Abhijit Banerjee, noted economist and co-author of Poor Economics says in an editorial published in the Hindustan Times today that ‘that there are more forms of inequality to worry about than just money’. He asks, “What are we doing as a society to reduce inequality of access to sex?”
It’s a valid point. One of the biggest casualties of growing up in a middle class or lower middle class Indian household – where your chemistry books fight for space with your father’s grocery accounts book, where you have had to lock yourself up in the bathroom to say good-morning to the new boyfriend, where you’ve constantly fought with the grandmother to lower the TV volume so that your music player becomes audible – is your sex life.
And if you happen to be a boy, you have possibly cursed the school stud several times over for having a room of his own – one with Cindy Crawford posters and Cosmopolitans shoved under the mattress.
But did that bother you more than having to guzzle formulas while your younger sister tried to mug up the hierarchy of a Mughal administration in the same study room-cum-bedroom? Did it bother you more than the feeling of hopelessness at seeing your mother, an ailing grandparent and his/her nurse spend nights in the same room because that’s all that they had?
Chances are you have outgrown the school stud, found enough places – friends’ cars, sea-side hotels, parks, the house emptied by parents on a trip to the aunt’s house – to make out. And unlike Professor Banerjee, never thought to what we were doing to reduce inequality of access to sex.
I’m not so sure if Banerjee in his editorial, uses the obstacles to physical intimacy posed by economic inequality as a prototype for all the issues plaguing the homeless and the poor India, in which case you can’t question it much. However, as the blurb of Banerjee’s article published in the newspaper says, he probably sees no reason why we should be outraged at Mamata Banerjee‘s recent comment that ‘rapes in India has something to do with public displays of intimacy’.
He doesn’t defend rape on those grounds, but seems to associate its root – sexual jealousy – as something that has to do with the abysmal economic landscape of our country, which often leaves young people, especially men without the space to indulge in physical intimacy. Crowded, homes, not enough money, et al.
Banerjee traces the roots of ‘sexual jealousy’ to the economics of a middle class and lower middle class housing. “A lot of this inequality, at least in our urban areas, is a direct result of our policies. We pay lip service to low-income urban housing, but do nothing about it beyond insisting that tiny pockets of high income neighbourhoods get set aside for smaller and cheaper flats, which are usually just too lucrative to end up with the genuinely poor,” says Banerjee, in his article.
Does that mean sexual jealousy, something that Banerjee acknowledges as ‘powerful’ and ‘more palpable’ than several other forms of dissent, is rooted primarily in economic discrepancies?
To simplify in layman terms, would men and women be relatively free of sexual envy, had they enjoyed economic means that makes sex seem more gettable?
While Banerjee does debunk the idea of a ‘public brothel’ he seems to be saying that had there been enough space and enough women willing to have sex, unmindful of the man’s social status, the intensity of ‘sexual jealousy’ in our country would be dissipated. And this is an issue that the country should pay heed to.
At the risk of sounding cynical, one has to say, that the argument probably holds in some Utopian social structure. Banerjee, effectively, is asking for an economic overhaul – one that gives less-than-affluent men and women both the luxury and space to claim what he calls ‘conjugal rights’. Fair enough.
Though he seems to be denying doing so, Banerjee is circling back to the ‘inequality of money’ after all, an inequality which deprives people of education, medical help, basic life security, not just better sex. Arguing for better housing facilities to facilitate healthier sex lives, hence a safer society with more sense of justice, seems as absurd as Mamata Banerjee blaming rapes on open intermingling of the sexes.
While sexual jealousy doesn’t necessarily translate into rape, envy doesn’t always result in violence and Banerjee’s article doesn’t say so either, one cannot overlook the social profiles of the recent victims of rape and the perpetrators. Here we can safely assume that rape, is a result of strong sexual jealousy.
The men in Haryana, upper-class, moneyed Jats, raped a woman from their community, and presumably were not ones who would “watch their coevals go by with their wives or girlfriends, holding hands or cuddling, fortunate because their parents were rich enough that they had a place to go to and be intimate with each other.” The women in question, in most of these cases, weren’t seen tom-toming a rich boyfriend and his ample economic resources.
‘Sexual jealousy’, like Banerjee mentions, might be partially rooted in economic divisiveness – a lot like the way you harbour attraction for unattainable celebrities – but most of it, especially of the violent kind, has no foundation in any logic that can be addressed by government policies.
Banerjee notes: “There are few forces more powerful than sexual desire and few forms of inequality more palpable than inequality of access to sex: all the rich guys, to a first approximation, get all the pretty girls, at least if pretty is what Bollywood (or Hollywood) tells us it should be.”
Making sexual angst seem like the ‘most powerful’ fall-out of realtors’ unhinged colonisation of urban spaces also slightly dilutes the enormity of the other problems related to it. In some social narrative ‘access to sex’ might be of greater concern than access to a shelter that doesn’t drip rainwater on to a child’s head, but then that’s a micro-issue. And it hardly makes Mamata Banerjee’s views of ‘public display of intimacy’ and rape seem justified.