Intimate Sexism and Silence: Talking about some of the hardest things to talk about

We’re still lacking a language in which to talk honestly about the forms of everyday sexism different women face in families, intimate relationships, and friend groups. As feminists we need to learn to take everyday struggles seriously, break out of the polite silence of the “private” sphere and be frank about the roles we ourselves play. This essay muses on just why it’s so hard to even talk about sexism and silence when it’s happening very close to home.

Family, lovers, friends: there are some spaces where everyone fights. Regardless of how explicit one is out in the streets, all women fight gendered fights in their homes, with their partners, and with their friends. These clashes with the people one loves, cares for, respects, or simply can’t get rid of are some of the hardest in the world. To refer to these, we use the shorthand intimate sexism.

Unlike many other political struggles, issues around intimate forms of gendered violence and abuse are not just hard to resolve but hard to even put into legitimate words. The discomfort comes both from the violence of the experiences themselves and from the reactions we’ve seen people have to them. If society does in general not take kindly to the victims of sexual or sexist abuse, things get even harder when the perpetrators are close to the victim. The usual reactions range from disbelief – “your father/mother/boyfriend/mentor could not do such things, they’re good/respected/our kind of people” – via advice about forgetting it all – “dealing with it will be harder than moving on” – to outright blaming of the survivor. In some cases, as with marital rape or parents “disciplining” their children, many people do not even acknowledge that anything at all happened.

And unlike when talking about sexual violence perpetrated by strangers, other types of shame and sadness – partly psychological, partly socially pretentious – also play a role in the difficulty of intimate sexism. It’s about guilt by association. We’re ashamed of violent people close to us, because we feel it reflects badly on us. Among privileged people this can have classist, casteist or simply snobbish undertones. For everyone, it would be easier if one’s parents or partners could just be a bit cooler.

We’re also ashamed of our own hypocrisy. We’re ashamed that we can’t help but let people around us keep many of their bigoted ways and (what’s worse) often rightly fear that we might also be partly participating in upholding some of the same power structures as they are. These compounded difficulties stemming from trauma, from not being listened to, from having to face painful spots in one’s own psyche forces most conversations about intimate sexism to be covert or quiet at best.

Even then it’s not all. With people close to us, there’s yet another level of worry. It’s not just that they claim to love us; we often love them. When speaking with people about the difficulties of intimate sexism, the fear of hurting others – physically or psychologically – is a recurrent theme. Because of the inequality of power, even thinking critical thoughts about fathers, mothers or lovers can make people feel awful. “How could we? After all they’ve done for us?”. Even when victimized or close to the victim, women often choose to focus on managing others’ feelings in order to cause as little further “pain” as possible. This, of course, can be a highly effective form of coping or problem solving, but how does one differentiate between the need to not cause further hurt and the need to actually address the original issue? Many survivors find themselves worrying about what will happen to the person close to you if due process is gone through. The pain or shame of the perpetrator is made more important than the crime and excuses are often made. It’s common for people stop themselves from pursuing justice “because he’s a good person otherwise”. We need to talk about the difference between genuine empathy and the social conditioning of women to always prioritize other people’s (particularly men’s) feelings.

Collective issues made private 

The different sites of intimate sexism have their particular power mechanisms, but are all battlegrounds where the private and the public overlap. Problems in families, romantic relationships and friendships are often talked about in terms personal psychology while actually being about much more than just who we are “in private”. This personalization of the issues makes people unable to separate their politics (something that can be changed) from their imagined core selves, which often leads to immense defensiveness. As we all know, intimate relationships can get loaded with guilt, and filled with selfish forms of love and a destructive pining for approval. Yet being a bad parent, lover or partner – something that sounds so personal – is not about some metaphysical failure of your soul, but about expressing toxic or inconsiderate, socially conditioned patterns of thought or behavior. This does not make it “okay” to do so, but should help us put the blame where it should be: It’s not just your mom who has failed, it’s the entire idea.

This shift from individual to collective failure is important in order to allow those who have to live with intimate sexism the release of being vocally angry or hurt. Currently, “hurt” is a highly politicized and emotional concept, often used by the perpetrators of violence to shut down any form of criticism. “You’re hurting me” – while a painful statement – should not be a legitimate response to justified criticism. The struggle towards equality will hurt those who are against it. Moving from the individual to the collective will help us find ways to separate between criticism and the lack of caring. We need to be okay with being public about “bad”, impolite thoughts about our loved ones. As a feminist friend said about her patriarchal father, “I’ll be sad when he dies but the world will be a better place when he’s not around”. Sometimes, that is the case and there’s no use lying about it.

For most people, probably nothing is as convoluted as our relationships with our parents. “I think the toughest part of feminism is having to go back home and talk to your family”, another friend said. In a decent world, all adult members would have an equal stake in the family and things would be decided democratically. Yet as it is now, the idea of even adult children being allowed to have any demands at all on their parents seems almost utopian. Parents are free to emotionally extort their children as much as they want, while asking them to not be sexist in return is considered “too much”. Patriarchal inequality, in most Indian families, is so rampant that it doesn’t make sense to say it’s something that happens, it is what the family is. The whole institution is just sexist to the core. But, because of the cultural pressure to “respect” ones elders, combined with the seemingly universal angst people feel in front of their family, it’s a very hard situation to start any negotiations from. For some feminist women, siblings and cousins are a godsend, for others they’re just an extension of the older generation.

Lovers and friends should ideally be free from all of this because we “choose” them (how freely or unfreely is up for debate). We haven’t been trained to listen to them since we were infants. There should also be less of an obsession with protecting an imagined “good” name. Yet, reality is very far from perfect. Often even people who seem good at first turn out to be sexists at heart. Boyfriends guilt trip, shame and abuse in more or less subtle ways. They can’t clean or cook but do know how to mansplain and ignore your clitoris. Because decent men are almost impossible to find, many women have come to expect so little. “He’s good enough, less bad than others” is the sad mantra of many heterosexual relationships. A certain type of “progressive” men do one good thing and then want praise for it. Because expectations and the onus for instigating change are so incredibly skewed, demanding actual equality and non-violence becomes almost impossible.

Friend groups, the seemingly least guilt-ridden and most democratic of the three sites of sexism, are not easy either. Bros and banter is one thing, the dynamics of information another. Bad things that happen between two people, whether partners or friends, often gets shared unequally among the larger group. We meet situations like these with tragic regularity: Your friend did something abusive to your other friend and now you’re trapped between them, not knowing what to do. Your best friend’s partner is awful but for some reason she loves him and now you don’t know who to invite to your dinner. The person you’ve always known and trusted suddenly does something bad and now your reality is crumbling. Friend groups are often the bedrock one stands on – when sexism happens here it’s in a way perhaps even worse than elsewhere, precisely because it wasn’t supposed to happen here.

Despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we still tend to think that we and the people we know well are “in the same boat”. We think that all parents, lovers, friends are somehow miraculously not aiming to hurt us, no matter how much they actually do hurt us. “They’re our parents, our partners, our people” – we think – “ they think they’re doing what’s best for us”. We’re not denying that shared political interests might very well be the case for families, couples and friends, but it is time to drop the idea of this being a god-given fact of life. The interests of a sexist parent or boyfriend and those of a feminist daughter or girlfriend are not the same, nor can they be peacefully reconciled. This does not mean that non-sexist situations cannot exist, but that pragmatism and mutual work – not blind allegiance – is needed.

Finding public voices

India, in many ways, is the promised land of open secrets. There is so much that we cannot talk about because it’s too dangerous, too damning. The move towards collectivization of “private matters” is thus not just about depersonalizing the guilt, it is about finding safety in numbers. The more we talk, the easier it will become to find further voices for issues we’ve encountered a thousand times in private. We need an outpouring of truths everyone already knows.

In this essay and in a series of interviews to be published in the coming months, we’re trying to do just that. During the past year, we’ve had the privilege to have extensive talks about everyday struggles and lived activism with some twenty-five young feminists from seven major Indian cities. Their voices are exasperated, triumphant, practical, confused, melancholic, and often wickedly funny – and will hopefully provide a glimpse into just how much people have already done. For us, this is an encouragement to go onwards and demand more. Listening to feminists can provide a guide to specific situations in specific times and places. Taken together, conversations like these would offer community, comfort and practical support.

Stories and not abstractions are needed, because even extensive training in the theoretical languages of feminism doesn’t necessarily help one find the right words when confronted with those who hurt you despite claiming to love you. It’s one thing to know what one “should” do, another to actually live through it. This, in some ways, means that being schooled as a feminist might make things even harder emotionally, because one gets trapped between one’s core beliefs and the inability to put them into practice. It’s an awful feeling not knowing how to fix the most immediate of issues.

While highlighting individuals’ voices, listening to people would – taken together – serve as a reminder for that ideas do not belong to any one person or group. Everyone who’s ever gotten anywhere has been lucky for having had the chance to benefit from and grow with the people around them. Today, feminism can be made into a career like any other, which is troubling. Rejecting careerism, authorship and ownership of ideas should be a basic part of good feminist praxis. If people’s problems should be collectivized, so should whatever rewards.

Urging people to speak up does not mean that one should devalue the importance of covert work. Important underground resistance has always existed among women everywhere, whether we’ve recognized it or not. All-female, secret and safe spaces have been, and continue to be, incredibly important sources of support, subtle subversion, and laughter in situations where speaking out loud is just too difficult or dangerous. In a lot of cases, the best course of action is to make the people think you’re doing what they want while in practice trying to twist the situation into what you want. This sneaky pragmatism, a kind of gendered jugaad, is an art form in itself. Our point is not to force open anything that someone genuinely wants to keep secret. What we need is to be able to distinguish between what we really want (or need) to keep secret, and what we’ve just been conditioned to stay silent or complacent about.

But together with continued secret solidarity, a change is needed in the discourses around the private and public spheres themselves. For most of those suffering from intimate sexism, the moralistic imperative to ”keep intimate matters private” has been a very powerful one. It is powerful enough to let bad people off the hook, powerful enough to put the blame not the perpetrators but the ones breaking the silence. Starting with ourselves, we need to slowly work towards a culture where a person cannot hide behind the safety of intimacy or privacy. People around us need to know that all sexist words or actions of theirs can and will be made public when needed. Feminism has spoken about how the “personal is political” for fifty years, yet we’re still much better at practicing this in abstraction or when commenting on other people’s lives. When it comes to ourselves, it’s just so much harder. We can no longer risk being a part of this.

“We” are not well

As urban middle-class feminists, we particularly need to talk about what happens “among us” – people invested in gender rights, the academically trained activist group. Violence, silencing, shaming are not only the tactics of ancient relatives, unwoke boyfriends or others who do not “know better”. Sometimes it’s hard to raise your voice even in feminist or other progressive circles and movements.

Politically aligned friend- and activist groups have their own (and perhaps even less talked-about) mechanisms of silence. As elsewhere, cultures of hierarchy, entitlement and “respect” run very deep. Unlearning these will take a huge amount of further work. Right now, “people like us” let a lot of people get away with a lot of bad things because of uncertainty, seniority, thinking that things are worse elsewhere, a real fear of retribution, as well as a strange corruption of the imperative to “not criticize activist spaces in public”.

It is time we’re forced to reckon with our own sexism and victim blaming. Even supposedly very progressive people still struggle to talk about sexual harassment and abuse as something criminal, to see casual sexism, infantilization, slut shaming and the rest as totally, inexcusably unacceptable – at least when it is acted out by someone considered one of “our own”. In fact – unless blatantly violent and preferably happening to someone less privileged – family matters, “troubles” in relationships, and similar are often implicitly or explicitly seen as not “worthy” enough causes for certain activists.

This double standard can be said to be a part of the larger unofficial “education” many young feminists have had: the irony of seeing our role models, teachers and peers be not just victims but also perpetrators of gendered (as well as classist, casteist and racist) aggressions in the everyday. Somewhere in our brains we’ve perhaps already grown numb and started thinking that it’s just too hard to really do anything about. Many have come to live with the reality that almost every straight feminist is seeing a sexist man. Others have seen the same person treat other “less important” people badly or call certain feminist topics frivolous. “If it’s like that with them, then what hope can one have for other kinds of people?”, one might ask.

Despite any #metoo-moment, people exploiting their positions of power continue to live with almost full impunity around us. The discrepancy between our theories of equality and the hierarchization of our actual interactions is often mind-boggling. The point of this statement is not to be content with “shaming” us or the people and movements around us, but to acknowledge things in order to actually move onwards. To try to talk honestly about our insecurities and failures would in itself be an important and radical move. Getting hurt, defensive, or alternatively stuck on fetishizing one’s own guilt helps absolutely no-one. This is why talking about the everyday is so important: it is in the deeds, words, movements, looks and touches of our most unguarded moments that our real politics come to show – not in what we write or proclaim to stand for. If we cannot live out our politics of equality in our everyday interactions then whatever abstraction we might espouse is not worth anything.



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Otso Harju is a Finnish PhD candidate in gender studies, working on feminism in middle-class Delhi families. Natha Wahlang is a linguist who works on spatial perception and language.

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