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COMMENTARY

Male Sexual Violence


Thoughts on Engagement
Romit Chowdhury

South Asian Network to Address Masculinity, and Partners for Prevention have been established to link pro-feminist mens organisations in India, and more generally in Asia, that are interacting with men and boys for the cause of gender justice. Issues of Masculinity As part of a Kolkata-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been concerned with issues of masculinity for a while now, I have had some opportunity to interact with groups of men about their views on gender relations, male privilege, and sexual assault. I have also had many conversations with men who are part of such organisations as facilitators of gender-training workshops. In these workshops, like good feminist men, my colleagues and I tried very hard to get our participants mainly young, working-class men, living on the fringes of Kolkata to recognise their privilege vis--vis the women they share space with in their lives. We wanted to foster the awareness that this male privilege forces women to struggle for a life of basic human dignity. Most of the men we interacted with were immensely bored with what we had to say. However, many engaged us in an argument. They refused to admit that they lead privileged lives as men. They would say in utter indignation: at home my wife and parents dominate me, at work my boss pushes me around, so what privilege are you talking about! We had to admit that these workshops were not very successful. As I thought about these sessions and where we were going wrong, I realised that in our efforts to make men aware of their social power over women, we had practised a kind of moral talk that these men resented. Fundamentally, this resentment is, of course, about mens denial of patriarchal privilege. Men, particularly heterosexual men, take their power in patriarchal societies for granted. But as feminists, if we have to a nd a way to connect with these men, to have a real conversation, we need to allow for a reective space in which men can think and talk honestly about their experiences of masculinity, without fearing moral censure. As I thought more about
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The feminist call to make sexual violence culpable is the lone voice articulating such a demand in an overall culture which is repeatedly telling men that being manly means being ready to be violent; it means forcibly putting women in their place. The male gender role generates violence by castigating men if they are not violent, and rewarding them with honour when they are. The existence of laws which criminalise mens sexual assault on women have not deterred male violence because it has become merely another ground on which men can prove their masculinity.

Romit Chowdhury (chowdhury.romit@gmail. com) is a research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

he sharp increase in media reportage of male sexual violence against women in India, particularly since December 2012, has brought unprecedented attention to questions of masculinity and the importance of addressing these in feminist struggles towards gender justice. If, in the past, womens rights groups suspected calls to deal with masculinities in social work practice to be a patriarchal ruse to siphon already scarce resources allotted to womens concerns, the present moment is witnessing a near-consensus among womens groups that involving men is the way forward for feminist movements. Even womens studies, as an academic enterprise, seems to be moving from misgivings about the political commitments of masculinity studies to a growing recognition of its potential to contribute to feminist research. In this new climate which seems favourably disposed to thinking about the linkages between patriarchy and masculinities, I want to underline a few aspects of mens lives, which I consider important to think about if we are to deepen feminist insights into gender-based violence in the domains of activism and social work practice. Since the early 1990s, a number of pro-feminist mens organisations across the country have tried to recast masculinity in accordance with feminist goals. Almost all these organisations have been concerned centrally with how to enlist men to end violence against women. This focus on violence in social work with men has, of course, been impelled by feminist critiques of patriarchy. However, it is also a response to funding patterns, particularly those of the United Nations (UN) agencies, which have emerged from the UNs emphasis on working with men and boys to end gender disparities. Largely under the aegis of the south Asia chapter of UN Women, networks such as Forum to Engage Men,
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this, it occurred to me that the feminist idea that men as a group have social power over women, did not really speak to the everyday experiences of most men. I began to feel that if we are to nd ways of changing men, we need to get them to speak more directly out of their own experiences of gender, even if, to begin with, these do not acknowledge the reality of patriarchal power. Men have, of course, always interacted with each other without recognising their privilege; the advance, I was hoping for, is the onset of a series of conversations between men as men, where issues of masculinity their power and vulnerabilities, and their close connection with womens lives are the focus of discussion. The media is increasingly reporting clashes between working-class men and middle-class women on city streets. We have to be sceptical of this construction of working-class masculinity as unable to handle empowered womanhood. Research has shown that even in public space, women face more violence from men occupying the same class position than from those in other classes. In Kolkata, I travel frequently by autorickshaws, which, in this city, ply on a shared basis. One Sunday afternoon, I was the only passenger in my vehicle. We were waiting at a trafc signal when a young woman smartly dressed in western wear jeans, t-shirt, heels, large earrings, shades walked past us. The autodriver scoffed at her and, suddenly very angry, turned to me to say: dekhechen, bomb jacche; dhorlei phatbe (see, what a bomb; if you touch, it will explode). This comment and the anger which consumed him made me think about how, in patriarchal cultures, a certain kind of feminine beauty is experienced by men as an act of aggression. Research which has emerged from the eld of masculinity studies has demonstrated that feminine sexuality is experienced by many heterosexual men as an invasion, something which arouses such intense feelings of sexual longing which make them feel out of control and hence, powerless and vulnerable (Kimmel 2005). This is borne out by the fact that the most common terms we use to describe a particular type of feminine beauty
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connote violence and aggression. A woman is a pataka, a bombshell, a knockout, dressed to kill. And men are blown away by this beauty (ibid). This sense of powerlessness that I am calling attention to certainly has no factual basis in patriarchal societies, but it is nevertheless emotionally true. Our activist work may yield more if we begin our engagement with patriarchal masculinity by acknowledging this emotional fact. It may help us understand why this male vulnerability, instead of provoking men to question the existing social arrangement, leads most men to defend it. Entitlement to Power Then from the point of view of patriarchal masculinity after having committed this aggressive act which challenges a fundamental precept of masculine identity i e, control women repudiate mens sexual advances. Sexual assault is a way to exact revenge for this rejection. The motivation for men to be sexually violent has to be understood as a mix of these feelings of male powerlessness and the sense of entitlement to womens bodies that men have in sexist cultures (ibid). This combination of powerlessness and entitlement, vulnerability and the social mandate to be in control is the structure of feeling which underpins male sexual violence. Reecting on her relationship with her partner, the feminist scholar bell hooks writes that although her partner frequently spoke against mens violence on women, as their relationship deepened, he began to feel that hooks was more powerful than him and this perception provoked him to behave violently towards her (hooks 2004). In our work with men to address gender-based violence, we too easily assume that since men exercise social power over women, they cannot experience powerlessness in relation to women (Seidler 2006a). Masculinity, for most men even middle-class, upper-caste, Hindu, heterosexual men does not feel like power. Rather masculinity is experienced as an entitlement to power (Kimmel 2005). In four decades of womens activism, some of these entitlements have gradually been questioned, and
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many men are becoming angry. To put it differently, while feminist work has challenged, particularly in the domain of law, some patriarchal privileges, we have not been as devoted to changing patriarchal denitions of what it means to be a man. The most popular notions of manhood remain deeply entrenched in patriarchal ways of thinking. Our activist agendas may have neglected to notice that violence is an intrinsic part of the very denition of masculinity. Patriarchal societies, far from prohibiting men from being violent, legitimise and even demand expressions of violence from men. From an early age men learn that they will gain respect from others through their willingness to use violence, against women and other men. As bell hooks writes,
masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that at some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men (hooks 2004: 60).

I remember conversations with womens rights activists who were dismayed that decades of legal reform around gender-based violence had not had any discernible impact on mens violent behaviours. Perhaps it is not so difcult to see why. Feminist Visions of Masculinity We have to realise that the feminist call to make sexual violence culpable is the lone voice articulating such a demand in an overall culture which is repeatedly telling men that being manly means being ready to be violent; it means forcibly putting women in their place. The male gender role generates violence by castigating men if they are not violent, and rewarding them with honour when they are. To put it differently, patriarchy maintains itself, in part, by making male sexual violence socially rewarding. The existence of laws which criminalise mens sexual assault on women have not deterred male violence because it has become merely another ground on which men can prove their masculinity. Remember the popular refrains which emerged in Kolkata after Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged for raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl in 2004:
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dhora porle Dhananjoy, na porle enjoy (if caught, Dhananjoy, else, enjoy). In sexist cultures, men have to show a readiness to risk themselves, a willingness to take on dangerous tasks (Seidler 2006b). Because we have not yet begun to challenge such patriarchal denitions of masculinity, laws which criminalise male sexual violence, rather than discouraging men, end up becoming a new arena for mens risky behaviour. The possibility of getting caught provides an avenue for proving masculinity, showing that you can take big risks without being daunted by the prospect of danger. I feel that if men are to learn feminism and feminist ways of being men, we will have to ground our work with boys and men in terms somewhat different from what we have done thus far. The focus on mens responsibility as perpetrators of sexual violence that we have so long,

very rightly maintained, will now have to be backed by new denitions of masculinity and male sexuality. As long as culture continues to liken male sexuality to a blowtorch which heats up fast and then turns off in an instant, and womens sexual desire to ovens which heat up slowly and cool down slowly (Gray 1992, referred to in Bordo 2000) we cannot realistically expect to reduce male sexual violence. We are surrounded by media images and narratives which are constantly telling men that masculinity is violence. In an ambience where bravado, risk-taking, and the denial of fear are considered germane to masculine identity, male sexual violence is perhaps unavoidable. Our indices of masculinity must be able to acknowledge a far wider range of emotions, including fear and care, without shaming those men who express these tendencies. A major

component of feminist struggles against sexual violence may now need to apply itself to creating images of masculinity and male roles that are consonant with an egalitarian politics of gender. A part of our activist work may have to seriously devote itself to training image-makers and storytellers to create feminist visions of masculinity.
References
Bordo, Susan (2000): The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). hooks, bell (2004): The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (New York: Washington Square Press). Kimmel, Michael (2005): The Gender of Desire: Essays on Male Sexuality (Albany: State University of New York Press). Seidler, Victor (2006a): Transforming Masculinities: Men, Cultures, Bodies, Power, Sex and Love (London and New York: Routledge). (2006b): Young Men and Masculinities: Global Cultures and Intimate Lives (London and New York: Zed Books).

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