It's time to talk about sexuality. A few years ago, during the Rubel-Happy scandal, when Rubel was accused of sexually assaulting Happy, it was Happy who ended up getting 'slut-shamed' (labelling a woman as a slut, or whore, and stigmatising and shaming her for being sexually active with one or multiple partners—which is equated with being characterless) on social media. Society lashed back at Happy for trying to defame the national cricket player. Internet memes were made about Happy—specifically addressing her 'immoral' character, and an out-of-control libido that she used to entice men. Cricket players in gym made jokes about how they no longer respond to messages from women on Facebook messenger, in case they are manipulated and accused of sexual assault. Rubel, on the other hand, ended up doing a Robi advertisement, where he angrily practices cricket, and in the process, breaks the wicket using his strength. The ad concludes with him saying 'direct bhainga dibo' (I'll break you). His overpowering masculinity was apparently addressed towards the Indian cricket team, who had cheated during the world cup quarter final. This hyper-masculine gesture also seemed to be addressed towards Happy—whose claims around sexual assault almost tarnished Rubel's career. Rubel was redeemed back to his former glory—the glory of a man, a national hero—through the ad.
Memes were also made about the Indian cricket team—memes about how they seize things (in this context, the world cup) forcefully and with coercion—almost like attempting rape. This was a sincere jab at the term 'rape nation' equated with India, coined post Nirbhaya. How apt of an attack it was, for people in Bangladesh to build upon that, on social media as an expression of their angst. India was rapey, even when it came to playing games. Bangladeshi cricket team, on the other hand, was implied to be innocent, honest and pure at heart.
A few days later, the mass sexual assault on Pahela Boishakh at Dhaka University happened. This time, people on social media clamoured that the assaulters be caught and brought before the public eye for justice. People expressed how they were morally broken down, out of remorse at what had happened to the victims—the women and children at the event, but also rejuvenated about how Liton Nandi saved the women from the hands of the villains, the sexual assaulters. Nandi emerged as the hero, the saviour—the good man who doesn't rape (Don't we all just love the idea of a national hero?), while the survivors of the assault were made invisible, their voices unheard on any platform. As a society, however, we failed to realise how our actions, in and outside social media, had already created a culture where sexual violence was normalised—where producing memes to slut-shame Happy (that's right: slut-shaming is not alright, because it is none of our business whom and how many people a woman decides to have sex with) and portraying Indian cricket players as rapists for humour, popularly resonated with the public.
People on social media once again gleefully slut-shamed the two survivors in the Banani rape case only a few days back. The premise being that the women had gone to the party late at night and consumed alcohol thus 'motivating' the rapists to rape. Many justified the rape by saying that women are sexually aroused all the time, so it's probably something they wanted.
And then, the report about 28 homosexual men that the media covered with much sensation. Channel 24 even went to the extent of zooming in and showing the faces of the young men. Several headlines of the reports mentioned that along with drugs, the men were in possession of condoms and lubricant as well, as if they were objects of terror. Keeping aside the stupidity of the headlines, what is more important is to ask what ethical codes were media exactly sticking to, when they decided to show the faces of these men. What were they thinking? Why this prurient curiosity to mention their sexual orientation in the headlines? Did they want to expose them for further exclusion in society, and ensure that they are shunned by their families and social circles? Did they want the men to encounter further danger, in case it wasn't unsafe enough for people of marginalised sexual orientations? Did they show the faces to tell people that homosexual men didn't look like aliens after all? Why such reckless and insensitive attitude from media?
Sexuality is the domain of our identity that is most surveilled, monitored and regulated. This is not a new phenomenon. Moral standards and hygiene around sexual character were created and perpetuated by authoritative institutions such as biomedicine, psychiatry, law, education and religion during 18th century by Europeans. These standards and codes seeped in cultures and society throughout the globe, thanks to colonisation, and created good/pure and bad/dirty bodies. 'Perverse' sexualities were constructed from the regulation of bodies of children, homosexuals, the mentally-ill, sex workers and those who engaged in sexual activities outside the category of marriage and reproduction. This divide between the pure and dirty also worked for the elites in society to keep their respectability intact. Hence, power and respectability belonged to those who were assumed to be morally (or sexually) 'clean'. Morality got equated with sexual purity.
We continue to employ these prejudices in our society even today. We categorise and control sections of the population in Bangladeshi – women, sex workers, 'lgbht' (lesbian, gay, bisexual, hijra, transgender) people, indigenous people—those who are believed to be responsible for and threats to the national integrity, morality and sovereignty. Certain other stigmas attach to these bodies—that of hysteria, sexual promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, 'unnatural' sexual activities, inability to reproduce and terrorism.
In these contemporary times, regulation is no longer a top-down and authoritative approach, but it is dispersed. We all take part in it. Our sexuality is surveilled and actively constructed in media and social media by us. We keep others in line, through slut-shaming, exposing and humiliating, or in short, violence, to ensure that they stick to codes of acceptable sexual behaviour. Social media is said to be the mirror of society, as it reflects on what masses think and want. However, in times like these, we can also say social media is society. It is the reality, the truth. It is where we normalise sexual violence, death threats and bodily torture though posts and comments. And, when enough people slut-shame women, when enough people call you mad, when enough people call you a sinner—that becomes your identity. That becomes the whole of you.
If we want sexual violence to go down in society, we need to tackle and understand sexuality in its entirety. That requires us to challenge norms and standards, set around the binary between dirty and clean, the moral and sinner. Unethical journalism, cyber shaming and ignorance can be addressed through transparent conversations and sensitisation around sex in schools and media, demystifying sex organs, and notions around sexual desires. Sexuality as agency needs to be talked about, to know the difference between consensual and forced sexual engagement and rape. Unfortunately criminalising sexual acts and desires, and banning porn sites won't be of much help. Instead of repressing and policing, we must debunk the shame around sexuality, notice how power is associated to the constructions of sexual identity of people, and do away with this notion that talking and thinking about sex 'contaminates' the moral fabric of society, and in the process, reflect on the whole notion of being sexually 'moral' and 'pure'—what does that even mean, and who gets to decide? Hopefully that can undo some of the effects of oppressive knowledge and create space to think critically. If we choose to.
Saad Khan is a researcher.