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Messed Up: Study Says Films May Make Women Think Stalking Is Actually ‘Romantic’!

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This just in: women have been culturally coded to accept uncomfortable advances from men who have been culturally coded to make said advances.

I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You’, a new study by the University of Michigan, has confirmed what many of us have always felt – that creepy, stalkerish behaviour celebrated in romcoms is literally a threat to women’s safety. Through the study, Julia R.Lippman “found that women who watched films featuring persistent romantic pursuit […] were more likely to accept so-called stalking myths than those who watched films depicting frightening male aggression […] or benign nature documentaries.”

TV Told Us This Was Okay

What’s basically going on is this – the visual cues women receive, from almost an entire entertainment sub-genre, makes them view persistent invasions of their privacy and an utter negation of their choices, preferences and comfort as normal, desirable even. There is a tradition in TV and film, where men who won’t let up are not portrayed as relentless scumbags who care solely about their personal gratification, but are rewarded by the narrative, when ‘the guy gets the girl.’ Everybody swoons at the thought of Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, but how many of us remember Cameron James (baby Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plotting and scheming and sneaking into bedrooms? And Ted Stroehmann in There’s Something About Mary, who hired an investigator to track his love interest’s movements? And we can’t forget Edward Cullen – the crème-de-la-creep of teenage romance – who enters Bella’s room uninvited to watch her sleeping. When this is what most ‘love stories’ look like, too many girls accept the unacceptable as a testament to their own worth. If a man is devoting too much time and attention to you, you must be winning at womanhood.

Scene from the movie “Raanjhana”. The main male character in the film aggressively stalks the female lead for many years. She eventually falls in love with him.

Women’s Responses To Threats Have Been Rewired

So what if such a pattern is established? Both parties are getting what they want. It can’t actually do any damage, right? Without getting into the intricacies of why it’s never okay for a woman (or anybody, really) to hang on the approval and opinions of others, let’s talk about why this pattern is a problem.

A bizarre incident came to light earlier this month, when an Indian man inspired by the film Darr (in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a psychopath in love) enlisted the help of four others to kidnap a woman, and then postured as her ‘hero’ in order to win her over. The example may seem a bit extreme, but just as the kidnapper took his cues from popular media, so too do many women. Positive depictions of creeps actually attenuate a woman’s instinct and capacity for risk assessment, and when you are incapable of picking up on danger signs, it’s so easy to fall into an arrangement that is bad for you psychologically, emotionally and physically.

But movies don’t celebrate obsessive, possessive behaviour on a whim – they happen to reflect our own attitudes. When we tell young girls that the boy in class who hits her and calls her names actually has a crush on her, we are setting her up for a life of silently endured abuse. Your partner isn’t “taking an interest in your life” when he needs to access all your private accounts online. Your partner isn’t “cute when he’s jealous” when he flies into a rage the minute you talk to/about another man. Your partner isn’t “committed to your relationship” if he insists on following you everywhere and disrespecting your space. Your partner is not “good at taking the lead” when he issues you ultimatums and small threats. And your partner sure as hell isn’t “good to you” if everything he gives you comes with strings attached. I say “he” because creepy men are the focal point of this study, but really this could be literally any relationship with a partner(s) of any orientation(s), and none of it should be tolerated.

It’s Time We See Creepy Behaviour For What It Is

There are early signs of abusive behaviour that we’ve been told so often to ignore, but this study shatters a lot of those myths for us. Do poorly made romcoms lead to domestic violence? Obviously that’s an oversimplification of what Lippman and her team have identified through their work. But it is important to be aware of the values that are constantly disseminated to us via multiple channels –the movies we watch, what we hear from parents and peers, or even the way the criminal justice system responds to individual cases of harassment.

Many of us have rallied behind the one billion women who will face sexual violence in their lifetime. Names like Jyoti Singh and Emma Sulkowicz have moulded public (and private) opinion on the same matter. And more and more artists or makers of cultural products are responding appropriately to the demand that they be sensitive and intelligent in their portrayals of not just women (we’re through with arm candy and trophy wives) but people of all gender alignments. Given that cultural products like film are so widely (and sometimes unthinkingly) consumed, the University of Michigan study is giving us the opportunity to deepen our engagement with the issue and strategize better in the days to come.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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