Saturday, December 30, 2017

Audacity of Sexual Equality

I was recently impressed by a little known Indian film titled Anarkali of Aarah made in the Hindi language (now available on Netflix). "Sexual Assault" and "Sexual Harassment" are the central themes of the film and the story follows the trials of a powerless woman as she seeks justice in response to a wrong done to her. Set in a small village in a backward part of north east India, in the state of Bihar, the film tells the story of a dancer who entertains a largely male audience with her sexually provocative dancing and singing, a Cabaret of sorts. A socially sanctioned activity, the dance is popular entertainment in the village, but the performers are outcasts for that very reason.

On one such occasion, an intoxicated leader of the community, to everyone's disgust and dismay, climbs on to the stage in the middle of a performance and tries to grope her. As she fights him off, the scene is recorded by the many cameras pointing at the stage. As her male colleagues ask her not to retaliate fearing reprisals, she kicks him to the ground when he tries to disrobe her, and walks away.

The next morning the drunk rises from his stupor without a memory of what happened and the coverup begins. Instead of apologizing and asking for forgiveness he goes after her with a vengeance. Threatening her, maligning her, seizing all the video recordings and finally framing her to be a prostitute and running her out of the village. With no one in her corner, she escapes to the big city, returning only later to seek revenge. Much like the many women across America who have risen up lately, some decades later, against all those men who have used their positions of power to violate them.

Early this year, when the New York Times published its extensive investigative report on the serial sexual abuse and debauchery of the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, few envisioned it would become a lightening rod that would bring the careers of many rich, famous and powerful men to a grinding halt. Even though during the election of Donald Trump, the revelations of his vile behavior brought sexual abuse to the center of the national debate, it was the Weinstein story that caught fire. As the discussion intensified, more and more women felt empowered to reveal their experiences in lurid detail. Deviant male behavior that has always existed in the shadows, and will probably continue once things die down, came center stage.

"Men behaving badly" probably has existed since the time of the caveman. Some of that behavior, was probably driven by an uncontrollable biological urge to procreate and at other times just exerting and exercising physical power over someone weaker. Some of those instincts have not evolved even though society has tried to tame it via conventions, traditions and laws.

Driven by natural programming men have sexual fantasies and think about sex significantly more than women. Some fantasies are deviant and others delusional. The only thing that stops men from acting on them, is reality itself. But power and other forms of intoxication can blur the line between fantasy and reality. And that is when you see men behaving inappropriately as we have seen in recent disclosures from women. Especially those who have been around powerful men and accepted sexual abuse as a necessary price to pay for success in a man's world.

Women have always been subjected to some kind of unwarranted behavior in their lives from men. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who has escaped the lecher that lies dormant inside men.
From cat calling and offensive banter, to groping and rape, the spectrum of man's depravity is wide. In most cases women deal with it by either ignoring or handling it with a smile and out of fear and caution to not escalate and unleash the worst. In other cases they retaliate with courage, often facing deadly consequences as a result. Those who get physically abused, groped and raped are scarred for ever. Some internalize it and are psychologically damaged for life. Others find the strength to fight back and seek justice. But a large majority feel victimized and mask it to hold on to their careers, ambitions, sanity and social status.

Many of the stories we have heard lately, coming from the entertainment business, have all been about women feeling powerless, for their future was in the hands of someone who had complete control over their destiny. At least this is what they felt while being subjected to unspeakable violence. Some could find the strength and tact to escape, others unwillingly succumbed seeing it as an uncompromising and helpless path to success. Then there were the few who became enablers for the beast.

Society has always been defined by the unevenness that has existed between the sexes. The traditional role of women has been that of a homemaker, caregiver and nurturer. Religion and custom always set this as the primary purpose of the female gender. Then there were rules put in place by men for men to be adhered to by women to fulfill that purpose. Women are to behave, look and conduct themselves a certain way, was the central guiding principle of the rule book. The rule book was long for women and extremely short for men. When at the turn of the twentieth century women began to demand a significant rewrite of the rule book, society began to convulse. Feminism in the west started with women asking for voting rights and continues to this day asking for equal pay. In the east, while feminism existed in different forms at the grass roots and in matriarchal subcultures, the demand was similar, but in most instances it was much more basic. To be considered human was the struggle. Today in many Muslim nations and other traditional societies, and even in outwardly westernized nations like Japan, women strive to have their voices heard.

For many feminism is not about the right to be equal to men in every way. But it is about unequivocally having the same choices as men and to have the indisputable right to chart one's own destiny without constraints. For most women around the globe this is the basic challenge and the audacity of equality is a distant cry for freedom. Even if women are able to chart their own course they face a stiff current of sexism and misogyny. In some parts of the world women are routinely killed or imprisoned in unwanted marriages for exercising free will. In many other instances they are battered down and emotionally bruised beyond having an identity they can call their own. They are raped, abused, victimized and discarded in a man's world that feels threatened by their rise.

Women may not have been given the right to choose through the ages, but they certainly have been elevated and sanctified in many cultures, probably with the goal to protect them from predators. For they were the birthers of life and life is sacrosanct, and should be protected for self preservation of the tribe visa vie the race. In India, women still struggle to find some semblance of equality in social life and don't feel safe in many parts of the country after dark, but in mythology and popular culture they are elevated to the status of goddesses and immortalized as mother figures in movies and popular culture. In the west, respect given to women by taking your hat off and treating them like a "lady" with delicate and appropriate respect, was something that was always taught and projected. The code for modern intermingling of the sexes based on free will, was written in the west which is still emulated around the world. This notion that true love can only be achieved through mutual respect, was ingrained through movies, books and is still peddled as the ideal. But reality does not reflect the ideal. Domestic abuse and sexual assault is rampant in the west. While women are asked to be nurtured, they still do not have rights to their own body. Abortion is still an anathema in a man's world.

But for those women who chose to live life on their own terms, the path is fraught with danger, unless supported and accepted by men.

One cannot ignore the fact that at our core, humans are sexual beings. And sexuality plays a big part in the way we perceive the world. Mindful of this, the popular culture is in a constant state of frenzy, feeding off of and feeding people's insatiable sexual desires. In large part the entertainment business, from Hollywood to Bollywood to the porn industry, feeds this beast with titillating fantasies and subliminally programming standards of what "sexy" and "beautiful" is and should be. In a world where explicit sexual material is just a mouse click away, to teach the younger generation the etiquette of social and sexual behavior is proving to be challenging to any parent. This could be a place where the early seeds of deviant behavior are planted as young people try to navigate the hormonal chaos that grips their brains.

In the recent scandals that have erupted in America, descriptions of men's alleged and some acknowledged behavior have been harrowing. From men openly masturbating in front of women, to taking showers and parading naked unannounced in front of young assistants, giving dildos as gifts, to openly soliciting sex for reward and groping and raping, appalling behavior was on full display. This behavior always existed in the shadows among "respectable" powerful men and was buried with threats and financial settlements as we have seen in the case of executives at Fox News. There is also no doubt that a large percentage of men would not engage in such behavior, some out of fear and others out of just good upbringing. Also there are many out there, who will lose their guard with little or no provocation as well.

In an over-sexualized world of today, that celebrates the libido of youth to the hilt, the signal to noise ratio is very high and confusing. To be promiscuous is considered a badge of honor. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is "no big deal", is the motto to live by. And it cuts across genders causing upheaval and leading to unsavory behavior, as we have noticed lately. The sexual abuse recently brought to the surface has run across all age groups, from the oldest to the youngest as reported in the recent investigations carried out at the well known media establishment VICE entertainment.

The Weinstein ripple effect shattered the careers of many extremely talented people in an instant. Some with good cause and others with little. It launched a witch hunt accusing men of abhorrent behavior and they paid with their long careers terminated without an investigation, trial or jury. The prevailing wave of public opinion seemed to deem and conflate all inappropriate behavior the same and served out one punishment to fit all. While on one side it is commendable to put the images of abused women on the cover of Time Magazine, and celebrate the victim's courage, the current debate also sends a signal that there is no place for reformation, perspective, penance and second chances. The age old question of, does a Picasso lose its luster when the world acknowledges that he was a serial abuser of women, remains as ambivalent as ever.

At the end of the film Anarkali of Aarah, the protagonist gets her revenge by publicly shaming the man who abused her so publicly, by releasing the one video recording of the incident she manages to get hold of. Then she approaches her abuser and says "I maybe your wife, a whore, or a dancer for your pleasure. But before you touch a woman, you need to ask" and walks away. As a father of two daughters, it is my hope that they are asked before they are touched, and the men who get permission are a product of good upbringing.

It is what it is.