There’s been a lot of discussion in recent times about the idea of consent, mostly in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and the slew of revelations around unwanted or forced sexual relations, even when physical aggression is not involved. The discussions have been complex and have thrown up difficult and messy questions about the gendered ways in which power is assumed, expressed and exercised. In some ways these conversations have made it more possible—not necessarily easier--to deal with or call out when it is overt and its effects visible. But it’s also brought up the stealthy, invisible manner in which gendered power relations operate, seeding and nurturing expectations that seep through relationships of all kinds, working like a subclinical virus that buries itself deep inside one’s body and occasionally erupts into a rash that can’t be seen, only felt, invisible to all available diagnostic tests. We know it’s there, but struggle for a vocabulary with which to define it.
This is why the story Cat Person struck a chord with so many, but also why its broad resonance needed explanation (see here and here for some of the stories that explore the reasons). And then came Raya Sarkar’s list, giving rise to a series of #MeToo moments in Indian academia that bubbled into an angry back-and-forth over due process and the lack, or insufficiency, thereof; followed by denials on some campuses and dialogue on others. Literary studies scholar Avital Ronen’s denouement took the discussion to a different and even more complex level, raising questions about the curious and confusing ways in which individuals with a radical sheen can wield power—and more debates, some even veering toward the productive uses of what some have related to the “libidinal economy” and the “micropolitics of desire”. And most recently, the spectacle in Washington, of a Supreme Court nominee denying allegations of a sexual assault that, according to the accuser, happened when they were both teenagers (the subtext being that this is an age when boys will be boys and honestly, how can one hold someone to something that happened 36 years ago?). This one, particularly, brought home the fact that so little has changed. The corridors of power—in academia, in the entertainment business, in the courts, and in life-- are still largely peopled and policed by an old boys’ club that sees the world through masculinist frames, where women are to be tolerated and maybe indulged, and always, always, viewed with an undercurrent of suspicion, particularly when they decide to challenge the way things are, the way they have always been.
But I digress. My interest at this point is not in the manner in which gendered power (better known as patriarchy) plays out in sexual politics but in the more insidious way in which it underlies all aspects of life. The deep socialization that often causes women, even those from overtly progressive backgrounds, to carry an invisible burden of guilt if they step out of the boundaries of articulated or unarticulated expectations. The need to be given permission to act, to speak, to desire, to feel pleasure, to step out and away from it all. It took the MeToo moment for many women to feel like they had been granted permission to speak, that their anger and hurt was warranted. There was a social and cultural opening of minds, liberating women from some chains of definition and perception. Men did not have the right to do with our bodies what they will; we are not objects to play with, poke fun at, make demands of. With sexual violence there is an object that sparks outrage, it represents a pain that can be named and felt, and now, finally, it has exposed the nature of the beast in a way that we can begin to tackle it. But what about these heavy, invisible blankets that smother us under such labels as protection, security, duty, modesty, safety…even love? That hold us firmly in place not with structures we can see and push away but unspoken strictures that we do not even recognize until we act in a way that contravenes them. To misquote Rosa Luxembourg, those who do not move cannot perceive their chains.
|Source: Getty images|
And that’s where permission comes in. A close cousin of consent. Women until today did not have broad social permission to talk about consent. Or about any number of other matters that had fixed them in their socially and culturally approved places. Inside the ivory towers of academia, and in spaces of activism, of course, these strictures and fixtures had been questioned, the movement serves as a battering ram that continues to push, ever so slowly, against the fortifications of a male-defined world. It is the visibility of this struggle that has created the context for—that has permitted--consent most notably in sexual relations, to become a matter of discussion. But in the everyday spaces of our lives, where we set our alarms to a beat most often not set by ourselves, one more often than not needs permission to miss a step, or to ignore the rhythm, or to think and talk about what the rhythm is doing to you. The system of socialization is so efficient that even when we do have the freedom (in Hannah Arendt’s terms—freedom to both think and act) we may never exercise it, because our habits of thought are so set, so… normal, even comfortable.
This state of siege that our minds have become accustomed to becomes apparent in the most mundane of ways—when we begin to have this vague discomfort, an awareness that some invisible burden has been lifted off our shoulders and we are suddenly able to shrug without feeling the weight. And then we do not know what to do, or how to feel. Sometimes, as one might with a phantom limb, we rush to find a substitute burden, something else to take on and pay allegiance to.
The first time I realized the degree to which my allegiance to that structure had been soldered into me was when I had the opportunity to be in a place where I—for the first time in a long time—owned my time and had sole occupancy of my space. There were no institutional or familial time tables to live by, no expectations, and no sense that my actions would inconvenience or contravene someone else’s schedule. For many days, I floundered, not having the anchor of weighted expectations and the anticipation of judgment. I honestly did not know what to do with that openness, with the possibility of deciding for myself what to do, how and when to do it. And then came the rush of pleasure, but also a sneaking sense of guilt. I was not oppressed in any of the ways we have come to recognize. I was not disadvantaged—in fact the fact that I was in this situation was a result of extreme privilege (now that’s a whole other discussion). I had only been a part of regular middle class life, with the regular domestic and work routines, being available to loved ones and those to whom I owed a familial duty.
I realized that I needed permission to legitimize this pleasure that came from the absence of imposed structure, from not being needed (or answerable to) anyone other than myself. It was a pleasure that derived not from a role or a relationship but in the fact that I was, in the best sense of the term, my own person. Yes, there were phone calls to be made and emails to be read and responded to, but those were minor demands that I was happy to fulfill. This pleasure was not about rejecting my relational roles, but about a sense of ownership of my day(s). I’ve written about this differently in relation to the societal expectation of productivity and a need to “show” one’s use of time. Underlying all of that is this idea of permission.
During my time at MIT I ran into a bunch of young women carrying purple tote bags emblazoned with the words, “No permission, no apology”. They were mostly undergraduate students in STEAM programmes in elite colleges across the New England region, participating in a workshop designed to critique the patriarchal structures that they would encounter across academia, and give them the tools to become comfortable in their own skins, and “navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind”. They did not need permission to be as good as they could be, and they did not need to apologise for doing things differently—from men. I was able to sit in on a couple of sessions, which dealt with such topics as imposter syndrome, microagressions, and unconscious bias.
It’s the need to seek and be granted permission that continues to give power to the structures that we are caught within. When we do not receive permission, we may feel that our actions and thoughts are not legitimate, and we end up apologizing. Even when we do know, somewhere in that unchained part of our selves, that we are not wrong, we say our sorrys and we retreat. It’s this underlying sense of transgressing boundaries laid that keep us from speaking out, until—like now—we have permission, by way of numbers, to say the things we want to say without apology. It’s this sense that keeps the young woman in Cat Person from withdrawing, making it so hard to even acknowledge violation. It’s the sure knowledge of a permission-(un)granting patriarchy that keeps women from speaking out when their bodies are abused.
And it’s this sense that keeps us caught inside webs of expectations defined by others, with more power, and the means to use it.
Seeing it is a start. Speaking out is a beginning. It means the chains in our minds are beginning to disintegrate. It means we can feel pleasure without have to be told we can. It means we can define our own parameters for thinking, for seeing, and for knowing. We give ourselves permission. And it is up to us to define consent. Without apology.