Most of us are taught not to discuss sex and the sexual harassment that we face, or to then use elusive language to talk about it. In fact, we do not even have simple everyday words or phrases to describe acts of harassment and assault. For instance, in Telugu we say “nannu edipinchadu” (“he made me cry“) or “nannu ibbandi pettadu” (“he made me uncomfortable“) instead of saying “he sexually harassed me“. So many of us face the repercussions of this silence, elusiveness, and lack of language in our lives.
I was molested on Hyderabad city buses numerous times, but there is one experience that I can never forget. I was 19 years old and was returning home from college. An older man was pushing his way through the women in the crowded bus. While brushing past me, he put his finger into my private parts over my clothes. I was infuriated and yelled “What are you doing?”, unable to express myself any other way.
He asked me mockingly “What did I do?” He repeated the question a few times, challenging me to spell out what he did. I froze, unable to handle the attention from the other passengers. I tried to hold back my tears. I felt utterly shamed and humiliated. More than his act of molestation, it’s the shame that keeps this memory alive. I was infuriated that I as a victim felt shamed and the abuser walked away victorious. At that moment I realized that this abuser had some power over me, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.
After a few years I began to recognize what this power is: the abuser enjoyed this power because it is unacceptable for women to mention anything sexual in public. Women are not allowed to describe abuse because there is sexual language involved in that description. If we use it, we risk being considered ‘loose’ and ‘characterless’ and might be punished further. Men on the other hand are not shamed for using sexual language and many feel that it’s their right to use sexual language online and in person to ‘put women in their place’. A senior Bollywood director (who started his career in Tollywood) did something similar when, reacting to her criticism of his movie, he told a middle-aged woman activist that he will cast her in his next adult film.
The way to change this unequal situation is for women to own sexual language, talk about sex and name sexual abuse openly. If we start talking, it will be one way in which we can challenge the power imbalance that men enjoy over women, and more particularly, abusers enjoy over victims. But it is not easy to use such language, because the consequences for such rebellions are victim-blaming, slut-shaming and sometimes further abuse.
A few years ago, I spoke on the need for sex education in high schools in a television discussion. Soon after, I got a phone call from an unknown number. A strange man at the other end asked me if I wanted to have sex with him. He assumed that because I believed that sex education should be imparted in high schools, I was in need of sex, that too from a stranger! This call deterred me from mentioning anything related to sex on television again.
Recently, we witnessed an aspiring actress-turned-whistleblower use sexual language to describe sexual abuse and we are seeing its effects. On April 19, Telugu actress Sri Reddy, now famous for raising the issue of sexual harassment in the film industry, called ‘casting couch’ in the industry, was on live television. She released pictures of herself with an alleged abuser. People reacted to the photo saying that pictures looked like they were both in a relationship. Sri Reddy then looked at the camera and told the viewers to take their children away from the screen. She then told the people questioning her that even though they were in a relationship at some point, she was forced to perform sexual acts she did not want. She said “who wants to suck his nasty thing” and expressed how she felt violated and traumatized.
This was an important moment on Telugu television and for the discourse on sexual violence in the Telugu public sphere. She told young and old women watching television in her own way that their partners cannot force them to do sexual acts they don’t want to do and consent is required in every situation and relationship; that women have a right to say no and describe abuse for what it is. She took away the power of the abuser by using sexually explicit language on live television. She refused to be shamed for being abused and instead shamed the abuser. She sought justice by normalising the use of sexually explicit language to describe the abuse she faced.
This was not the only time Sri Reddy used sexually explicit language in public. The most talked about incident happened on March 23, 2018, when Sri Reddy was interviewed by a YouTube channel. It proceeded like an interrogation. The interviewer initially asked her if she gave a “commitment” (Telugu film industry’s word for sexual favors in exchange for work) for her earlier movies. She said “No”. But he repeated the question three more times as if he was not convinced, as if it was unbelievable that she got the part based on her talent. To her claim that she gained attention for her film “Aravind 2”, his pat answer was that she got recognized only for her ‘bold exposing’ (i.e., revealing clothes). His smugness was evident. He had put her in her place, presenting her as a sleazy actress aspiring for a chaste heroine role that she did not deserve!
At this point she said something that became hugely controversial. She asked him “Why can’t I expect lead roles?”, “What do I lack?”, “Didn’t you see my videos on FB?” and “Meeku 90 degrees avvale?” which translates to “did you not have an erection?”. The interviewer was flustered and tried to change the subject. She went after him a few more times, demanding an answer to her question. The hurt interviewer responded with more sexism and said her face
“was not good enough to be cast in a lead role”. She smiled and threatened to walk away from the interview.
The term “90 degrees” is now used everyday by several people, mostly men, to shame Sri Reddy and harass her online. They say that she doesn’t deserve to speak against sexual harassment because she uses sexual language on air. The term is mentioned numerous times in YouTube comments sections, in an attempt to shame and silence her.
This interview was a significant moment, when a woman could own up her sexuality and refuse to be shamed and refuse to be powerless. Sri Reddy refused to conform to the norm of a woman who must avoid sexual language at all costs. Even more remarkably, she used sexual language to silence the sexism directed at her!
Equally importantly, she reversed the gaze onto men as consumers of sexually explicit images and visuals. Even after many women came out with horrendous stories of the casting couch, the current focus in the Telugu media is still on the young actresses’ culpability—their willingness to give sexual favors and to ‘expose’ in films.
There is hardly any discussion on how the ‘casting couch’ has become a norm, or on the men asking for sex in exchange for work, or the normalised culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies. There is little focus on how filmmakers sexualise women, making ‘exposing’ a necessary part of the job.
By asking the interviewer whether he was aroused by her photos and videos, Sri Reddy brought the male consumerist demand for sexualisation back into the conversation.She pointed, through her question to the interviewer, to the vast audience for such images, which consumes them and then shames women for ‘exposing’. In this way, she pointed sharply to the hypocrisy of the audience which does not acknowledge its role in sexualisation and exploitation of women in the industry.
Her naming of the sexual acts has pushed the conversations on sex and sexual violence forward by a decade for the Telugu audience. When more women from the film industry came out and named one man who abused several of them, the anchor on a prime time television program used the term ‘blow job’ to describe how this man horribly abused several women and minor girls to overcome his erectile dysfunction. The use of this term in Telugu public sphere would have been unimaginable a few days ago!
Sri Reddy proved that using sexual language can be an effective way to show a mirror to men who shame women. Lots of haters (mostly men) are reacting with sexually violent and abusive language against Sri Reddy. This violence and shaming is relentless, but she remains undeterred. Many of these men seem to mourn the loss of their power to shame women by, and prevent them from, using sexually explicit language.
Using sexually explicit language is not possible for all women and often has disturbing consequences. It doesn’t get celebrated or have any societal approval. Some people want to distance themselves from her fight against the ‘casting couch’ and sexual exploitation because she uses ‘vulgar’ language. But I believe that Sri Reddy is liberating us from the vulgarity of male entitlement to language and bodies.