I’m distinctly uncomfortable with the phrase ‘sex scandal’. The idea that sex is scandalous is deeply archaic. It’s strange to stumble across this phrase every now and then in newspapers and gossip columns. It was even stranger to see it with regard to Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s convener Hardik Patel this week, when a video of Patel undressing, having an intimate conversation and appearing to have sex with a woman was leaked online. Right wing supporters on the Internet and offline jumped at the opportunity to shame him for, you know, having pre-marital sex. I expected no less of them. Patel’s party supporters, along with Congress supporters, retorted that the video had been leaked by the BJP ahead of the Gujarat assembly elections on December 9. If true, I expect no less of them either.
But what surprised me above all else was how so many people on social media supported the idea that Patel needs to be left alone – hey, all the guy did was have sex. This sense and sensibility, while welcome, was also startling. When was the last time you saw a public figure being supported when caught in a media ruckus of a leaked sex tape or private photos?
What strikes me as even odder is how thoroughly unapologetic Patel has been able to be about the issue. Not once did he have to show that he was ashamed or apologetic of just the topic of a controversy about his sex life. He was understandably angry and, initially, furiously claimed that the first video was fake. He told the Times of India, “Dirty politics has started now. You can defame me but it will make no difference. I will consult my lawyers and file a complaint soon against perpetrators of this sex CD.” Since then, four more videos of Patel have leaked. He has not commented on their authenticity yet. What he didn’t have to do, though, was pull the strings of public sentiment with sadness, regret or a traumatized demeanor. Something a female public figure would never have the luxury of forgoing.
Back in 2007, when a video leaked of actor Kareena Kapoor and then-boyfriend actor Shahid Kapoor kissing, media outlets wagged some mighty fingers at her. They almost forgot there was a man in the, err, moving picture. She refused to back down from the onslaught of comments about her sex life. She didn’t indulge any personal questions but refused to pay it coy and shy, as was expected of her.
A year after this incident, she was attacked again with a leaked fake MMS video of her stripping. This time, she didn’t even dignify questions about it with a response.
More recently in July 2013, Katrina Kaif also chose to stayed mum when pictures of her holidaying with actor Ranbir Kapoor, whom she was in a relationship with at that point, were published without their permission in Stardust magazine. The controversy surrounding the pictures was that she was in a bikini and was shown cuddling with Kapoor on a beach in Ibiza, Spain. For two weeks, she was hounded with merciless questions about her relationship with Kapoor, with no sympathy for the distress the invasion of her privacy might be causing her. The buzz surrounding the pictures grew too loud for Kaif to ignore, even if boyfriend Kapoor decided to remain tight-lipped about the situation. She released a statement in August, saying, “I am writing this to say that I feel most upset, distressed and invaded at my pictures published in a film magazine (and which were carried by other media). The pictures were taken while I was on holiday by someone who, in an act of cowardice, has shot without permission and then used the pictures for commercial gain.”
Unlike Patel, Kaif had to be the defeated victim who was visibly distressed with the invasion of her privacy. It was only after she established that she was upset about the controversy that questions about her personal life appeared to subside. She wasn’t spared sympathy till she had to play her card of personal distress. In all this, it’s hard to imagine that she could have been a ‘loud’ woman shouting down folks for violating her space. She had to follow a traditional narrative of being a sanskaari victim, instead of raising her voice.
So what happens if a woman in the public eye does raise her voice? Or decides to not really care about the chatter surrounding details of her personal life being leaked and discussed online? Well, just look at Tamil singer and actor Andrea Jeremiah.
In July 2012, leaked pictures of Jeremiah kissing music director Anirudh Ravichander went viral. Tamil fans called her a ‘sleaze’ and claimed that she’d coerced him – since she was older to him by five years. However, even after a week Jeremiah neither raged nor played it coy. In August she confirmed that the pictures were genuine and that she wasn’t sorry about the relationship. The public reactions didn’t bother her in the slightest, according to reports. In fact, she spoke about her relationship with ease, saying, “Those pictures have been taken 18 months back. We aren’t ashamed of them as we shared a good relationship, but we had to let go.”
Her cold shoulder and then clapback to the controversy response didn’t sit too well with many. At a friend’s wedding last year, I overheard some young women discussing their favourite Tamil actors, when one of them said she disliked Jeremiah because she was “too defiant” and not “Tamizh penn” enough to be a popular actor – she does not conform to public opinion. People like these are still furious that Jeremiah refused to be bothered by their knowledge of her actual romantic life. Her indifference sent the message that public sentiment doesn’t actually have much power over her. And isn’t that what bothers bullies the most?
Kim Kardashian can certainly testify to this too. When her sex tape leaked in 2007, she was objectified, slut-shamed, body-shamed, fetishized. Her public image was tossed around in stand-up comedy punchlines to no end. One man even carried screenshots from her sex tape on a flag to her husband, rapper Kanye West’s concert at the 2015 Glastonbury festival. But the smiles started falling off people’s faces when Kardashian started taking control of her own public narrative – she actually used her increased publicity to launch products, her own TV show, mobile apps and music videos. To this day, many in the public further condemn her for not showing enough contrition back then.
The world did not end for Kapoor, Jeremiah and Kardashian when intimate pictures and videos of their private lives became public. Neither does it end for Hardik Patel. But the difference is that Patel doesn’t even have to pretend like something catastrophic has happened to him to gather public sympathy.
For these women, it’s not sex but shame that’s used to establish power over them. In Monica Lewinsky’s moving TED Talk, she talks about how public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. She also adds, “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”
Women like Jeremiah and Kardashian did. People still don’t like that they did. Fortunately, that’s not these women’s burden to bear.
Co-published with Firstpost