Sexual Politics and Empowerment (Terms and Conditions Apply)
Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Written by Poorvi Gupta
Most days I’m grateful to live in the 21st century, or at least lucky that I get to choose the life I want for myself- study, work and carve a path that no one else dictates for me. Then other days, I wonder if it’s the era I live in or the privilege I live with- my family and their open-mindedness, their indifference to the norms of how to bring up a boy and a girl, their persistence on never letting me get married while so many young girls my age or less are coerced into it; be it out of poverty, helplessness or simply a parochial way of life.
It’s a funny juxtaposition how I never give a second thought about wearing jeans outside these days; it is the most common thing in the year 2020. However, we forget the history of the advent of jeans and how women had to strive for years before they could wear one. Levi Strauss and Co made their pair of jeans for women in 1934, after taking a huge ‘risk’ on women’s denim wear, 61 years after they introduced the first pair of blue jeans for men in 1873. It took them sixty years to bridge the gap on a piece of garb.
I vacillate in my opinion of how far we’ve come in the year 2020, when I think of all the people around me supporting and understanding the cause and the 200-year-old history behind it and then I’m taken aback by the ones who still have the audacity to say “Why do you need feminism anymore? I don’t believe in it”. Sometimes I wish to assuage these people with reasons as to how women live by holding back their wishes and life at large, how we cannot walk on the streets any time of the day and not feel like a scrutinized object, how we’re afraid and on guard at all times, vigilant and yet oppressed by the tiniest of things in our surroundings.
To those people I want to say that I cannot go out on a jog during daylight hours because of the way I’m inspected and my breasts sexualized in the most humiliating way possible, that I cannot sit in the front of the auto because once when I did I was harassed without even realizing it was harassment.
When I think of the 21st century motto of a working, strong and independent woman, I’m proud of those myriad women who fought for what seems so trivial now- from wearing jeans outside to voting rights and yet I’m surprised by how much things haven’t changed in the last 50 years.
Although what has changed is the façade of purported equality- how women are allowed to study, step out and work and have bodily autonomy but only to the point that the system feels comfortable with. It all comes with boundaries. You can work now but you have to prioritize your family and children, you can study but only as long as you’re not smarter than your future husband or not so smart that you demur against the system in your house or surroundings, you can wear jeans and other fancy clothes but only as long as you’re not asking for it.
We have laws supporting us, concretely embedded in the constitution but what is the point in fighting against the system when you can stay quiet and just let it go? You’ll get to drive but still be discredited every time you make one wrong turn, so much so to the point that driving skills aren’t considered an acquired trait now but are labeled as the genetic legacy of the XY chromosome.
You’ll work and have a career which you will leave no stone unturned for and yet you’ll be paid less on the pretext of biology and paradigms. “Are you married?”, “Do you have kids” or “Do you plan on having kids and if so we can’t possibly bear to have you take maternity leaves.”
When I picked up Kate Millet’s (a second-wave-feminist and scholar) acclaimed book, the holy- grail of feminism as recommended by my professor of the Women and Empowerment course, I did not know much about her or the book’s history. I grazed through some pages and could relate to most of the phenomena that she talks about- patriarchy, sexualization of women, the ideological entrenchment of these ideas, myths and so on.
But when I glanced on the publishing date, it said- 1970. A quick second of calculation breezed through my head and it seemed, almost absurd to me that it has been fifty years since she’d published that book. It was almost as if I was living in a social simulation of the late 1960s and early 70s, vicariously through the book. I wasn’t fulfilled or happy with how much progress there was in terms of gender equality but I was startled that the movement of feminism hadn’t furthered more than a couple of inches on the road that so many women had grappled with to pave through the history.
Kate Millet, in her book talks about the sexual politics which she refers to as the power-structured relationships- arrangements where one group of persons is controlled by the other. She rightly opines that sex is a status category with political implications. Because all relationships in the world are political in nature- be it race, caste, creed or sex. By the virtue of your birth you’re put into a category and some people have to bear the brunt of these power relations by many folds- being considered the second sex, the lower case and the inferior race.
According to Millet, every relation, especially between the sexes is that of domination and subordination. By birth, women are put on a lower rung than men- be it a relationship with their father, brother or husband. The whole world and its power structures are dominated by men, be it military, industry, science, finance- every avenue of power. In fact, the almighty creator (Him) has also been conveniently assigned a gender.
Millet focuses on the immutable reality of the world- the representation of women as an object of sexual desire throughout history. She cites many instances from the writings of D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet who manifested in their books a vehemently misogynistic idea of sex. These classic writers, appreciated for their candid and erotic writing is nothing more than a vehicle of masculine hostility on women- the foundational political idea of subjugating ‘the second sex’ who is always an entity of fascination and lust- to be fucked rather than to have consensual sex with.
I think everyone should pick up Millet’s book once in their lives, especially the haughty misogynists and the ones who profess to be humanists but not feminists. They say you shouldn’t get stuck on the label or the title and work for the betterment of humanity; so we should probably dissolve all the vices like racism, casteism and sexism and just be humane, because it is that simple?
Since all lives matter we shouldn’t speak up for the ones who are in dire need of troops to fight their battle with them. I wonder where the flag-bearers of ‘all lives matter’ and ‘humanism’ were seventy years back, when only some sections of the world ( women and coloured people) were not being included under the mighty banner of humanism. Privilege is a dose so strong, it makes you forget the roots, the history and the perforced inception of these ideas and movements. It makes one forget that necessity (and persecution) is the mother of change and revolution- which was the reason these movements had no choice but to burgeon into what they are today.