By Kahini Iyer
In 1986, Harvey Weinstein hired an assistant for his then-fledgling indie film studio, Miramax Pictures. From her first day at work, he pursued her relentlessly, asking her out and sending flowers to her desk, prompting his Head of Distribution to chastise him: “This is an office, not your personal sexual playground.”
Looking back, those words ring prophetic.
Still, a year from the time the first Weinstein exposé was published in The New York Times – triggering the worldwide #MeToo movement that took down several famous, powerful men – the story of his first wife remains relevant. After all, Weinstein successfully entered into marriage with a woman he thought he was wooing, but his behaviour actually qualifies as workplace harassment. And though the #MeToo movement has rarely led to very heavy consequences for the accused, its great strength has been in how each new allegation shines a light on the massive gulf between the experiences of men and women when it comes to abuse and consent.
What are we dealing with here? Are men completely failing to understand the concept of consent? Have women not made it amply clear over the ages?
Weinstein’s case is comfortably cut-and-dried: famous, well-respected actresses have accused him in droves, with many sharing similar casting couch horror stories. Their complaints range from inappropriate play-to-work propositions to rape, and together, they paint a picture of Weinstein’s sociopathic modus operandi. Still, Weinstein himself has said that in his time, workplace harassment was commonplace, and that he didn’t originate the casting couch – a perverted iteration of “she started it!”
It’s clear that men and women look at consent differently, but what’s disheartening is that this has not changed even in this age of self-awareness.
In the wake of #MeToo, many men despite discovering that their behaviour crosses the lines of consent, seem to be unaffected by it. Louis CK, for example, in using his real-life harassment of women as fodder for stand-up sets and his eponymous series, shows us how he sees himself – as a flawed, loveable schlub who can only get a woman’s attention by masturbating in front of her.
For women, this pervasive idea that such predatory behaviour is fine under certain circumstances, is both alarming and mundane. Only a couple of days ago, a former All India Bakchod comedian Utsav Chakraborty, was accused of sexually harassing girls, some as young as 17, over Snapchat. In his long and incoherent Twitter defence, Chakraborty claimed that after seeing women share nudes on Snapchat, he assumed that the app was primarily for that purpose and that everyone would send nudes upon request.
Of course, anyone even vaguely familiar with a definition of consent realises that this is ludicrous. Chakraborty’s insistence that he never meant to make anyone uncomfortable is directly contradicted by a screenshot in which a girl says that she is not comfortable with his aggressive propositioning, only for him to continue undeterred. He may not be considered a vile monster like Bill Cosby or Weinstein, but Chakraborty is a type of man with whom all women are familiar: the man who may not be a violent rapist, but who believes the boundary of consent is made to be challenged, rather than respected.
Whether it’s the defence of Nana Patekar, wherein the director of Horn Ok Pleassss insisted that there had only been a “misunderstanding” between him and Tanushree Dutta, or the assault allegations against Aziz Ansari that were widely chalked up to a bad date, men are rarely ascribed any responsibility over how they make women feel. The implication is clear: if Tanushree Dutta misunderstands, that’s Tanushree Dutta’s problem. If Aziz’s date gave him mixed signals, then she should expect her discomfort to be ignored. Either way, these men are not Weinstein, because they remain just barely on the blurred lines of consent. They are the everyday, garden variety harassers who violate consent in smaller, more insidious ways.
In the last few days as Twitter India exploded after allegations against Chakraborty, women outed another comic, Anurag Verma. He used Snapchat to send videos of himself seemingly masturbating, before pulling a packet of biscuits from his shorts. The women described their horror, anger, and disgust at the “sex noises” he made. Though on Twitter, this was no different from the sentiments of Christine Blasey Ford when she testified against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last week: They were the butt of the joke, and they did not find it funny while their offenders thought otherwise.
Verma has since apologised for his “crass” behaviour, which, like Chakraborty extended to asking women for nudes, supposedly as a “meme”. The women, many of whom were his fans and admirers, opened those Snaps expecting only to see a comedy bit or a snippet from Verma’s life. In his mind, perhaps that is what he gave them. In his own words, he “didn’t realise the damage” he was causing.
It’s clear that men and women look at consent differently, but what’s disheartening is that this has not changed even in this age of self-awareness. The attitude of supposedly woke men toward consent is still about seeing how far you go without crossing the line. Even in a post-#MeToo world, consent for men is often a technicality to step around as they continue to harass and abuse – by asking for nudes and sending unsolicited dick pics.
But for women, navigating around these men is simply a part of life. For women, it’s still just another way that they are required to police male behaviour, along with their own. With boundaries of consent being constantly second-guessed and tested, what choice are we left with, anyway?
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