Shock to the System

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Last weekend, I binge-watched Outlander, which is the succinct way of saying I’m four years late to the Naked Jamie Appreciation Society and I’d like to thank all the websites that have, helpfully, ranked the scenes in which he’s in varying degrees of disrobement. If you’d really like to know what is a shock to the system, then try going from the sight of naked Jamie Fraser asking “May I touch you, milady?” in Outlander to this scene from The Caravan’s article detailing the allegations of sexual harassment television anchor Gaurav Sawant:

“Mere minutes after he had entered her room, while he was still talking to her, he unzipped his pants, and began trying to force her hand towards his penis. She tried to push him away, but could not.”

As journalist Vidya Krishnan remembers it, she’d already communicated she wasn’t interested in Sawant when he texted her to say he wanted to get into a bathtub with her (“nothing naughty”) and she’d said no. Sawant coming to her room was his attempt at changing her mind and apparently, it was his penis that was going to do the trick.

Side note: Is there an online forum for harassers that we don’t know about? Because it seems they’re all taking notes from the same place (more on that later). This is a bit from The Caravan’s article on the sexist work culture at OML (subscription required. Don’t be stingy and look for a PDF of the article. It’s only Rs 1,500 for a year for readers in India):

“He asked a woman to get into a bathtub with him and told another at 2 am that he needed a massage. He even sent explicit images—including one in which a man appeared to be ejaculating—to a woman, without her consent.”

There are a lot of insights and takeaways to be gleaned from the testimonies of Indian women who are speaking up about sexual harassment, particularly in workplaces, but I have to admit that for me, the most incomprehensible bit remains these harassers’ conviction that men’s penises are their greatest selling point.

This is what keeps coming up (sorry) in every other story that we hear: Men thinking the winning flirtation move is to direct the object of their attention to their genitalia. Practically every story follows the same trajectory. Woman communicates her lack of interest by either ignoring the attempts at flirting or with polite rebuffing; he pulls out his trump card (all puns intended) — his penis. Sometimes it’s literally whipped out. Sometimes it’s relatively discreet, by which I mean her hand is plunged into his underwear. Sometimes, it’s sent as a photograph (apparently, Snapchat is basically a dick pic delivery service). What passes for subtle in these situations is MJ Akbar’s alleged modus operandi of drawing attention to his groin by making it the one part of his person that is under (relative) cover:

“You opened the door dressed only in your underwear. I stood at the door, stricken, scared and awkward. You stood there like the VIP man … .”

Seriously?

Because frankly, considering the aesthetics of the male groin area, it’s a miracle that all women aren’t lesbian and all men aren’t heterosexual. From ancients to the contemporary era, there’s not an artist who’s managed to make the penis look good. Erect or flaccid, this is a body part that can only hope to pass off as photogenic if there’s some seriously dim lighting. The only visual art form that has uplifted the penis is pornography, and that’s because it’s targeted at men. Which, if you think about it, explains a lot of the vocabulary used by the harassers — invitations to bathtubs, requesting/ offering massages, the delusion that the sight of an erection will reduce the woman to a hormonal puddle, all this happens in pornography. In life, on the other hand, few things are as good at obliterating arousal as a dick pic, even if it is explicitly requested.   

(If you’d like to see hetero sex from a female gaze, please watch Episode 7 from the first season of Outlander. There are many other examples excellent sex scenes and the female gaze in that show, but I’m picking this one because rarely has a male bottom looked so good. Also despite being in possession of a rather magnificent bod in general, note that Jamie has the good sense to not assume consent.)  

I’m not sure what this breed of masculine narcissism suggests. Is it a sign of excruciatingly low self-esteem? As in, he thinks so little of himself that he thinks his penis is his best selling point? Or is it the opposite? That he’s so wrapped up in his delusions of grandeur that he can’t see that what’s between his legs is an awkward-looking appendage that has already been made redundant by technology?

The male relationship with their genitalia has always been fascinating to me because there’s a weird distinction between a man and his penis — it does its own thing and so becomes an intrinsic, but alien part of the male body. (In contrast, scientific culture has not allowed women a separation, which has its own share of problematic consequences, but that’s another subject for another day.) Traditionally, rather than follow the man’s bidding, we’re told the penis seeks to embarrass its owner, get him in trouble, force him into indiscretions. He’s not in control of it, we’re told. It is an extension of his body, but has a distinct nature of its own. The ultimate separation of the persona and the penis is probably the dick pic, inevitably framed in a way that the rest of the body (and the person) disappears.

At the same time, in these aggressive displays of masculinity is a certain body confidence. Rather than seeing the penis for what it is — sorry boys, no matter how you dress it up, it just ain’t pretty. Functional? Sure. Pretty? No. — there’s a conviction that its physicality is appealing; that it embodies power and will therefore change a woman’s (or man’s, potentially) mind; that its ability to shapeshift will evoke a similar change in the object. This is utterly delusional, but as mindsets go, it’s certainly confident. Instead of an extension of one’s personality, the erect penis becomes central for the harassers. It represents power at an elemental, reptilian-memory level; one that contemptuously dismisses trappings of the intellect and namby-pamby morality. With their dickish behaviour, what these men articulate is what they’d like to put forward as an embodiment of themselves. Coded into this choice is an alignment with an older, more feudal culture of masculinity — here is the old-fashioned conqueror who doesn’t apologise for his appetite, who assumes that submission is consent. While some of society moves forward (or so we hope), these are ones who’d rather rewind.

No wonder it hits them hard when the women who were subjected to it speak up and cut it down to size (sorry, not sorry).

We’re in the early days of #MeToo in India and who knows how things will pan out. I teeter between cynicism and optimism when I hear the conversations, the rage, the confessions and the apologies. But if there’s one thing that I hope we will all take away from the revelations that have been made in the past few months, it’s this: Whether at the receiving or delivering end, we can all do better than a dick pic.