A FEW YEARS AGO, I was in one of those amorphous non-relationships common in jhola-chhaap circles in which the participants discuss feminism and have sex but apparently aren’t allowed to “attach strings”. While I didn’t want exclusivity, I did believe in treating all my partners with respect, affection and warmth. Not grasping how, in this painfully ‘woke’ milieu, there was any connection between sexual availability and a claim to common decency, I was confused when this person started acting callous and indifferent after a few dates. Then followed gaslighting and lying, in a measure disproportionate to the length of our dalliance. Finally, on a cold Delhi sunset, the following words were flung at me: “You know, I’d rather just pay for sex than deal with this emotional drama.”
The sexual imagination of India is still feudal; simply installing Tinder isn’t going to update it overnight. Here was a man educated in the same type of left-liberal institutions as I, a labour lawyer no less, literate in all the correct discourses, revealing the sheer sense of entitlement he felt to the bodies of women. Clearly, he respected neither women consenting to sex “for free”, nor women employed in the commercial sex sector that offers them few protections, reducing both groups to objects who weren’t to bother him with their inconvenient little feelings. Indeed, the thrust of the jibe was that once a woman agreed to have sex, whatever her reasons, she could no longer expect men to even pretend to see her as a fellow human being.
His words were immediately followed by the dull, humiliating realisation that I had nothing to respond with. I think a lot about that moment and how powerless I had felt. There was nothing that I, a cis-heterosexual woman, could say to a cis-heterosexual man that would equal the blow, hit him where it hurts or dents his sense of self. A sense of self that in my case was inextricable from centuries of socialisation, vulnerable to the feeling of being “used and discarded”. Here I was, a 21st century “sex-positive feminist” reeling from a barb that had wounded generations of women before me, a new variation on an ancient song. I was not special, just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to affirm her subjectivity. Worse, I had literally asked for it. So then how could I have a problem with being thus treated?
The sexual imagination of India is still feudal; simply installing Tinder isn’t going to update it overnight.
Wincing with embarrassment as I recall that moment, I also regard it as the one that made me realise how unreflective sex positivity had managed to smuggle in all the toxicity of patriarchy. Toxicity more potent in a society like India, where privileges of caste and class conspire to insulate men from the consequences of their actions. As the #MeToo movement gains ground and momentum, promising to swell into something that cannot be ignored or punctured easily, a quandary that repeatedly comes up is the line between ‘sex’ and ‘rape’. From tone-deaf men wringing their hands about the supposed death of romance to women falling over themselves to explain the distinction between flirting and harassment — the chasm between what sex is and what it ought to be has never been more apparent. The anti-woman rhetoric of the right wing is so strident in blaming women for their own rapes, that liberals have sought to valorise hookup culture for setting women free.
Some of the concerns around the #MeToo movement from liberal feminist circles have been regarding what they see as an attack on women’s “pursuit of pleasure”. Ruchika Sharma writes “...women indulging in noncommittal sex must be encouraged by all feminist movements.”
Must they? One might argue that this interpretation and the failure to confront and resolve the social meaning of sex specific to our Brahminical patriarchal society has led us to this point where we ignore the sheer range of coercive and precarious contexts in which heterosexual Indian women are seeking pleasure. For all the racy talk of orgasm deficits and bedroom positions, fundamental questions about the nature of sex remain unaddressed. An a priori evaluation of sex as being ‘good’ in and of itself seems shallow and lazy, dangerous even. Thanks to Michel Foucault (who does not really address gender) we have known since the late 20th century that sex and power are co-constitutive, so much so that it has practically become an empty axiom at this point. But there is still little clarity regarding what sex is, a cluster of anatomical practices in the real world that animate specific protocols of oppression. If we don’t even have an adequate description of a phenomenon, how can we assign value to it, whether positive or negative?
The criteria to determine whether we should applaud the mere having of sex as a form of political resistance can only be derived from some account of what it is in the first place. Catherine MacKinnon explores these ideas in Sexuality, Pornography and Method: Pleasure Under Patriarchy: “a feminist theory of sexuality… requires capturing it in the world, in its situated social meanings, as it’s being constructed in life on a daily basis.” In a society in which dating is still taboo and the option of marrying (and then maritally raping) a caste-appropriate virgin ever-present, what incentive do men have to treat women who they bed “without strings attached” respectfully? The conflation of pleasure with desire is a fallacy that serves heterosexual men because they have already determined what sexual pleasure is, regardless of how anyone else feels about it.
For all the racy talk of orgasm deficits and bedroom positions, fundamental questions about the nature of sex remain unaddressed.
Uncritically rearranging the sequence of events does nothing to challenge or transform the male-oriented script of sex. Susan Sontag in The Third World of Women states: “Merely to remove the onus placed on the sexual expressiveness of women is a hollow victory if the sexuality they become freer to enjoy remains the old one that converts women into objects... freer sexuality mostly reflects a spurious idea of freedom: the right of each person, briefly, to exploit and dehumanise someone else... The question is: what sexuality are women liberated to enjoy?” In societies where women have historically been controlled and curtailed as gatekeepers of “honour”, the emancipation of women is often linked to sexual liberty. In response to millennia of being forced to say “no”, agency is celebrated as the freedom to say “yes”.
Unfortunately, the conditions in which women can make either of those choices are still the same old patriarchal ones, so saying “yes”, no matter how enthusiastically, usually means consenting to playing a role in a male fantasy. There is something deeply wrong with an idea of sex-positivity premised on saying “yes” that ignores the truths about the way women, through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, are never actually empowered to say “no” on their own terms. In a society where boys are encouraged to do as they like, girls are raised to accommodate and appease — while the emphasis on changing the first part should be the priority in rape culture, it cannot stop there. There has to simultaneously be a revision of the way in which sex is framed to girls, neither as the site of their virtue nor as an index of their emancipation, but as the battleground of power that they have the right to demand equality in.
The culture of casual sex and hook-ups is problematic because our socialisation processes still haven't caught up with notional gender equality. The anxiety around being discarded after sex, being reduced to our bodies, is one women are trained to feel from a very young age, that men just aren't. It takes years of feminist engagement to destigmatise non-marital sex even for oneself in a society where women are routinely shamed and killed for much less. On defying patriarchal norms at great risk to our physical, mental, emotional and social health, women find that the men who claim to be their ideological allies are, in fact, misogynists in feminist clothing. As evident from the sheer number of men named during both iterations of #MeToo India, Mr Labour Lawyer is in good company with the crème de la crème of Indian Wokebros. Perhaps most galling is the revelation that many of the men violating women behind closed doors stood on soapboxes claiming to support gender equality. The contradiction between their public personae and interpersonal aggressions would be absurd if it weren’t terrifying. The glibness with which many of the men accused spoke the language of gender sensitivity indicates how mainstream and commonplace a certain brand of feminism has become. It is also one that is most palatable to men, for it involves all of the fun of having access to sexually active women, without any of the accountability.
With their support for dismantling traditional notions of sex which, though violent and toxic in their own special way, would force them to take responsibility for their actions, Indian brocialists will have you believe that the only reason they’re getting laid is for the revolution and you are the one who is not radical enough. Paromita Vohra captures this problem succinctly: “Women were being locked into a sexual conformity in a sly way. If they had a strong feminist articulation it was supposed to come bundled with a very specific idea of sexual liberation — a masculine, porn-educated one, in which sex is “meaningless” rather than its meaning being mutually decided. To want something else, or to want to have sex differently, was to be seen as behenji, prude, convent-educated or somehow not attractive enough, because “what ya, I thought you were a feminist and all.”
I tried to put my finger on why I was upset by Mr Labour Lawyer’s dismissal and refusal to validate and reciprocate my interest in him as a human being. Even my self-identifying feminist friends couldn’t resolve this for me — they agreed that he hadn’t treated me well but their condemnation seemed more like moral disapproval than political critique. Once I, as an adult woman of sound mind, had (enthusiastically!) consented to sex without a formal relationship, I relinquished any right to be cared for. The denigration of “feelings” or “caring” is what makes casual sex masculinist because it orients itself to male needs.
Care gets devalued because men don’t need to value it in their version of sex — it is not relevant to their pleasure, safety or well-being and, anyway, they are usually cared for even in ostensibly casual setups simply because women are raised to be caregivers and do emotional work by default. (Of course, I don't mean that women can't or don't enjoy casual encounters, just that very often there is a lot of political obliviousness and emotional repression at work and equitable terms of engagement are rare and hard won.) Care is what makes it possible for women to orgasm, for them to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ without fear, to state their needs, to walk away, to be complex, vulnerable, flawed persons — to be subjects in a shared experience, and not things for someone’s thoughtless use. A politics of sex that ignores care fails to acknowledge differences in capital and privilege among participants in an unregulated sexual economy that offers no physical and psychological security to its participants.
Christina Thomas Dhanaraj’s insightful piece about dating as a Dalit woman says it all: “Rethink the discourse around polyamory, open relationships and casual sex in the context of modern heterosexual relationships. Although these are by definition sex-positive, and may work as liberal alternatives for mainstream feminists that come from privileged social locations, it could potentially be exploitative for Dalit women.” I have written before about the lack of care in the sexual economy being analogous to the casualisation of labour in the laissez-faire market: “The problem with “freely choosing” in the market of goods or love is that there often are no real choices for the oppressed, marginalised or less powerful—contrast the luxuries of a freelance life for an elite minority with the dilemma of the vast majority of factory workers hired by big corporations for short periods that entitle them to no support.”
One of the main criticisms of some stories that are part of #MeToo is that they are not “rape-y” enough, that they’re hookups gone awry, bad dates. The reason there is such debate around what constitutes “real rape” and “a bad date/hookup” is because, in terms of being acts of the body, for cis-heterosexual women, the two are virtually indistinguishable. The mechanics are the same; what makes them distinct is care. “If sex is ordinarily accepted as something men do to women, the better question would be whether consent is a meaningful concept,” writes Catherine Mackinnon in Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence. Consent is a necessary condition, but it has proven to not be a sufficient one.
The anxiety around being discarded after sex, being reduced to our bodies, is one women are trained to feel from a very young age, that men just aren't.
What I experienced with Mr Labour Lawyer is laughably minor, but it alerted me to the difficulty of being feminist enough to want sex accompanied by care, and the impossibility of bringing him to task for his cleverly disguised but perfectly legal misogyny (I last heard of him on a panel on sexual harassment). In the narratives of countless women who go along with what men want, care and by extension, desire and enjoyment, is largely absent. That’s not illegal sex, but it’s unethical sex, based on treating the other person as a means to an end. Patriarchal hookup culture treats consent like a game, something to be secured so that technically what follows isn’t rape. Many of the narratives that have emerged during #MeToo have revealed the hollowness of the distinction between illegal rape and unethical sex. There is value in making these distinctions because then we can arrive at some consensus about what a feminist theory of sex constitutes, one that is premised on care along with consent.
The heterosexual economy in India (and, indeed, everywhere, including places like Europe and America from where there has been the wholesale import of a “modern/liberal” sexuality) is still deeply patriarchal. In our zeal to counter the repressive regime of an older order let us not forget to equip sexually active women with the knowledge that this current regime also absolves men and punishes women, just less blatantly. It is not enough to merely list all the reasons why women don’t leave uncomfortable situations – it is important to recognise that we do them no favours when we pretend that the social act of sex is now the same for them all genders, that there exists no pervasive power differential, that an individual rejection of patriarchy magically makes a millennia-old patriarchal institution like sex feminist.
Acknowledging this disparity is the first step towards conceiving of a model of sex that’s truly worthy of the suffix of positivity, one that normalises all women having not just sex but, crucially, good, feminist sex. Just as identifying patriarchy in the workplace has meant that workplaces need to be changed, critiquing sex means that sex has to change. If we recognise the harsh, unpalatable truth that women often are often rendered fearful and weak in these private theatres of power, then we accept that the task at hand is not what the palliative analytic of sex positivity in its current avatar offers us but something far more radical – to hold men to higher ethical standards of sex. We must look to a vision of sex that doesn’t insist on pleasure for its own sake, no matter that its participants feel compelled to go through with it despite their discomfort or dread, but that which enables them to demand care and respect as equal partners.
Kamayani Sharma is a Delhi-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Artforum, The Caravan and Scroll. She tweets @SharmaKamayani
— Illustration by Amrai Dua