has moved out because of "marital rape", and is refusing to speak with him.

He did not understand why his wife even thought that their late night love making is rape. As we began to discuss in detail, I realised he seemed to have no comprehension of consent, coercion, and was genuinely indignant with his wife. When the subject of rape came up, he was devastated to learn that his tired wife was giving in to sex with him out of sheer desperation to be allowed to sleep after. This revelation today has turned his marriage around.

There are countless cases of ignorance such as this. Street harassers also convince themselves that women "enjoy the attention" when catcalled, though their modesty prevents them from admitting it in open. Yes, I have on several occasions gone and interviewed such men to understand why someone would act in such a manner. Make no mistake, these are predators of sorts who convince themselves of things that they want to hear, and they very much are a product of ignorance and desperation. Another excuse they come up with is that they simply don't have access to girls they see.

Of course there are "real rapes" - actual deliberate overruling of consent by sexual predators who cannot be explained away as cases of ignorance or anything. But if we look at our statistics, we realise that a majority of rapes are also consensual at the time of having sex with the understanding of marriage to follow, but when the promise of marriage doesn't materialise, it becomes exploitation and rape with the girl "ruined". There is a need for a larger public dialogue on the kinds of rape, and how they are defined. More importantly, opening up this dialogue and helping women find their self worth can also put a massive dent to rape statistics, and prevent us from using erroneous titles such as "rapeistan".

Writer

Vidyut Kale Vidyut Kale @vidyut

She is a blogger and commentator on social and socio-political issues

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