The Counter-productivity of Labels

I’m taking a break from Kerala posts but just for today 🙂

Last night, I found myself pulled into a debate about the Aziz Ansari episode, as a friend of mine related a personal anecdote of mine on a group forum.

“Why didn’t she just do x?” “Why didn’t she just do y?” “Why didn’t she just say no?” The ladies on the thread wondered, questioning the legitimacy of my experience: one that many women have had.

So I took it upon myself to get on the thread and explain. I didn’t accuse, I didn’t get angry, I didn’t hurl around labels. At the end, the ladies came around and understood. It is sadly one of the only times that has ever happened to me.

The problem with labels we use today is that they’re loaded. Rapist, abuser, sexual predator: all these are very powerful and heavy-handed words. As they should be. It is crimes like the horrific Nirbhaya case and the countless other violent and cruel crimes that need these words. Such atrocities against human being and children, most often but certainly not limited to the female gender, need extreme language and clearly definitions.

But what about the large grey area?

Let’s say it is someone you know. Let’s say its a situation you are comfortable with at first, but then become uncomfortable? And the other person in the heat of the moment does not realise? Let’s say you panic and you freeze and cannot communicate your wish for things to stop? Let’s say the other person misinterprets your hesitation as something else?

What then?

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 7 out of 10 perpetrators of sexual violence are known to the victim. In grey area cases like these, again, there is likely familiarity with someone before an incident or a series of incidents happen.

Most physical intimacy, and the vulnerability that comes with it, is not discussed, it is felt on vibes, and chemistry and body language. People generally don’t sit down and talk about doing something before they engage in it, or make you sign a waiver form that you are okay with what’s happening. At least to my albeit limited, knowledge.

So we go back to the question: why didn’t you just do x, y or z?

Why didn’t I? Because I panicked, and I couldn’t speak. Because the words didn’t come out of my mouth. Because I tried to say it, but he wasn’t listening or paying attention.

When I slap a label of sexual assault on it, it becomes something else altogether, something outside of me, something that exists there in the world with a label.

I don’t want to do that. I don’t think it’s helpful. All it succeeds in doing is making the other person into a villain, and me a helpless victim. I don’t want to be someone that something happened to. That does not move us forward.

I read the whole description of what Aziz Ansari did to Grace. It disgusted me, yes. It is definitely not right, yes. But I also get the sense that Ansari, from his responses and his behaviour does not actually realise how wrong what he’s doing is. And can we blame him?

We haven’t taught our sons and daughters or our brothers and sisters how to chart these waters. Our definition of “normal” is seriously screwed up. There’s a great article that talks about this here.

What I want to talk about is developing a language for what happened to Grace, and what has happened to so many others. Lets stay away from the explosive terminology that turns these men into monsters, because it doesn’t help them understand the problem, and it has a tendency to split people into two camps: first camp that sees the men as evil, and the second camp that picks apart the women’s behaviour, and hints that their complaints are not genuine.

Read any comments section of any article discussing this issue. Most people blame Grace for not getting it. But I think that’s the point:

How do we educate an Ansari to know when he crosses the line? How do we enable a Grace to communicate that effectively without using those terms that we love to throw around these days? How do we move this past blame and into something that can help us do better or react better?

I don’t want to take the blame when someone crosses the line with me. I want to be able to talk about it without a million people telling me what I should have done better. It makes me feel like I’m the problem.

That said, I don’t want to call the person who crosses the line a rapist or an abuser because it doesn’t really solve anything and gets everyone’s back up about fake complaints and whether or not something counts as abuse. I’m sick of this taking sides. It helps no-one and just results in a lot of name calling in comments sections across the internet.

Let us move away from definitions now. They have their purpose for the Nirbhayas of this world. But for those of us who find ourselves in trickier more nuanced places, perhaps we should be looking at how we create a safe space to communicate as much, rather than simply looking for a name for what has happened to us.

While there will be some who don’t respect that safe space, in spite of all you’ve done to create it, it should move us forward at least a little bit, shouldn’t it?

What happened to Grace is wrong. But the superficial conversation is only a bandaid. It’s time to actually heal the wound.

3 thoughts on “The Counter-productivity of Labels

  1. Thought provoking article Mira. This IS such a grey area that even the victim doesn’t know when to say ‘enough’ and sometimes the perpetrator is too far gone to realise he has crossed a line. Labels are counterproductive as are the ‘why didn’t she…’ questions.

    As a victim of abuse as a child, I know how hard and shameful it is.

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