The masters are being branded now. Pubescent labels like dirty old man reduce the legitimacy of valid arguments to vibrator whirrs. Every few months some heads roll. Is it important to get the big guys when sexual slavery is rampant at home? It may be an uncomfortable idea, but it is the slave who empowers the master.
Superficially, the position is virtuous ? the bad guy is using his power to torment a woman. This is often the fact. It is in the realm of crime. But if we read the commentators, one is forced to wonder whether the subliminal idea is not really against the slave rather than against slavery.
While the IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is already in prison and being tried, the verdict passed against author Philip Roth by a judge is puerile. He has been awarded the Man Booker International Prize for his contribution to fiction. One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, author and founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, did not agree with the others. Not only did she state that he is no writer, but her literary put-down is rather pat: “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
Let us digress a bit. Is literature not replete with genres? What about feminist writing that often berates men, and from a certain perspective is justifiable? Male, and some women, writers do explore sexuality. It may be titillating, but it depends on how it is received as much as how it is given. Roth may have his exhibitionistic streak, but he certainly would not have imagined that he’d be sitting on the face of a feminist and not allowing her to breathe. He had said in an interview a while ago, though, “I was experimenting with excess. You know what that’s like? I just wondered how far I could go, and I discovered what my limit was.”
Roth and Callil are, interestingly, both being circumscribed by limits. They are catering to an audience and are slaves to different kinds of plaudits. Roth, despite his former wife’s indictment of him trying to get too friendly with his daughter’s friend, used him as raw material to write a memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House. She criticised his attitude to women as being “self-involved, all-controlling misogynist”. Considering that she was the abused person, she managed to brand the ‘master’.
There is this portion in ‘The Dying Animal’ where Roth examines the conflict of men and their ‘playgirls’: “These girls with old gents don’t do it despite the age?they’re drawn to the age, they do it for the age. Why? In Consuela’s case, because the vast difference in age gives her permission to submit, I think. My age and my status give her, rationally, the license to surrender, and surrendering in bed is a not unpleasant sensation. But simultaneously, to give yourself over intimately to a much, much older man provides this sort of younger woman with authority of a kind she cannot get in a sexual arrangement with a younger man. She gets both the pleasures of submission and the pleasures of mastery.”
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As responsible members of society we would certainly object to exploitation, but should it be to the exclusion of the psychology of the ensemble cast, where between the master and the slave ? interchangeable definitions not only in a sexual situation but also as a psychological idea ? there is the social ethos that forms the bulky middle?
You go to a restaurant, and the waitresses are in skimpy clothes. Receptionists in most public institutes are expected to look good and smile. The same applies to flight attendants. These professions understand that men think with their phalluses and even the wives’ club often keeps quiet as mistresses flaunt stained blue dresses and G-strings. Advertisements blatantly use women as ploys for high-end products, where the product and the woman become indistinguishable.
The service industry has created indelible images and that is the reason men’s fantasies include women dressed as nurses or maids. If we look at the maid in the larger context of a ‘carer’ and include women in almost all positions that are considered as catering to a boss, then dependency has to be factored in.
Did the IMF chief abuse his power or did his hormones take over? If it is the latter, then who is the slave? He took it for granted that his victim’s job as chambermaid was to service him. Part of this attitude springs from the manner in which such industries operate. Most hotels send their staff to ask about ‘evening service’ and it is not always to fluff up the pillows and leave a chocolate on the bed.
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In India, we have the recent case of actor Shiney Ahuja who was arrested for raping his maid. In a twist that is typical of our society, he became a celebrity after the episode and claimed he was victimised because of his fame. His innocence is based on the logic of “Why would he do that to a maid when he could get anyone?” At one point he mentioned that it was consensual, which completely negates the argument of ‘why a maid’. Strauss-Kahn too has said it was consensual.
This is a serious matter but there is some cause for amusement. Are we to understand that the chattel’s permission is sought regarding whether she would like to cohabit with her master? It imbues the scenario with an egalitarian hue. In fact, there are several instances where such women are bought over. It is seen as a benediction and the symbiotic aspect clearly indicates the nurturing element.
Arnold Schwarzenegger split with his wife of 25 years. During his marriage, he had an affair with a long-time housekeeper. Mildred Patricia Baena has disappeared since he revealed that he is the father of her 13-year-old son. It was a secret and she has named her ex-husband as the parent. So, why did Arnie come out? There are reports that his wife Maria Shriver forced him to. An attorney has said, “It seems to me that he has gratuitously embarrassed her. This should greatly enhance settlement negotiations.” Is the embarrassment emotional or social?
In a more plebeian example, a man I knew about in Karachi regularly scoured the streets looking specifically for domestic helpers. It was known to his small circle and when they ribbed him about it, his response suggested that he believed his actions were democratic as well as feminist!
This case reveals that while he thought he was satisfying his lust, there is also the possibility that due to his advancing years he would not be put to test for his sexuality. The women were non-threatening and it imbued him with a halo in the mirror. He regaled his small audience with stories not realising that he was an object of pity: The master who had no choice.
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Whether we like to admit it or not, the wheels of sex get rusted by guilt. The Immaculate Conception has locked itself in the imagination, irrespective of the faith people come from or believe in. Slavishness is associated with hard work, sweat and an unclean demeanour. The servant who lives among filth is supposed to clean the environs of the master. This gets manifested in the ‘sinful’ act being performed by or with an unclean person, therefore making two negatives into a positive.
Strauss-Kahn’s hotel chambermaid talked about spitting out after being compelled to perform oral sex. It is a potent symbol of rejection of slavery, of going down. This image has been orally transmitted. However, photographs of the man who would be president of France show him handcuffed and dishevelled. Such bondage wear and demeanour are also part of sado-masochistic fantasy and adventurism. Here, it is a display of the pornography of shame. The degenerate old man gets his come-uppance by virtuous society as virago, with apologies to Philip Roth’s nemesis.
The empowerment of the slave is most manifest sexually when it is not forced, although the element of covert coercion is always present. The concept of the demoness who casts a spell does lend itself to an equitable scrutiny. This applies to instances that are stamped and sealed with marriage, too. April-December alliances are often portrayed as an Elektra Complex, but inherent in them is also power-powerless jugglery where depending on circumstance the powerful can become powerless and the powerless gains power. It is a non-monetary barter; the financial relationship remains conformist with master keeping slave.
The Anglo-Indian community is based on the association of the Englishman with local women. While the summer capitals were spruced up for the seldom visiting memsaabs, the officers of the British government were often enamoured of and took to the exotic women who worked for them. Some of these alliances resulted in marriage. Even when they did not, it was not viewed as conquest. The women realised that the local community was far more stifling with its hierarchy. Here, it was a pure boss-chattel transaction, answerable to no one else. The employer’s past became her past with sustained memory.
This can have a negative impact in the contemporary privacy-as-exhibit culture. The master’s misdemeanours may be overlooked for the larger good if he is a public figure but the woman is seen as enslaver due to the television appearances, magazine stories and sometimes book deals.
On the rare occasion when a man admits that he has fathered a child, the libertine mutates into the chaste by the simple expedient of him having canonised the clitoris.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/