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The MeToo movement has become a watershed moment of the fourth wave of feminism and now, it’s a feminist canon for having empowered millions of women. One of the many things to come out of the movement is the crowdsourced lists of sexual predators that helped women to speak out and combat the pervasive culture of abuse and harassment.

It started with the Shitty Media Men list and India’s own home-grown lists of sexual harassers in academia (LoSHA, short for List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) that was posted by law student Raya Sarkar last October. Featuring some big names from academia who were, for the most part, seen as left-wing and progressive, the list managed to polarize supporters and detractors to extremes. The words “list” and “due process” themselves became loaded controversial terms. Subsequent lists soon followed but were quickly taken down by their creators.

One of the most prominent names in LoSHA was Lawrence Liang, a famous lawyer and the dean of Ambedkar University Delhi’s School of Law, Governance and Citizenship. In perhaps the biggest indictment of the failure of due process in academia, he was found guilty by AUD’s internal committee of sexually harassing a PhD student from another university.

But the bizarre ruling limited his punishment to simply being stripped of his administrative duties. Liang is still allowed to teach, interact with female students, and wield positions of power. Due process, in this case, has been reduced to further trauma for the victim and a mild slap on the wrist for the harasser.

Women can’t rely on ‘due processes’ alone

Even with its many limitations, due process forms the epicenter of the backlash against MeToo, with claims that the movement bypasses and undermines it.

Now, due process means going through specified channels and mechanisms that have been socially sanctioned, legislated, and approved by authorities. It can be the sexual-harassment and rape legislation brought about by governments, or the internal complaints committees (ICCs) required by Indian law to deal with cases that occur in workplaces. Anything outside these legal and quasi-legal frameworks is deemed equivalent to rudimentary “kangaroo courts” that ought to be disavowed and dismissed.

The fallacy of this entire argument is that it places undue importance and unearned faith in a system that has, time and again, failed many women and marginalized groups.

The fallacy of this entire argument is that it places undue importance and unearned faith in a system that has, time and again, failed many women and marginalized groups

On one hand, we are repeatedly told about the inadequacies of India’s criminal justice system, the pitfalls of a carceral state, the creaking and overwhelmed courts of law, the underpaid, overworked and (for the most part) racist police force, and laws that are antediluvian, biased and obsolete. Why then are we expected to champion this same system for crimes against women?

When oppressed communities – Dalits, Muslims, transgenders – refuse to trust the existing criminal justice system, most progressive people are at least sympathetic to their hostility. But when it comes to women, it is demanded of us that we abandon our legitimate suspicions of procedural justice and dump our informal networks of solidarity to bow down to the mythical creature called “due process.”

It is easily forgotten that like all oppressive structures, the language of the law is the language of the Father, and is therefore inherently biased against the experiences of women. What counts as acceptable male behavior is based on a male understanding of social norms. Consequently, laws on sexual assault and harassment are informed by this male worldview.

Sure, many of these laws exist thanks to the untiring activism of feminists. But at best, women are allowed to agitate, advise, contribute, maybe even permitted a few seats at the table, but it’s men who remain the ultimate architects, arbiters and approvers, and giving such importance to a system that is dictated by them is willful ignorance.

As pointed out by feminists, especially American activist and academic Catharine MacKinnon, rape and sexual harassment cannot be legislated away because they are an inevitable, direct product of a society that is patriarchal, deeply misogynistic, unequal and apathetic. If the same laws and system haven’t been able to uproot racism, casteism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia from our societies, then why should the outcome be any different for sexism?

Justice via due process is long due

A simple Internet search on sexual harassment throws up multiple examples wherein, even after due process was followed, the abuser got away scot-free, or, at worst, was forced to resign from his job (but soon enough, got gainfully employed elsewhere). Lawrence Liang, the aforementioned luminary of the sexual-violence hall of fame, is a perfect example of this. Though he’s a repeat sexual offender, he is yet to suffer any material damage for his behavior.

Despite the lack of evidence that false accusations of sexual harassment are rife and the abysmally low rate of reporting of such crimes, the first reaction of most people to complaints of sexual harassment is one of disbelief or victim-blaming.

The disbelief morphs into fierce defense when the alleged perpetrator is known to people. They are unable to comprehend the fact that a man might be a friend to you and yet be a predator to someone else. They expect consistent “criminal-like” behavior from harassers, forgetting that these are the same people who are experts in “gaslighting” their victims into questioning their own perception and sanity.

So, obviously, the fault lies with the women who are untrustworthy, vindictive beings, hell-bent on maligning innocent men, cunning enough to conspire with other women to take them down, but clearly not smart enough to get equal pay. And if they dare seek recourse outside the ambit of legal channels, they are probably dangerous as well.

The environment is actually so toxic that the odds of fair treatment – forget any semblance of justice – is extremely low. I am surprised there are women brave enough even to take the risk of coming forward.

Even for those who choose to lodge formal complaints, defenders of due process will extend their support unless the accused is one of their own. And if the verdict goes against him, the same judgment is deemed “interim” through artful misinterpretation of the law and is subject to be appealed into a more favorable outcome. Selective application of lofty principles is not just limited to right-wingers; the left is very good at it too.

What the closing of ranks around Liang acutely demonstrates is that Indian society still values the feelings and the presumed innocence of men way more than the lived experiences and documented evidence of harassment faced by women.

The burdens of protecting ourselves, protecting men and their untouchable reputations, along with reforming and restructuring our justice systems have mysteriously fallen upon only the “weaker” sex. Due process is another burden that women are expected to suffer through while men are treated with kid gloves – why are we still, then, surprised that such lists exist?

The oppressed always come up with their own ways to amplify their voices; these lists are but one manifestation of that.

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on sexual harassment.

The author would like to acknowledge Sabina Yasmin Rahman for her contribution to this article.

During my time covering CSR across organisations of all types and hues, I have learnt two things: 1) keep your expectations low when fielding questions to them, and 2) everyone wants to ‘empower’ women. The latter has, over the past many years, become the causa principalis for almost all corporates and not-for-profit entities. That, and education. Even when there’s little reason to believe the organisation in question has the intent, expertise, or understanding.

A recent NY Times article got me thinking: what did women empowerment mean anyway? Who should be doing the empowering? Do women need/want to be empowered? Is there any point empowering them when society still runs patriarchal? The Times article reveals the absurdity of such schemes – for instance, India Partners gives donors the chance to empower an Indian woman for only $100 by providing her with her own sewing machine! Or take the well-known NGO Pradan, which, as per Melinda Gates, can empower women through the simple act of giving them chickens to farm.

So, no, a little bit of empowerment doesn’t go a long way.

The problem with this kind of empowerment programmes (noted by the same article as well) is that it presupposes that economic empowerment leads to political, social and cultural capital. ‘The personal is political’ may be a feminist rallying cry but there’s little evidence to suggest that these schemes care much about the former bit. What good is a few thousand rupees extra if it merely burdens the woman further in her daily life – aside from doing all domestic and care labour, she’s saddled with another few hours of wage labour. Or if the same extra money doesn’t lead to personal freedom wherein she earns the same respect and status as that of the male members in her family and community? If her empowerment is contingent upon the approval of others, is there much point to her slaving hard over that sewing machine? Where is the empowerment there?

While there’s nothing wrong per se in helping women become economically independent and better-off, divorcing it from their lived realities makes it less likely that the economics of empowerment will translate into meaningful, long-term changes. In their paper Emissaries of Empowerment, Kate Cronin-Furman, Nimmi Gowrinathan and Rafia Zakaria posit that, ‘(this) approach fail(s) to grapple with non-Western women as full subjects and instead collapses their identity to the circumstances of their victimhood. Empowerment programming is explicitly depoliticising, obscuring women’s relationships to power and the state.’ While the authors were referring to ‘white saviours’ as guilty of this kind of reductive thinking, the same can be easily extended to their Indian counterparts, particularly the corporate–NGO nexus that hails this sanitised, anodyne way of uplifting women.

As noted by many feminists, originally ‘empowerment’ in the context of women’s rights was ‘to begin transforming gender subordination and in the process to break down other oppressive structures as well’ through collective ‘political mobilisation’. Similarly, the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing called for women’s empowerment on the basis of ‘equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power.’ Women empowerment is usually defined in terms of women having agency and control over their own lives and becoming active participants in societal processes, thereby achieving gender equality in all aspects.

As CARE, the global NGO, noted, ‘Research and experience show that simply including women in development projects does not lead to women’s empowerment, nor to lasting impacts on poverty. Providing women with a few skills, then expecting them to conquer age-old injustices, is not effective.’ CARE also found that such initiatives that do not take into account a holistic view of women’s lives and constraints can lead to:

  • Gains that are easily reversed;

  • Increased burdens on women and girls; and/or

  • Violent backlash from those who see empowerment as threatening or a zero-sum game between men and women.

Pick up any CSR policy document of a company at random and chances are that women empowerment will be featured prominently. The cruellest (and quite ironical) twist in this narrative is that even ISIS has touted this as one of the main causes of their admittedly different mission. That pretty much sums up the appropriation of this otherwise noble cause. The problem of the hands-off, technical approach favoured by most organisations is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that empowerment is constantly fed and enabled by the conditions and context surrounding women. The myriad factors that conspire to keep them oppressed and dependent on others isn’t limited to monetary aspects; the interconnected issues of societal norms, domestic labour, family and community hierarchy, etc., often take precedence over the economic ones. In India, factors such as religion, caste, class, region, practices, politics and historical context play a huge part in determining the position of women in her family and society. Often times, it seems that outside entities forget these simple facts.

This depoliticised approach may seem neutral; however, the downside is that the resultant empowerment ends up being hollow. Empowerment becomes another euphemism for entrepreneurship – provide training in some sort of ‘skill’ or livelihood (tailoring, poultry farming, basket weaving, handicrafts making, beauty salons, etc.) and the basic toolkits, and voila! Women are empowered. While individual stories are highlighted, what remains conveniently ignored is that while empowerment can happen sometimes in individual cases, these isolated instances do not reflect the well-being of most members of the same community.

Pick up any CSR policy document of a company at random and chances are that women empowerment will be featured prominently. The cruellest (and quite ironical) twist in this narrative is that even ISIS has touted this as one of the main causes of their admittedly different mission. That pretty much sums up the appropriation of this otherwise noble cause. Empowerment becomes another euphemism for entrepreneurship – provide training in some sort of ‘skill’ or livelihood (tailoring, poultry farming, basket weaving, handicrafts making, beauty salons, etc.) and the basic toolkits, and voila! Women are empowered

How not to empower women

More often than not, data on medium- to long-term effects – such as income, literacy rates, decision-making powers, participation in local politics, health and nutrition, physical/sexual violence, etc. – go amiss when one reads the annual reports of the same organisations. Deepti might be earning Rs 5,000 per month thanks to her sewing machine, but has her condition at home and outside improved? And what about the other Deeptis in her village/town? Did they benefit too? Or is she an outlier, the smiling face that will be plastered all over these reports?

The metrics chosen to track progress (if at all they exist) of these initiatives may not always reflect the true impact. For example, most companies provide numbers on the total enrolment of girls in schools that they have adopted. What is of equal importance is the dropout rate, which is hardly tracked. For example, when so-and-so company or foundation provides scholarships to girl students, we have no idea how they are chosen, if they have enough support at home to enable regular studies, if they are too busy helping their parents earn a living or doing domestic chores, and if, after all these hurdles, they are able to realise some of their dreams.

Consider Unilever’s Fair & Lovely Foundation – there’s little effort in ensuring that the 1,400+ girls actually realise a fair and lovely future because this entails a much deeper intervention that will require a long-term commitment to changing attitudes of the community at large and unifying women for their own good. Godrej’s Saloni programme is a well-known initiative that trains women from poor backgrounds for over three months in beauty and hair care. However, 75 per cent of the Saloni graduates work as freelancers or micro entrepreneurs and there’s little data on their economic stability and income.

Unilever’s Project Shakti, wherein women receive training to sell Unilever products (which they receive at a discounted rate), is described as a way to ‘develop an entrepreneurial mindset and make them (women) financially independent and more empowered.’ However, beyond the number of 72,000 ‘micro-entrepreneurs’, as they are called, there’s not much else to go on—we may as well be looking into a black hole of supposedly empowered women. Some may be inclined to describe this kind of programme as less empowerment and more like cheap labour.

Similarly, Coca-Cola India’s initiatives like Pragati and Parivartan, focused on training and capacity building, only seem to refer to the number of women trained and impacted. On the other hand, there is the programme by Anandana, the Coca-Cola Foundation, which provides solar lanterns to non-electrified houses, with the same being maintained and repaired by women specially trained for this. This programme is much better in its strategy and impact since it provides livelihood opportunities, solves a pressing need (electricity), and is environment-friendly.

ICICI Foundation’s Rural Self-Employment Training Institutes have seen 66 per cent women participants. These also provide loans and help in capacity building of self-help groups (SHGs). What we know is that since 2012 the bank has loaned over Rs 5,500 crore to more than 25 lakh women in rural India. What we don’t know is the long-term state of these SHGs and their participants.

This then brings us to the most favoured SHG route taken by many corporates and NGOs. These SHGs are specifically designed for the poor, marginalised women in developing countries like ours. The rate at which NGOs have mushroomed over the past many years attempting to help women help themselves has been breathtaking, to say the least. Some of the more well-known ones like Pradan have breadth and scale but the success rates of these SHGs are unknown. SHGs also remain the medium of choice for corporates like ITC, Amul and even Essar, perhaps because they appear to be more autonomous and self-reliant than merely conducting a few training sessions. Essar proudly proclaims that it ‘encourages rural women to earn alternate and additional income through SHGs.’ Anyone would think that these women were sitting idle and needed someone to goad them into action.

Interestingly, one of the few studies (albeit limited in scope) that have been taken up on this specific topic was by Vinita Dave in 2013. It found that CSR programmes of the three companies under consideration had limited impact on the women beneficiaries, with negative responses to questions such as whether these programmes created employment for them and whether these provided a competent platform for upliftment of women. About half of the respondents were of the opinion that these CSR activities were not supportive of women empowerment.

How to ‘really’ empower women

Depoliticising the process of empowerment, when politics and resistance movements may be critical factors in their true emancipation, helps no one. Mere lip service is of no use when gender disparity and discrimination are the norm rather than the exception in our society. Collective action and awareness of issues are often the only true course towards sustainable gender equality. Livelihood enhancement can be one of the enablers, sure, but it is one of many and not sufficient in and of itself.

Here are some suggestions that should form an integral part of any empowerment initiative:

1. It is important to recognise women as their own true agents who deserve rights and freedom on their own terms. The same woman who they are trying to save should be put front and centre in devising the strategies, goals, design, analysis and evaluation of the programmes, instead of framing her as a passive victim. Giving them the option of sewing or weaving is not really a choice; it is an illusion. Involving them in advocacy is also a great way to nurture future leaders, and should be one of the goals of any such initiative. Care also needs to be taken that the stereotypical ‘feminised’ jobs aren’t the only ones on the table; the idea should be that any job a man does can be done equally well by a woman.

2. Programmes need to take cognisance of the needs of the targeted communities and where those meet the company’s own objectives. These should also exploit the competencies of the company and not just that of partner NGOs. One may work with the best organisations in this field but if the company’s contribution is limited to funding and occasional progress reports, can they really claim to have a hand in helping those women?

3. Before embarking on any programme, data gathering on the current state and conditions of the target group is a critical first step. This needs to be looked at through a gender lens. Gender-based analysis, regular data gathering, and specific targets based on women empowerment need to be inbuilt in the programme’s design.

4. Can it be process-based rather than target-based? Empowerment isn’t akin to building a school and hoping some of the students end up doing well; it means helping women change their personal conditions for the better and gain the ability to change it for others around them as well. Any initiative that truly wants to help women has to comprehensively take a 360-degree view of their lives. It, then, naturally follows that these programmes cannot be of a short duration. A two to three years’ programme may seem like it’s working in the short term but is unlikely to reap long-term benefits. A better strategy would be to support the programme for some years at least (depending on the nature of the intervention) and, if required, handing it off to grassroots organisations committed to seeing it through to the next phase. While targets are important (when are they not?), getting the nuts and bolts of the process right is equally important.

A necessary corollary to this is funding, which would have to be long-term and flexible, unlike, say, donating to the PM’s Relief Fund. The very nature of these projects demands funding commitment that is sustainable and not dependent on quarterly results. Progress will be slow but as long as it moves in the right direction, it will yield tangible results.

5. Measuring results and tracking output need to be far more robust than they are currently. Any empowerment programme needs to be evaluated on the basis of whether they enable women to increase their access to, and potential for, political mobilisation. The type of metrics used can often be the key to the success of the programme – for example, the number of trained women who acquired employment and duration of their employment, control of assets such as farms and capital, economic stability, standard of living, awareness of key issues, participation in local politics and community organising, savings generated, access to good healthcare and birth control, reproductive choices, nutrition levels, dropout rates, and regular assessment and benchmarking of language and math skills. Other less obvious parameters such as household norms (for example, whether they are the last to eat meals in their families), domestic-violence occurrences, decision-making powers, access to safe spaces, and change in male attitudes are all good indicators of actual empowerment. And at the very least, these need to be tracked for a few years for each participant, or till the time they are confident and assured of their own future.

A good but imperfect example is Kellogg Company and CARE’s programme for women smallholder farmers in Odisha. The impact is measured through a customised Women Empowerment Index in the maize value chain that tracks five ‘empowerment’ domains: production, resources, income, autonomy/time and leadership. Further, a Coping Strategy Index is used to assess improvements in coping mechanisms accessible to these women so as to pursue resilient livelihoods.

6. Economic empowerment cannot be isolated from other issues that afflict women. Violence and sexual harassment pervade the lives of many, many women, whether at home or outside. Certain groups of women such as migrant workers in the informal sector are at a higher risk. While the main objective can be to provide them tools to earn regular income or receive a decent education, corporates and NGOs would do well to make them aware of their rights and legal recourses, and give them the support and confidence to say no and fight back. It is imperative that women are given all possible information on their rights, as individuals, as a labour force, and as citizens. When UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality took up a project called the Dalit Women’s Livelihood Accountability Initiative (DWLAI) to raise awareness about Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), they ensured that the targeted women were aware of workers’ rights under this programme. Soon, women started organising themselves and demanding work from this scheme as well as basic benefits that they were entitled to, such as on-time wages, drinking water, work shelters, and first-aid boxes. There is a lot that women can achieve collectively when given the right tools.

However, care needs to be taken that official laws don’t take centre stage, especially when local customs may take precedence over them. It is essential that women are educated on how laws are implemented and enforced, and how they can use them for their own advancement. Equally important is to challenge existing norms that are antithetical to their empowerment. Here, community organising and education become critical. Giving local players a stake in the success of the process is a tried and tested way to get them on-board.

Men often look at these interventions as a zero-sum game (by empowering women, my existing power is being taken away). By making them stakeholders in these initiatives, they can be made allies in the quest to empower women.

7. Extending this philosophy, securing male support can make a huge difference towards the long-term viability of these programmes. While unfortunate, in a patriarchal society like ours, men are still considered the head of the household and wield much power. Often, attempts to help the women in their families or communities are looked at suspiciously by men and, in many cases, face outright opposition. Men often look at these interventions as a zero-sum game (by empowering women, my existing power is being taken away). By making them stakeholders in these initiatives, they can be made allies in the quest to empower women. Another positive fallout of this approach is that violence against women may come down – this then becomes a significant step towards true gender equality. Some women-empowerment initiatives have extended the programme to men as well. Involving them directly may not be a bad idea, as long as the main focus remains on helping the women.

8. Companies would do well to facilitate safe spaces and social networks (not of the Facebook kind) for women and young girls. These could be supplementary to the main efforts but can make a huge difference to the long-term success of the programmes. Creating platforms where women help and look out for each other, exchange ideas and information, and establish friendships can ensure that this environment of oneness, of community, can push back against orthodox practices and resolve problems that are going to be inevitable in the quest for true freedom. SHGs purport to do this but irrespective of the nature of the intervention, informal networks of women armed with sufficient knowledge should be encouraged.

9. At the same time, these same organisations need to practise what they preach – there’s no sense or honour in valourising women empowerment when your own organisation does little to combat gender discrimination within it. By ensuring a fair, level-playing field for women employees that actively promotes and invests in female talent within the organisation, they can set a great example for others. It is known that people are more likely to champion a cause when they have directly benefited from it. A company or an NGO that truly empowers its own women employees will find more than willing participants to help empower others.

Heterosexuality has been under siege since second-wave feminism. And yet it continues to hold sway, not only among self-identified heterosexuals but also those who disavow and critique it. Like capitalism and patriarchy, it has the ability to influence and affect ideologies and relations that are in direct opposition to it. Heterosexuality is everywhere and nowhere- it visibly shapes our lives and yet, renders itself invisible through its banality, its mythical status as “natural,” as a timeless, transhistorical notion that always existed.

Heterosexuality is both a sexual identity and a social institution. Reinforcing the binary of sex and gender, it essentially normalizes itself as the default state of sexual orientation, pathologizing other sexualities. After all, “opposites attract” has somehow managed to become an aphorism in our times, a bizarre extension of the physical law of electro-magnetism. James Clerk Maxwell would have been much amused.

Heterosexuality’s supposedly innate, immutable, transhistorical status as a hallowed social institution is, of course, a recent human invention. What once meant bisexuality and indicated abnormality is now assumed as the de facto sexual status for broad swathes of the human population, akin to an apocryphal tale. In this light, heterosexuality’s tortuous path through history to its current taken-for-granted status of “normalcy” reveals how heteronormativity has acted as scaffolding for patriarchy’s stranglehold over not only our ideologies and discourse, but our own imaginations as humans. This is revealed in the myriad ways social policy has marketed and promoted heteronormativity, exemplified by the fact that even today, citizenship rights are often a function of sexual orientation. The dominance and pervasiveness of the unrepresentative and anomalous institution of heterosexuality is testament to its staying power, enmeshed and integrated into every inch of political, social, and economic structures that govern us.

The Times They are Changing

But change is slowly and surely being affected, even if limited to the rarefied spaces of privileged groups, mostly in the Global North. The mainstream discourse on heterosexuality is shifting to a wider embrace of varied, fluid sexualities. Like the dismantling of the gender binary as constructed, sexuality, too, is being revealed as the figment of our collective imaginations and not rooted in biology or some innate, natural source. In countries like the United States and Spain, marriage is no longer the exclusive right of heterosexual couples, gay cultures, slang, and icons are celebrated in popular media, cis-hetero people openly champion gay rights and denounce homophobia, and LGBTQ+ friendly policies are now the norm in most large corporations. This cultural shift is mostly attributable to the gay rights movement but is also a beneficiary of the rise and dominance of identity politics.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that homophobia and transphobia no longer exist. Like sexism and racism, they are entrenched in our societies, even though the tireless work and activism of millions of people have ensured certain, albeit limited, victories in the fight against bigotry and discrimination. After all, the powerful do not easily yield to adversaries- their stubborn affection for the status quo is sticky and glutinous and they have institutional backing to crush dissent.

Even then, the growing discourse on dismantling heteronormativity, the rise of heteropessimism(or the more ominous term, heterofatalism), and the mainstreaming of sexual fluidity and non-dyadic models such as polyamory and open relationships lends itself to the ever expanding menu of choices when it comes to sexuality, sexual practices, relationships, coupling, and the hows and whoms of loving, copulating, and procreating. This is a positive development and can herald a sexual revolution that is not just about sex but about the politics, possibilities, and realizations of social relations.

The Truth about Compulsory Heterosexuality

But choices don’t exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, delineated from material and social realities. Like “choice” feminism which proclaims any choice by a woman as inherently feminist, ignoring the initial conditions and final outcomes, the option of not being heterosexual is imbricated and limited by one’s material conditions. The question is: who gets to express their sexual identities and embrace non-heteronormative relations? What are the conditions that allows one to do so? Is it merely cultural or does it extend to one’s economic and social status too? If so, perhaps the slogan “love is love” needs to be modified into “love is love (for those who can afford it).”

While studies have shown a positive correlation between per capita GDP and legal rights for LGBTQ+ people, it is no less likely that a country’s economic wealth impacts the latter, rather than the other way around. Class divisions in queer communities exist and accordingly, inform queer practices which, expectedly, is not insusceptible to the hegemonic powers of capitalism. On queer rights, there are wide disparities among nations. Organizing one’s life around non-heteronormative standards can often be a privilege, not a right, making it potentially easier to live an “alternate,” open lifestyle if one has the assurance of financial stability and social capital.

Non-dyadic, non-normative partnerships should become the norm. But social relations are shaped by and often, contingent upon economic and political conditions. Poverty, low wages, precarity, and race may not allow a person to explore and adopt alternate forms of relationships (like polyamory) that often do not guarantee economic stability and/ or legal recognition. And for those at the margins of social and economic privileges, that matters. After all, those openly engaging in non-monogamous relationships are often denied relationship rights accorded to monogamous couples while running the constant risk of ridicule and ostracization.

The gender dimension of free love, fluid sexualities, and multiple, multi-pronged, transitory partnerships needs to be questioned and foregrounded. It is known that many women, including victims of domestic violence, continue to stay in heterosexual partnerships because of economic and social compulsions. Breaking free is a magic wand not accessible to all. Then there are factors of race, religion, caste, community, disability that necessitate the performance of heterosexuality, coerced or not. And because not all rebellions are created equal, for specific groups, the cost of subversion is much higher. For instance, consider the well-documented double standards with which female sexuality is perceived- there are real world consequences, from higher incidence of sexual violence to blatant victim blaming. Non-conformity to normative standards has risks and rewards- but the risks are not widely spread and the rewards are not equally distributed.

For people from marginalized groups, hetero institutions like marriage facilitate a way towards earning respectability in society, a form of signaling one’s claim as a member of civil society, a path to escape the worst excess of their lower status, work towards social mobility, and gainlegal recognitions, social capital, and economic assets. These impact their actual material conditions, even if the trade-off is repressing their sexual needs and desires. But for oppressed peoples, matters of survival, respectability, and living standards are often legitimately more important than the need to experiment and discover their preferred modes of living and loving. It shouldn’t be an either/or situation but often it is. Like gender, performing respectability is a key component of living a normal, “white-adjacent” life, problematic as that may be. The politics of respectability is something that such people have to navigate every day and make decisions that forces them to forgo one for the other. To use an analogy, if choosing one’s relationship type is like going to a restaurant, the menu available to them is not just more expensive, it’s akin to having a dietary restriction so the choice doesn’t even exist in the first place.

Radical Love is Free, not sold

The objective shouldn’t be to elevate non-heteronormative partnerships over others or to fetishize it as something that in itself has the power to liberate us. Nor is demonizing heterosexuality useful for radical social transformations. The goal should be to allow each person, irrespective of their social and economic locations, to fully explore and embrace different modes of being and relating- less like a menu in a restaurant and more like a public library that is accessible to all.

However, as we have seen with pinkwashing and greenwashing, sexual freedom is ripe to be marketed and sold by savvy capitalist grifters. Capitalism has proved itself to be wily and adaptable to the changing cultural and social ethos. Consider how hoteliers are being encouragedto tweak their logistical and business models to adjust to the “rise of non-monogamy.” Cynical co-optation of social justice causes is inevitable, the question is how to make our struggles truly emancipatory.

There’s a real possibility that non-conformance to heterosexuality becomes a lifestyle choice, available to the rich, the semi-rich, and those admitted into their gilded orbits. That it becomes cultural currency, signifying a more “refined,” trendy approach to relationships, a status symbol, a commodified way of living that’s accessible to a privileged few, not the impoverished many. It risks becoming cultural and social capital rather than the realization of radical possibilities that’s informed by equality, equity, and inclusivity. Compulsory heterosexuality, like all anachronistic, patriarchal, and capitalist systems, should be dismantled; the question is who gets to lead and participate in this revolutionary project. The key would be to reimagine sexuality and, indeed, love itself as a new revolutionary paradigm that frees each one of us to reimagine and reconstruct not just how we relate to each other but to our own selves and to the world around us, instead of being immured within labels that do little to disrupt the overall status quo. Even if there is “no principle of emancipation of sexuality,” there can still be a consensus that sexual liberation should be for all and that radical love cannot be for sale.

Sanjana PeguNew Radical Socialist Feminisms.

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