By Gautam Bhan
In the clamour of voices after the December 2012 gang-rape in Delhi, there were many conspicuous silences. Let me take one: the voices of men. Don’t get me wrong — many men were on the streets, many were angry, many afraid. This silence was particular. It was, and continues to be, made up of the many conversations and confrontations that men are still not having with themselves and with each other. What was voiced was the guy talk: harsher punishment against “monsters” (who are, obviously, not “us”) who violated “our sisters, mothers, daughters”(who, clearly, exist only in their relation to us).
It is time for men to speak about sexual violence. It is time for them to do it publicly. It is also time for the subject of these conversations to be men themselves — not conversations directed at women or trying to speak for them. Those of us who identify as men must speak to ourselves and to each other to “save” no one but ourselves. We must realise that if we do not openly challenge masculinity’s deep ties with rape culture, we reproduce these ties. We are not all rapists but we are all part of rape culture. As men, we are a particular and powerful part. We must recognise this in order to fight it loudly, publicly, and openly. It cannot be enough anymore, by any measure, to claim to be “good men” in our individual lives especially not at a time when being “good men” simply means not being obviously violent or, as a friend recently described it, being smooth about not being a total jerk. The bar is far too low.
The “nice guy” is as much a problem as the “monster.” Let’s say it straight: we live in a world where, as men, we have power. Power over other men, power over women. This means moving towards a different masculinity. It needs letting go, an unlearning — a conscious, articulated and public process by which we interrogate our sense of entitlement and impunity and, most importantly, challenge those held by other men.
Unlearning refuses the idea of “treating everyone equally,” or “not seeing the difference between men and women” like all the nice guys do. It’s not enough. Treating everyone equally in a system structured to produce inequality is not just. It is, in fact, exactly how inequality is created and persists. It is how so many of us who think of ourselves as “good” men do so little to change anything. It is why we get angry only at spectacular, urban, public rapes and routine and everyday gender privilege and sexual violence never gets called out.
Unlearning will not just happen. Most men don’t want or think they need such reflection. Many will actively resist it. Given how closely masculinity is entrenched with power, unlearning cannot just be a simple, reflexive and individual practice. It has to be provoked. At times, this means directly confronting the structures of this power to shake the core of its entitlement and claims. The public and collective nature of this confrontation is key — it is not neither enough nor effective for us to do it individually.
So, stop being Mr Nice Guy — to yourself, or to the men around you. Instead: Agitate. Organise. Instigate. Name. Shame. Gather. Collect. Debate. Provoke. Write. Act. Refuse. Read. Shout. Howl. Get up. Come Out. Speak Up.
Gautam Bhan is a gender and sexuality activist based in New Delhi