I was 13, the only child in a family that had just moved to Delhi. When I felt lonely, I would spend time on our balcony overlooking a busy road, across which, on another balcony, were two young men whiling away their time. Their eyes taught me my first lesson in what being a man might mean.
Day after day, I followed their gaze to seek out what they stared at, down below on the road. It was such a regular experience that I could not help but be curious. Their eyes would spot something on the road and stay fixed on it until it went out of sight.
It was apparent that they were scanning the bodies of passing girls and women with single-mindedness. But it took me time and pubescent curiosity to learn which part of those bodies the men’s eyes focused on.
Soon, the two pairs of eyes were joined by another – mine.
I did not know the men’s names, nor could I hear their voices. When they smiled at me to share appreciation for a particular woman that passed below us, I would smile back.
Despite all the lessons my family had imparted about respect and decency, the lesson those men taught was enough to convince the hormones in my 13-year-old self (at least for a while) that this was how a man should interact with unknown women. At half their age, I was as much man as them – that was what I wanted to convey.
The pleasure I sought was not in looking at faraway breasts, as much as the approval of the two men smiling back at me. I was learning the way of men, or so I presumed.
I stopped some months later, when the men moved out of the flat. I stopped also because it felt stupid. For the next few years, my family values were involved in a constant clash with peer pressure. In high school, I was appalled at sexist expletives but still laughed at misogynistic jokes and cracked several of them myself. The need for social acceptance made it hard for me to be a feminist.
For several other young men, peer pressure wins easily. This week, as the #MeToo posts reach shocking proportions as every woman we know describes her experiences of sexual harassment, more young men are recalling their own dark moments of participating in sexually laced conversations and objectifying women. Our stories share a common thread: how our lessons in sexism were rooted in the urge to feel validated as men. These discussions are important to end the phenomenon of sexual violence seeming to become normal.
Years passed. I was 20 and a student civil engineer who worked briefly at construction sites. I was told that the labourers would not listen to me if I didn’t abuse them verbally – most slurs involved their mothers and sisters. Around the same time, my driving instructor taught me words I could use to scare away rogue cars on the road. From a way to seek social validation as a teenager, everyday sexism was now a life skill to deploy at work and on the roads.
But I had been reading a lot and started writing at 19, which helped me see the world differently. I even ran campaigns on gender and sexual respect. My best friend was a woman who helped neutralise my pubescent, all-boys-group experiences. I resisted the easy call of sexism. I could no longer laugh at misogynistic jokes.
The stories of even the most feminist men show us that we need new relationships post-adolescence to learn about sex and gender.
A friend once saw his female classmate get groped by another student, but his friends treated the episode like it was something to celebrate, an act of valour. The woman didn’t know how to react, smiling awkwardly. Another friend told me how his all-boys group has always bonded through ogling women together, sharing sexual jokes and occasionally, stalking women.
Men who have female friends are not necessarily learning better lessons. One such man described how having many female friends meant that other men constantly asked him if he ever managed to get lucky with the ladies. Running away from these conversations simply isn’t possible, so men feel they must join in or call others out – and calling it out is hard.
Our personal evolution does not mean that our personal hypocrisies have ended. They can never completely leave, given our conditioning. We may never have actually assaulted a woman, but our relationships are often lined up with actions and thoughts that are incongruous with our publicly stated ideologies. The best we can do is to be aware of them, own up and change. No #MeToo post by a woman is complete without a man who writes #IDidItToo. This time, not for pride or valour.