Sexual crimes: men, according to men
Some indecent thoughts of decent men; why men harass, why men don’t harass
One afternoon, about three years ago, the human resources (HR) director of a giant corporation bonded with me over the rights of men. Workplace sexual harassment was in the news and he was alarmed. “These men are not forcing themselves on the women,” he said. “What is happening is, a man is trying to get a woman. A man can have one chance to try. If she says no, he should not try again. If
he tries a second time, only then it is harassment.”
I asked what according to him would happen to a woman in any organization if she rebuffed the “one chance” her boss took. The HR director looked as though he had not considered the matter in this light before but he quickly understood the practical reasons why a man in power should not put his subordinate in such a situation, but then he reasoned that all affairs, by their very nature, begin in inappropriate ways, and that advances are inappropriate only when they fail. A successful misconduct is called office romance. Women expect men to make the move, he said, so men must be given “one chance”.
Corporate sexual villains in India are usually men with a degree of power, but they also appear to be sexually starved middle-aged men who resort to high-risk behaviour. The circumstances and actions of the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and other American celebrities, whom The New York Times series on sexual harassment has exposed, appear to be qualitatively different. Weinstein, who, according to an article in The New Yorker, has been thanked at the annual Oscar ceremonies, “more than almost anyone else in movie history, ranking just after Steven Spielberg and right before God”, is in general perception a man with immense sexual prospects. Yet, the method of sexual gratification he chose was disrespect. He called actresses to his office and surprised them with his nudity. Some of them have accused him of rape. Louis C.K., another one in the long list of famous men who have recently been accused of sexual crimes or misconduct, is among the most admired comedians in the world. Like Weinstein, he appears to be a man with vast sexual prospects. Yet, the sexual advance he chose was to flash his penis to his peers, who did not wish to see it.
Why did these men act in this manner when they did not have to be unethical or criminal to receive sex? We have heard or read versions of some common explanations. When sex is too easy, some or most men will want to raise the stakes. If there is such a thing as sexual Marxism, it would state that it is not sex alone that men seek but the conflict before it. Also, in some men, sexual misconduct is a kink. And in some who are very powerful, the joy of power lies in its abuse.
What we usually do not hear is the matter of humility. Humility, in its most popular form, might be about faking ordinariness, but in reality it is nothing as easy. It is the practised ability to treat the self as subordinate to more important things. Some successful men, it appears, are too arrogant to seek the affection of women. For any man with vast sexual prospects, it takes much humility to woo a woman.
What does the recent spotlight on sexual harassment say about men who do not harass women? Do they discreetly wish to be feted? At the peak of the #MeToo campaign, there was so much hatred for men that I thought some righteous man would start a “Me-Too” campaign for men who have never harassed a woman. That did not happen but I did sense a need among seemingly fine men to be acknowledged. The fact is, some of them never really had the power to harass. Some were decent for the most common reason men are good—they are afraid of being perceived as bad. Some had actually forgotten that as young men they were molesters—some very respectable family men today once used to travel in public buses to feel up college girls, and they assaulted their neighbours on Holi on the pretext of smearing colour. Some of the men who wished to be patted for their decency, surely, were probably always virtuous.
Both fear-induced decency and the more organic, wise decency are creations of the modern age, of training, of many factors coming together. And the current portrayal of the sexual misconduct of powerful men and their lame responses will contribute to the training of a new generation of men. Also, the severity and swiftness of capitalism’s response has raised the stakes. It is now clear that sexual misconduct can be extremely expensive for the perpetrators. The most important anomaly in some harmful men is the gift of shamelessness, and men who are not scared of shame can be persuaded to be scared of destruction.
But then their professional destruction is not exactly punishment for sexual crime, it is merely punishment for getting caught. Will the studios now investigate every rumour, can they even do that? And what do we do with the dead? What do we do with the works of Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, who have been accused of rape? They may not be spared either. They will be more defamed in the future than they are now. But yes, the dead do get away to a large extent.
But why are corporations meting out justice when they are not courts, they are not the State? They are, actually. They are empires that need to appease their vast populations of consumers. As long as women have immense commercial power as consumers, capitalism will scramble its fat cats to assure them justice has been done.
But then where is the sense of proportion? The difference between a civilized society and a barbarian state is entirely in a punishment being proportionate to the crime. And what if, in the middle of all this, some innocent men are falsely framed? “It’s all right,” is a response I have heard from women several times over the past few weeks. I heard this at the Bangalore Literature Festival too from a group of women, all of whom were writers. One of them told me, “So much shit has happened to women, some collateral damage is OK.”
“What if the guy kills himself?”
She thought for a moment and said, “It’s all right.”
They do not wish such a misfortune on an individual, a man with a face, but when they consider men as a collective, some “collateral damage is all right”.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets @manujosephsan