Patriarchy’s Engines: Toxic Masculinity, Desire, Sexual Violence

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Prefatory Note

Before I begin with the issues that are properly the concern of this article, I would like to make some clarifications. Firstly, with this article, I would like to present my ideological and political stand on intellectual property, which, baldly put, is that it is not, and should not be treated as, property. Intellectual production takes place on the basis of intellectual capital that is too vast to be captured in a few footnotes or references. I stand, as the expression goes, on the shoulders of giants – but on the shoulders of midgets and dwarves as well, as well as on those of millions of silent others who provided real shoulders so that I (and all the other intellectuals of diverse sizes) could undertake intellectual production. Intellectual matter, as opposed to property, belongs to the millions who facilitated its production, intellectually or otherwise. Consequently, neither do I provide references, nor do I quote authorities, although I do offer a bibliography of the readings that have influenced specifically the arguments and ideas I work out here. By the same token, I lay no claim to ownership of anything I write here; however, I do claim full responsibility to answer for what I write here. I therefore make no demand that I be acknowledged by anyone using the ideas and arguments in this article for their own intellectual or other activities; but I do wish for any critiques to be directed to me as the person responsible for presenting the ideas being critiqued. I suspect that some or much of what I have written below will be seen as controversial; particularly in such cases, I wish to claim complete and total responsibility for whatever is seen as controversial.

That said, I do also wish to acknowledge some of the thinkers whose work will be evident in what follows – partly because some of them are feminist thinkers, whose work even today remains studiedly confined to feminist, women’s, or gender studies programmes, by overwhelmingly patriarchal institutions of learning, and hence remains largely unacknowledged outside of these programmes. Using their work, as I do here, without acknowledging them, even if lay no ownership to it, would be to participate in the mainstream refusal to acknowledge the significance and pertinence of their work. Partly also because I do not wish to be accused of passing off the work of these thinkers as mine – even after I explicitly disown ownership of this work, except for being held responsible for any criticisms that may be forthcoming. Specifically then, readers will find the overwhelming (in every sense of the word) presence of the work of Andrea Dworkin (Dworkin, 1987)⁠, Laura Mulvey (Mulvey, 1975)⁠, and Susan Brownmiller (Brownmiller, 1975)⁠to some extent, on the dynamics of sexual violence. The work of Michele Barrett (Barrett, 1980)⁠, Catherine MacKinnon (MacKinnon, 1998)⁠and Raewyn Connell (Connell, 1987)⁠will also be clearly discernible. Louis Althusser (Althusser, 1995)⁠, Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci, 1971)⁠and Michel Foucault (Foucault, 1972, 2001)⁠, and behind them the looming figure of Karl Marx, complete my list of explicit indebtedness – as far as intellectual ‘giants’ go (although Jacques Lacan and Ludwig Wittgenstein also make brief appearances). My indebtedness to a large bunch of only slightly less-giant intellectuals, namely my students, current and former, is perhaps as much, if not more. They opened my eyes to the extent to which masculinities can be toxic, made me aware of the depths of embeddedness of patriarchal forces in our everyday subjectivities. Through discussions and other interactions, my students taught me about the workings of gender, as an everyday, lived reality. This piece is therefore as much for them, as by them.

However, perhaps my greatest indebtedness in understanding gender as an everyday, lived, intimate reality is to my partner, Karen Gabriel, a ‘giant’ feminist scholar herself, and my children Suyash and Samara. I have no other than the language of intimacy with which to thank them for the lessons they have given me in understanding masculinity as an intimately experienced reality. But the reason I mention these ‘other’ sources of indebtedness is to foreground the fact that working, and work, on gender often reflects a striving to adopt a stance of ‘objectivity’, ‘formality’, ‘impersonality’ – as would ostensibly befit a rigorous and disciplined study. But working on gender, is necessarily a self-reconstructive process – and an especially difficult one for heterosexual men, often with less success than desirable – and a deeply intimate one at that. (I mention the difficulty for heterosexual men not to evoke sympathy for them but to signal the reason for their resistance to this process.) To pretend that the intellectual work that this produces is somehow untouched by this process, and is simply an ‘objective’ analysis, or that it can be claimed as solely the product of my intellect, is to be intellectually and politically dishonest. This article then, is as much due to them as to anybody else.

Let us move now to the main arguments. I want to begin by clarifying specifically what I mean by ‘toxic masculinity’.

Performances of Toxic Masculinity

Masculinity can be toxic in several ways, as most women, and some men, will acknowledge. There are forms that are not inherently toxic, but can become so, e.g., retro masculinities in fashion, or competitive masculinities in sports. Then there are inherently toxic forms, e.g., chauvinistic masculinities (whether along the lines of religion, race, caste, language, age, etc). These are well-known forms of gendered social and cultural practices, primarily because they stand out as performances of masculinity in the public domain. However, they are no less real because they are deliberately ‘performed’. Their reality in fact is indistinguishable from this deliberate performance, because it is not just a performance of gender, it is simultaneously an articulation of belief and commitment to both – the specific social-cultural practice, as well as to those forms of masculinity through which those practices are articulated. Put simply, the raised bat, the fist punch in the air, the wielding of iconic weapons (the trishul, for instance, or the rifle), the cultivation of body or facial hair – all denote various ideologically loaded social phenomena as masculine, even when they are articulated by women.

The point of significance here is that, masculinity (or femininity) does not exist in isolation, but always as a qualifier of some other social-cultural phenomenon. The articulation of the latter, as well as its conditions of articulation, conversely, shape the articulation of gender too. Hence the proliferation of masculinities and femininities: theoretically, there may be as many as there are social-cultural phenomena. In practice, however, there are discernibly dominant forms of masculinity and femininity, that derive their dominance in turn from that of specific social-cultural phenomena. This is what is referred to in the literature as “hegemonic masculinity” and (less commonly) “hegemonic femininity”. Not all gender-forms (hegemonic or otherwise) need be toxic, but the dominant ones tend to be, precisely because they assert their dominance – not just over women, but over men too. Which tells us that toxicity itself is not necessarily the same everywhere and in every way, but varies with the kind of masculinity and femininity. The important question that arises here, of who is toxic, for whom, and in what ways, when we discuss gender, must however, be set aside for now, to be returned to later.

Apart from the more visible and evident gender-forms noted above, there are other, less easily discernible, more widespread, everyday, naturalised forms of masculinity that feed into, and are in turn fed by, the more performative ones noted above. These ‘naturalised’ forms are evident in widely prevalent practices such as female infanticide and foeticide; son-preference in general; the encouragement of physical violence in boys, and its discouragement in girls; encouraging girls to be receptive to (especially male) violence; the routine prioritising of men’s needs, wants and general well-being over women’s; and so on. These two kinds of (usually toxic) masculinity – the ‘performative’ and the ‘naturalised’ – are not mutually exclusive, or even separate, from each other. Rather, they function in sync to corroborate and reinforce each other, lending each other legitimacy, propriety and validity – i.e., acceptability – as much as force. Thus, for instance, the encouragement of physical violence in boys creates a violent self/other dichotomy that feeds into the articulation of chauvinisms of various kinds.

These ‘naturalised’ masculinities are also performative, and performed. The performance of these ‘naturalised’ masculinities feeds the performance of the more visible, hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities that mark the social-cultural phenomena noted above, such as the chauvinisms. However, these ‘naturalised’ masculinities are not in themselves much affected by those social-cultural phenomena. Unlike the visible, even iconic masculinities that shape, and are shaped by, those phenomena, the performance of ‘naturalised’ masculinities is shaped by (and in turn shapes) the arrangement of everyday sexual and gender relations. They thus constitute, and are constituted by, the ‘natural’ state of heteronormativity that prevails as the hegemonic arrangement of such relations, in most patriarchal societies. In such societies (today this refers to almost all societies and communities around the world) this arrangement almost always involves the oppression, exploitation and repression of women by men (albeit to varying degrees and extents, depending on class, caste, location, etc). As such, it is a coercive sexual arrangement – which is why it almost always draws on sex and violence, separately and simultaneously (again, to varying degrees and extents, and in different ways), as the means of enforcing this coercive arrangement.

The Male Gaze

The control of sex and sexuality is fundamental to this enforcement; and integral to that control is the control of women’s bodies, spaces, movements, speech and labour, by and in their relations with men. Control, by definition, requires a controller (the agent or subject of control), and a controlled (the object of control). This is possibly the simplest way to understand the logic that leads to the objectification of women in patriarchal societies. That is, in such societies, men in general (i.e., the agents of control) seek dominance over and control of women in general (i.e., the objects of control). Here, objectification takes place not just in terms of the female body that is to be controlled, or its parts; it lies in the perception of all women as a class of objects to be controlled, defined by sex. ‘Sex’, not just in the sense of ‘female sex’, but as objects for the (masculine) performance of ‘the act of sex’, colloquially referred to as ‘fucking’. This in turn explains the logic by which the ‘male gaze’ is not just about seeing, but about controlling – and expecting: the ‘male gaze’ is always an expectant one, because it always expects its object to be always controllable, and possibly also available for ‘the act of sex’. How much that expectation can be rendered into reality, in each specific instance of the gaze, is complexly dependent on multiple, intersecting and overlapping variables – caste, class, race, religion, language, age, occupation, familial relation, physical fitness, location, etc., and the ethical, moral and legal prescriptions and proscriptions effected by this play of variables. I will return to this point shortly.

Apart from these factors, there is also the crucial one of the willingness to comply (or the lack thereof) on the part of the ‘object’ of that gaze; and the willingness to use force (or the lack thereof) on the part of the gazer. The ‘object’ may resist being objectified – may, in other words, reveal the fact that she is not an object; and/or the controlling ‘subject’ may not be able or willing to overcome that resistance by force (of any kind), for whatever reason. These factors together decide the extent to and intensity with which, women’s bodies, spaces, movements, speech and labour – i.e., women’s agency and subjectivity – are regulated. But however these multiple factors may play out, in each and every instance of that gaze, and integral to it, is the calculation of the odds, the speculation on possibilities, the alertness for opportunities, that renders the gaze predatory.

This seems to imply that ‘the male gaze’ is necessarily a predatory one. It may rightly be objected that, actually, this predatoriness can vary greatly from instance to instance, depending on the playing out of all the factors we noted above; and a non-predatory male gaze may thus be entirely possible, and even actualised at different points in time. But the fact that most social perceptions, processes, structures and institutions continue to be overwhelmingly favourable towards men, at every level of social hierarchies, renders this difficult to find consistently in practice. Further, even in these instances of an apparently non-predatory male gaze, the predatoriness is (usually) not so much absent as repressed by the force of the prescriptions and proscriptions of other factors. Thus for instance, attempts – even inclinations – to control and regulate – to own – women’s agency may be deterred by factors such as superiority over men in terms of class, age, professional status, etc. – deterred, and thus repressed, but not erased. Illustratively, a male student may cast such a predatory male gaze on a (usually female) teacher; a male teacher may cast it on a (usually female) student; a male employee may cast it on his (usually female) employer; an uncle may cast it on his niece or nephew; and so on – but each of them must also repress it, because of social proscriptions against such relations. In fact, it may be argued that it is only in mutual, and mutually consensual, sexual relations that a genuinely non-predatory male gaze may be found. Even here, one must be cautious not to presume that the male in such a relationship will maintain a non-predatory male gaze in all his other relations, just because he does so in one.

The ability to build, maintain and strengthen mutuality and consensus in all their relations is not common among men (or women, for that matter, but we are here focused mainly on toxic masculinities, and hence mainly on men). This is, of course, merely an empirical observation – there is no compelling logic or necessity that determines this condition. Its consistent and continuous reproduction and sustenance as patriarchy may give it the appearance of inevitability, if not necessity, but it is not a historical or material necessity – at best, it is the ideologically reiterated appearance of necessity. But apart from this fact – that the dice are loaded in favour of men, in such masculine hegemonies – another factor is the nature of predation itself. One aspect of predation is the calculation of and speculation on possibilities and opportunities, that we noted earlier; another that is as important to understand predation, especially sexual predation, is the quality of covetousness – of claim, acquisitiveness and proprietorship – inherent to it. Thomas Harris, in his novel, The Silence of the Lambs, has the character Hannibal Lecter say, ‘How do we begin to covet? We begin by coveting what we see every day.’ This insight allows us to differentiate covetousness from desire. It tells us that we covet that which is always before us, but which we cannot – or more precisely, should not – have, however strong our desire for it. The covetousness of sexual predation thus results in a tension within patriarchal formations, between, on the one hand, the almost gravitational pull towards dominance of hegemonic masculinities, and, on the other, the possible obstacles and resistance to the actualisation, the performance, of those masculinities.

To covet, then, is to want to claim, acquire and/or enjoy something that we are not allowed to. Sexual predation looks for opportunities and possibilities to have sexual relations that are otherwise proscribed, whether by social factors or by the rejection of such a relation, i.e., its refusal by the ‘object’ of predation – or both. Sexual predation seeks to overcome the obstacles and/or resistance to having such sexual relations, thereby reaffirming the kind of hegemonic masculinity defined by sexual conquest, which is also very integral to the sustenance of patriarchies. Paradoxically, at least some of the social factors that are invoked to successfully resist such predation, also affirm these patriarchies, in promoting a benevolent face – a protectionist, rather than a predatory hegemonic masculinity. The latter is not marked by the absence of desire so much as the regulation of desire – preventing it from turning into sexual predation, in the form of the hegemonic masculinities that uphold the prescriptions and proscriptions.

Desire, in contrast to the covetousness of the male gaze, is not bound by such prescriptions and proscriptions; it is not confined by wanting to own; nor is it confined to that which is not allowed. Nor, further, is it confined to that which one encounters ‘everyday’, i.e., regularly – in fact, desire can be, and often is, for the extraordinary, even unreal. One may conceive of desire as an abstract urge, or a private experience, with no manifestation in word or deed. But this is like the idea of a ‘private language’ that Ludwig Wittgenstein critiqued, and may be critiqued in turn in the same terms: an abstract conception of desire serves little purpose for our examination of how it impacts on the practices of gender and sexuality. It may also be defined in Lacanian terms as a free flowing urge that seeks to fill a lack in the self, or to at least kill the consciousness of that lack (which, incidentally, is also the purpose of trying to fill it); or in mystical terms as a path to the complete surrender of consciousness; or in theological terms as that which can either turn us away from or towards the divine; and so on. However one chooses to define it, it is safe to argue that, while all sexual predation involves desire, not all desire is sexual predation. It is at the point when desire topples over into predation that we can see a particular kind of toxic masculinity taking shape. The question that arises here is, What is this point when desire turns predatory, and under what circumstances?

Desire, Predation and Sexual Violence

One answer may be in the perception and construction of desire itself, in patriarchal societies in particular, but more generally as well. It may be argued that, within such perceptions and constructions, desire requited – reciprocated – allows for a relation to emerge that is mutually acceptable, sought for, desired. Such desire is the subject of art and poetry, its beauty celebrated in song and dance. However, even when it is mutually felt, it need not be mutual in practice; the arrangements of gender and sexuality in patriarchies often ensures that the articulation and practice of even a mutually experienced desire, often takes place through unequal and uneven gender-sexual relations. Nevertheless, such mutuality as there is, suggests that it need not be as toxic as when it is enforced, i.e., when it is not mutual. Unrequited desire, in contrast, appears not just ugly and superfluous, but marks its bearer – the male agent-subject – as a failure, in the terms of the dominance-framework of hegemonic masculinities. Such a male subject may experience this failure as being, or becoming, an undesirable – a reject; this may, and often does, result in a violent attempt to overcome the rejection. It is thus perceived as base, bestial, predatory, and becomes recognisably a form of harassment, devolving often-times into sexual violence, including rape.

A major prerequisite then, for desire to be perceived as acceptable, is that it must be reciprocated. But here we are confronted by another paradox: the reciprocation of desire requires the acknowledgment of women as desiring subjects, capable of exercising their own agency and control, rather than as objects to be controlled. Within patriarchal formations, this paradox is negotiated by and through the myth that women desire to be desired. Perhaps like all myths, this one too, has some basis in truth, insofar as, under patriarchy, women can, and often do, internalise the male gaze. They then tend to objectify themselves, their agency aimed at self-regulation to ensure consonance with the demands, expectations, and stipulations of the male gaze. Thus, as long as the exercise of women’s agency is towards compliance with these demands, etc., the paradox does not escalate into a contradiction. Women’s desire in this sense, must only be to be desired; their conduct, appearance, speech, labour must all be oriented towards this. Women’s articulation of their desire for men (such as may be) cannot manifest as objectification of the latter – if it does, it can at best be in a playful manner, and that too, preferably as erotic play. It must be noted that the disposition to dominance in patriarchal formations is driven by the disposition to objectify; which means that objectification may, and does, lead to a range of possible levels of dominance – but when the level of dominance seems negligible, the objectification is almost always there. The possibility of a female gaze, that might reverse this dynamic of objectification in an equivalent of the male gaze, thus cannot be tolerated under patriarchy. This explains the comparative lack of success of porn that seeks to cater to women, by attempting to produce an equivalent female gaze in it.

Another significant factor here is the occasion, manner and means of the articulation of desire – the terms on which it is manifested, whether by men or women. Within such patriarchal structurings of relations and of aesthetics, desire is almost always steeped in a discourse of possession, of objectification, of claim and ownership. If this is mutually experienced – to the extent that the woman’s desire is explicitly the articulation of a desire to be possessed, owned – there is no contradiction, no tension. But in the absence of this mutuality, male desire is perceived, and experienced, not just as ugly and/or sleazy (of which more later) but as predatory, demanding, unwelcome. When occasioned in a context of starkly unequal power dynamics, this can become particularly disturbing, even revolting and scary, because of the possible dangers to the woman of rejecting such a profession of desire. This is the situation when, for instance, a male teacher articulates such unrequited desire for a (usually female) student; or an employer does so to a (usually female) employee; or a senior colleague does so to a (usually female) younger colleague; or a judge to a (usually female) court clerk – and so on. In each of these instances, the latter’s entire professional being – whether as student, employee, colleague, or as a clerk – is compromised by an unsolicited and undesirable personalisation. The presumption of the right to make such an intimate profession of desire is derived at least partly from the inequality in power dynamics. This is easily evident just by inverting the scenario: a male employee or student will be much more circumspect about making such professions to a female employer or teacher, precisely because of the imbalance in power. In the former scenario, the employer, or senior colleague or teacher is confident that his position of superiority will deter the ‘object’ of his attention from either resisting or reporting him; in the latter case, in contrast, the male employee, or student, must consider the possible ways in which the female ‘object’ of his interest can use her superior position and power to penalise him.

Furthermore, the profession of desire itself may actually be no more than another means – in this instance, a specifically sexual means – to reinforce the sense of dominance, and need not in itself be an expression of genuine desire. This is the case when, for instance, a group of men harass, rape and then murder a woman, such as happened with a young Dalit victim, in Hathras, at the hands of a group of upper caste youth; or in the case of Jyoti Singh, the victim of gang-rape and murder by a group of youth (albeit not upper caste) on the 16 December 2012 ; or the case of the rape and brutal torture of the tribal activist Soni Sori by men of the Indian paramilitary forces. In each of these – and in innumerable other such cases – the intent is to exercise dominance as men, through violence, specifically sexual violence. This is one significant reason why feminists have long maintained that rape, and sexual violence in general, is less about sex and more about enforcement, i.e., about the exercise of violence. At the same time, the sexual element is integral to sexual violence, especially rape. The proportion of sex to violence – whether as intent, or act, or experience – may vary; but both are integral to sexual violence.

Then, sexual violence is not just the incidental or accidental side-effect of articulating a feeling of desire, it is the expression of an already-existing intent to commit sexual violence. The perpetrators may or may not be self-aware of this intent – and indeed, in many cases they claim no awareness of such intent – but the argument here is that sexual violence cannot happen without intent – it is always intended as, and to be, sexual violation. Put differently, the intent is not separate from the act, or the experience of it. For instance, take the (hypothetical) case of a woman who alleges sexual harassment because she experiences a particular encounter with a man as sexual harassment; and independent of her word, the facts of the case also point to the encounter as one of sexual harassment. Then, even if the man claims that he was not aware of the encounter as one of sexual harassment, he is guilty of it. This means that, the plea often taken by men accused of sexual harassment or rape – that they didn’t intend it to be harassment or rape – is not valid because it is irrelevant to the fact of the harassment. Furthermore, the only way in which the perpetrator could remain unaware of committing an act of sexual harassment is if the latter is normalised, or naturalised – which, under patriarchy, is ubiquitously the case. This normalisation is an almost inevitable result of the bias towards men in patriarchal formations – almost, but not absolutely inevitable. The latent disposition in such organisations of gender and sexuality is towards asserting the dominance of men. If this is facilitated by ‘superiority’ in some of the other factors noted above – age, profession, caste, etc – then it is that much easier to tend towards asserting dominance, perhaps without even being aware of it. Now, since that dominance is sex-specific, and since dominance itself is inherently forceful – and therefore always latently if not actively violent – the assertion of dominance is experienced as, and is, sexual violence. This, in a sense, is the single most common feature of all patriarchal formations.


These may seem somewhat alarmingly sweeping generalisations. However, as I noted above, this predisposition may not always be the dominant experience of an individual man – it is not absolutely inevitable. In fact, it may be objected that the vast majority of men probably go through life without ever committing a single act of sexual violence, let alone commit such acts habitually. Whether or not this would stand empirical scrutiny is a study waiting to be conducted; but there are several other problems with this objection. Firstly, as we have seen, men can be completely unaware that they are committing acts of sexual violence, precisely because of the patriarchal biases they are steeped in. Secondly, their victims may be as steeped in these biases, and even if they realise they are being sexually violated, may believe that it is “normal”, “just”, etc. These two factors alone can account for a large number of cases of sexual violation going unreported. But there is also a third factor: the intent (conscious or unconscious) to commit sexual violence requires facilitation by a range of other factors that do not always prevail. Apart from favourable circumstances, there are almost always restrictions and proscriptions at work that deter men, whether of a legal, moral, ethical, emotional or religious nature. They may be externally imposed or self observed, or both, but the observance of these restrictions and proscriptions allow the impression that only a small percentage of men is capable of, and commits, sexual violence. That is, if most men appear not to be sexually violent, it is also because of these restrictions and proscriptions, and not because they lack the disposition – witness the innumerable cases of war-time rapes, i.e., rapes when all prescriptions and proscriptions are suspended. These restrictions and proscriptions are in place not to protect women so much as to ensure the regulation of sexuality and reproduction. And in patriarchal formations, this regulation of sexuality and reproduction is organised primarily through the control of women’s bodies, spaces, labour, etc.

In other words, if on the hand, patriarchal formations as masculine hegemonies tend to foster a sense of sexual dominance, and hence facilitate the commission of sexual violence, on the other hand, the same patriarchal formations also treat actual instances of sexual misconduct, harassment or rape as punishable offences under the law – sometimes severely so. This apparent paradox is one of the major reasons why legal measures alone are not enough to tackle the problem of sexual violence. The women’s movement in India has achieved some degree of success in the making of stringent laws against sexual violence, and in creating a greater sense of their rights and liberties amongst women; it has had less success in inculcating the same in men. More significantly, the tensions between the two contradictory tendencies noted above – to perpetrate, and to punish the perpetration – has often led to strong reactionary tendencies such as increased protectionism, and hence greater control over women, on the one hand; and, on the other, to more stringent punishments for the guilty – but precisely for that reason, less willingly conceded by (overwhelmingly male dominated) courts. In either case, the specific disposition towards sexual dominance, and hence sexual violence, remains well and firmly in place. If any attempt to dismantle patriarchal formations is to succeed, men (and women) need to acknowledge the fact that all men (including themselves) are capable of, and often do commit, acts of sexual violence – with no exceptions. But it has always been easier to either deny this fact completely, or disparage the handful of men who do get convicted of sexual violence as psychopaths – “not like us, who are controlled, self-aware, rational beings” – or both.

This seems to suggest that all men, at some time or the other, if not all the time, are predisposed to commit some kind of sexual violence, perhaps with differing combinations of intensity of the mix of sex and violence – from minimal sex and maximal violence, to maximal sex and minimal violence, to any other combination inbetween. If we were to represent it graphically, it would be as two bars on a scale:


The scale here of course makes no claims to being a quantitative calibration of the intensity of this disposition. It is merely a representation of that intensity along a hypothetical percentage scale of increasing intensity. Thus A appears to have minimal disposition to either sex or violence; while B has a strong tendency to violence, but an average tendency to sex; C has a very strong tendency to both; and D has a very strong tendency to sex but little inclination for violence.

This again appears to be an objectionably sweeping generalisation. It may be objected that there are many men who do not feel this way – and rightly so. The arguments here should not be taken to mean that there is something inherent to all men that leads to this ubiquitous engagement with sex paired with violence – I do not propose this as a necessary condition of being a man. Men can be different – that hope is profoundly necessary to dismantle patriarchy. The fact that not all men are always sexually violent indicates that they can be different. The argument here, rather, is that men under patriarchy feel this way at some time or the other, to varying degrees; and once they have felt it, they know how it feels when another man acts on that predisposition. That comprehension, if not empathy, however unwanted, however brief, however violently rejected, is their awareness of the predisposition. By contrast, women can and many possibly do, go through life without thinking once about sexually violating someone (man or woman, and in whatever mix of sex and violence); however, they all, without exception, at some time or the other, do apprehend being sexually violated (usually by a man). (A former student, whose name I cannot unfortunately remember, once observed that women have been fighting the war on terror since time immemorial, because patriarchy means terrorism for women.) So do men, and also at the hands of other men, albeit to a much less intense degree, and perhaps not all men; to the extent that they do have this apprehension, it is because these men acknowledge the predisposition to sexual violence in all men, that they see in other men – including seeing themselves as potential objects of that sexual violence.

Why they should feel that they are the objects of that disposition, rather than women, or also women, would have reasons that are too circumstantially specific to generalise here. However, whatever the reason, the fact that they would experience this as an act of dominance – i.e., a “superior masculinity” exerting dominance over an “inferior” one by violently sexualising, and thereby feminising the latter – corroborates the fact that the prevalence of this disposition in men is an effect of the organisation of gender and sexuality as masculine hegemonies in patriarchal formations. As crucially, it also corroborates the fact that sexual violence is about men exercising dominance through sexuality, whether on women, children, or other men. (This explains the formation of some particularly toxic hyper-masculinities that define themselves through the act of penetration, such that whoever or whatever is penetrated by them sexually is feminised by the sheer masculinity of their penetration: in this sense, hyper-masculinities are masculinities that create their own femininities.) In fact, the exercising of dominance in and through sexual violence is so intensely naturalised that it is one of two major reasons why it is difficult – especially for men – to acknowledge that all men are so disposed. The other reason is intimacy – usually personal and emotional, but often also intellectual, or familial, or communal – and the sense of fidelity that breeds, that can inculcate an almost blind unwillingness to acknowledge that disposition.

The Naturalisation of Sexual Violence

This naturalisation is what we see in defences of specific instances of sexual misconduct or violence that say, it “just happened”; or, “men will be men”; or, “men have needs that must be met”; or, “I am, after all, a man”; etc – in the final analysis, they just corroborate the arguments above. But, one may ask, how will acknowledging the prevalence of the disposition to sexual violence bring about any change? Besides, is it not the case that, to argue for this as a prevalent disposition is effectively to absolve men of responsibility? Is it not allowing them to say, “I am helpless, the patriarchy made me do it!” (which is really what the “I am, after all, a man” argument in particular is saying)? To take the second question first, this is, of course, an illusory argument: it is founded on separating the agent, ‘I’, from the agent, ‘patriarchy’. The fact is, that agent ‘I’ acts as an agent of agent ‘patriarchy’; in committing the act, ‘I’ has acted as patriarchy – ‘I’ is patriarchy at that moment. There can be no separation. And that is why – in answer to the first question as well – it is important to acknowledge the prevalence of the disposition to sexual violence in – and as the defining characteristic of – all patriarchies. Unless this is acknowledged, as a first step, there can be little possibility of rendering inter-sex relations mutual, reciprocal and just – i.e., of stymieing patriarchal impulses and dismantling patriarchal structures.

We must return now to the question we had posed earlier: What is this point when desire turns predatory, and under what circumstances? It is true that desire is not always predatory; but given the disposition to sexual violence that defines patriarchies, it can become so at any time, because all men are subject to that disposition under patriarchy. Then why, one may ask, do men not succumb to the force of that disposition, if it is indeed so prevalent and deep-rooted? Here, one must look to the factors noted earlier, that constitute the restrictions and proscriptions against sexual harassment and rape – i.e., the legal, moral, ethical, emotional or religious stipulations against these. These stipulations are not just the penalising side of patriarchy, seeking to protect the organisation of sexuality and gender; these also constitute an aesthetic of sexuality and gender to aspire to practise. This aesthetic drives both high culture and popular culture into celebrating reciprocal desire, as the acceptable kind of desire (provided, of course, the woman’s reciprocity of desire is the desire-to-be-desired); but it rarely even registers any non-violent, non-predatory consequences to unrequited desire – except as tragedy. The former is aestheticised because it is acceptable, to be aspired to in practice; the latter is either treated as tragic, or scary, sleazy and sordid – if acknowledged at all; it is more often than not passed over in silence.

However, when acknowledged within this aesthetic the ‘male gaze’ that we began our discussion with, that desires that which is an unattainable object of desire, must be seen to suffer for its covetousness. In popular cultural representations of this, such a gaze must not only suffer failure to win reciprocity, but must experience this as shame, humiliation – ugly, in aesthetic terms. The gaze must see itself as failure – a sleazy failure from which the gazer can apparently only be delivered by inflicting sexual violence on the object of desire, or committing some form of self-violation as punishment for feeling that desire. The former is an object lesson to women under patriarchy; the latter is an object lesson to men on the tragic consequences of desire. Tellingly, in the Greek mythological story of Oedipus Rex, although his wife/mother kills herself when she learns that she has slept with Oedipus, her son, Oedipus does not do so; rather, he blinds himself – i.e., he ‘kills’ his desiring male gaze. The connection made implicitly between blindness and castration corroborates the understanding of vision as phallic – as connected to knowledge (e.g., ‘insight’), power (e.g., the panopticon), and penetration (e.g., ‘penetrating gaze’). As importantly therefore, it also corroborates the understanding of the male gaze as always a rapacious one.

Whether the gazer commits sexual violence on the unresponsive object of desire, or commits self-violation of some kind, the point of significance here is that patriarchal structures maintain violence as a crucial part of the articulation of (male) desire. Tackling patriarchy means tackling this violence, and tackling this violence means first acknowledging its existence – the point we were making earlier. Such an acknowledgment would have to begin with the realisation that the disposition to sexual violence that defines patriarchies, is itself difficult to discern, and therefore to realise, because of the tendencies to naturalisation, as well as the intimacy of that disposition itself. This naturalisation is indeed contested to some extent in the legal, ethical and moral restrictions against sexual harassment and sexual violence; but this too, is often compromised either by emotional bonds – i.e., the assaulted and the assaulter are emotionally connected through the sexual violence – or by religion – i.e., the religion itself ratifies the dominance (in some instances, even violent dominance) of women by men as ‘natural’. This is reinforced by the intimacy of the disposition between the partners – an emotional factor that is perhaps the most difficult to overcome. This emotional factor is exacerbated by the unwillingness of intimate partners to acknowledge this disposition in themselves or in their Significant Others – or, if acknowledged, then to believe that the person in question can or does or will act on it – if not with them, then with somebody else.

Another significant deterrent to acknowledging this disposition is the tendency to paper over the moment of violation as a “misunderstanding”. This argument derives its strength from the myth of the “desire-to-be-desired”. Whether or not the target of male sexual violence actually conducted herself in a manner describable as “desiring-to-be-desired” is irrelevant to this particular defence of sexual predation: the mythology is sufficient in itself. The mythology shifts the responsibility for his actions from the assaulter to the assaulted – “she wanted it!” And if it becomes clear that “she did not want it”, the plea of a “misunderstanding” is always available: the assaulter can argue that he “read the signals” from the assaulted as her “desiring-to-be-desired”, even if no such signals had been sent. Arguably, the emotional blindness bred by intimacy that we had noted earlier, especially on the part of intimate female relations of the male assaulter, is a significant factor in victim-blaming – “I/he would not have done that, unless she gave me/him some reason to”. In a lot of patriarchal formations, another related factor comes into play, viz., the proscription on female desire per se. This means women can show their desire-to-be-desired (if at all) only to the man who can “legitimately” desire them, i.e., as per the prescriptions and proscriptions governing and regulating gender and sexuality in that society. Women in such societies not only have to guard against evincing the desire-to-be-desired towards any other man, but against even the possibility that any man could “read” them that way.

The problem of course, is that that is not in their hands, but in the heads of the men who “read” them that way – at least, when the plea is “misunderstanding”. Which brings me to my next, related contention: that this plea is possible at all, is also because of the absence of a clear, simple, easily articulable language of sexuality. Or, more accurately, because of the banishing of such a language from “polite speech”, “polite company”, as being in bad taste; as well from “righteous speech”, “upright company”, as being immoral, sinful. The affects of shame (from “bad” etiquette) and guilt (from “bad” conduct) are both at work to ensure that the only acceptable discourse around sexuality is a clinical one – a scientia sexualis, in Foucault’s words. The banished language does not disappear, but is constituted in other discourses and practices (besides the clinical or medico-legal language of Foucaultian institutions), e.g., pornography; sexualised terms of abuse and the inherent sexual violence in them; and in sexual harassment and violence itself. It may be objected that the realm of erotica does (strive to) offer a more aesthetically, if not necessarily morally, acceptable articulation of sexuality. But the realm of erotica is a Foucaultian ‘heterotopos’ – a site for the conservation of the sexual as art, and of art as sexual. It is rarely ever found as a living practice of sexual dialogue – as an active, actual means of communicating desire and of articulating sexual play. Rather, sex-speech of any kind is almost always already in a state of violation – of the rules of social discourse that have banished it – and hence bears an integral relation to violence, in all such patriarchal formations. This then, is the engine that drives the disposition we noted earlier.

Some Clarifications

A couple of clarifications are necessary here. Firstly, I may be charged with using terms like ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘desire’, ‘sexuality’, etc., as if these are monolithic categories, or as essentialisms. This charge draws heavily from a dualist epistemological foundation, in which, if categories are not historically specified and contextualised, they must be seen as essentialisms. It is the philosophical legacy of the tensions between the metaphysical and epistemological tendencies in Eurocentric philosophy. However, if one steps outside of these dualistic tendencies to historicise, not the categories so much as the historical relations they are deployed to denote, then it will become clear that the categories are semantically and semiotically subject to the relations they seek to denote – not the other way around. Meaning that, ‘male’ will have dominant meanings that are determined by the ways in which men undertake, and are undertaken in, their social relations, as we saw above. The dynamics of patriarchy that I have sought to elucidate here, using these apparently essentialist categories, similarly may be charged with making a claim to transhistorical validity. The answer is both yes and no. These dynamics are understood here not as static relations, but as the active principles by which those relations are structured, so that the dominance of men is assured. Variations in political economy, ecology, climate, etc., can lead to vastly varying forms and formations of patriarchy; but the principles of dominance remain the same. However, there is nothing to suggest that these principles constitute a permanent, immutable condition – rather, they are one particularly persistent tendency in the production and reproduction of social formations that can, and must, be changed.

Secondly, the attempted defence that “the patriarchy made me do it!”, which as we saw is an invalid one, nevertheless raises the question, Is patriarchy constituted of this pre-existing disposition towards male sexual violence? Or is it a pre-existing condition of male dominance that produces this disposition? This may seem a bit of a chicken-or-egg question; but it is not only academic interest that drives us to ask which came first, in this instance. What the question is really asking here is, are men – all men – inherently sexually violent? And is patriarchy the structures that have been created to facilitate that inherent predisposition? Or do men become so, as they get subjectivised under and into a pre-existing patriarchy, that is sustained by the tendency to sexual violence that it inculcates in men? Apart from the reasons noted earlier for dismissing the “patriarchy made me do it” argument, there is an additional problem here, which we may refer to as the ‘agential fallacy’, i.e., the ascription of agency to structural mechanisms and entities that are designed to achieve particular outcomes – in short, to a condition rather than to a person. Thus, ‘patriarchy’ is not an agent in itself, but designates the mechanisms, institutions and other material and ideological apparatuses – understood in the broadest sense – designed and deployed to ensure the dominance of men in any given masculine hegemony. Of course, these apparatuses have other identities – e.g., class, caste, race, tradition, custom, rituals, culture, learning, technology, science (e.g., genetics) law, ethics, morality, etiquette, values, beliefs, etc. – which in fact may serve to hide, rather than reveal (their) patriarchy; but together, the disposition cumulatively effected by their inequalities and biases, their hierarchies of inclusions and exclusions – i.e., the disposition that facilitates the overall dominance of men – is what is designated by the term ‘patriarchy’.

Thirdly, the tendency – even need – to treat this conjunction of apparatuses that facilitates patriarchy, as a singular agent called ‘patriarchy’, in its own right – indeed, as the agent that authorizes all agency – could well be considered one of the biggest hurdles to dismantling it. To begin with, patriarchal biases are rarely acknowledged; but even when they are, it is in the form of a singular agent, ‘patriarchy’. This serves to transfer responsibility for the inequality between the sexes, especially in cases of sexual violence, from the (usually) men to this mythical agent – except that it is rarely identified as ‘patriarchy’, but rather as ‘caste’, ‘tradition’, ‘learning’, ‘values’, etc. That is, patriarchal biases may be first acknowledged only as versions of other kinds of biases; and while these (i.e., ‘caste’, ‘tradition’, ‘learning’, etc.) are definitely significant factors in the configurations of inequality and sexual violence between the sexes, they are not wholly responsible. The need to invoke them to disavow responsibility for the violence inherent to patriarchy, is strongest when the sexual harassment or violence is patent – which is very often – i.e., when it cannot be ignored or dismissed, and needs to be excused and exonerated. Thus, the rape of a Dalit woman by upper-caste men, or of a Muslim woman by a Hindu man, becomes more about the violence being against a community – Dalit and Muslim, respectively – than about the fact that it was sexual violence. That is, it allows sexual violence to be treated as a form of caste or communal violence, as if the sexual violence here is significant only because it has caste or communal overtones – as if, if the rapist had been another Dalit and another Muslim, respectively, the fact of it being sexual violence would have been less significant. The inequality between the sexes, as well as the sexual and gender violence experienced by (largely) women, disappears behind the caste or communal inequality. This is not an accidental oversight: it is the tacit acceptance, between men as well as a lot of women, of the naturalisation of sexual violence under patriarchy, and thus of its silent perpetuation.

Fourthly, another significant factor in the silence around sexual violence is what we had touched upon earlier – the absence of a clear, safe, mutually acceptable, unembarrassed and unembarrassing language of sexuality. Much sexual violence also can, does, and will continue to hide in the ambiguities of the language of sexuality, as well as the disposition towards it. As of now, the entire issue of sex-speech remains clouded in an air of shame – not just the shamefulness of unrequited desire, but a kind of inherent shamefulness – as if to experience sexual desire, whether requited or unrequited, is itself a fundamentally shameful state of being. This is not just a moral, ethical or legal dereliction; if it was, it would not be about shame so much as about guilt. (To clarify: I am guilty when I am in violation of a moral, ethical or legal code – but I need feel no shame for the same. Conversely, I can feel deeply ashamed of something without necessarily being guilty of violating any such code.) Then, what is the source of that shame? The answer of course, is that shame is experienced in the violation of a social code; it is an interpersonal experience, more than a religious, juridical or intra-personal one, as we see with guilt. But here’s the major problem: in any patriarchal society, the violation of a social code is almost always the violation of a patriarchal code.


The shamefulness associated with desire, especially sexual desire, is one of the strongest, most intimate, most deeply rooted forms of sexual control exercised by patriarchy. The experience of desire even by a man, even when it is mutual and reciprocated, must resort to forms of articulation that are ambiguous, thus constantly reminding the lovers that their desire is not to be articulated. The social code that is violated in the articulation of desire is thus one that proscribes sex-speech – thereby producing shame in those who seek to articulate it. This is further complicated for women, who have to articulate their desire only through the specific lexicon of the desire-to-be-desired. In practice, perhaps inevitably, this leads to manifestations of desire from “other” men, besides the woman’s desired man. In many societies, for a woman to become the object of desire by “other” men, is more a source of shame for her than for the desiring men: “she’s easy/ she’s a slut! [i.e., she showed that she desires to be desired], that’s why men desire her!” Shamefulness is, in this sense, one of the most important aspects of the kinds of toxic masculinity we were discussing earlier. The discourse of love can ameliorate the shamefulness to some extent, in less strictly repressive patriarchal societies; in others, even love cannot combat the shamefulness of desire (and if it is homosexual, so much the worse). Shamefulness, therefore, not only allows the rationalisation of many forms of gender and sexual repression and violence, it prevents the emergence of a viable and meaningful everyday language of desire and sexuality.

From the above arguments, it may appear as if, by working towards transforming toxic masculinities as they are practised, and towards a more mutual and viable everyday language of sexuality, we can ‘fix’ the problems of gender bias and sexual violence – i.e., ‘fix’ patriarchy itself – if not entirely, then to a large extent. This has been the approach evinced in a lot of masculinity studies, as well as in some feminist work on sexuality. The reason they do not – cannot – work is that both, the practices of toxic masculinity as well the language of desire and sexuality, are integrally connected to the other factors – i.e., class, culture, law, etc. – the other determinants of bias and violence through which patriarchy is manifested. They shape them, and are shaped by them. Thus, for instance, a man who for all intents and purposes is perceived to be a feminist, a ‘reconstructed’ man, may well surprise himself and others by manifesting some form of sexual bias or violence, when he slides back into patriarchal ways of being through being uncritical of other factors. To specify the example further, a (male) judge, perhaps even known to be sensitive to issues of gender, may nevertheless resort to the superiority of his office to harass his (female) secretary. It is only by calling out and acknowledging the presence of patriarchal biases in every other factor – which means vigilantly calling out and acknowledging the pervasive disposition to sexual violence – that we can begin to tackle the dismantling of patriarchy. Critiquing caste, class, race, etc., as if these are not shaped by, and embedded in, patriarchal biases and violence, can at most be partial and politically ineffectual; but at the very least, they also serve to perpetuate patriarchal formations, by simply not acknowledging them. Neither can the problems of gender bias and sexual violence be tackled effectively if we address them as if they existed in isolation from the other factors.


Finally, it must be noted that the articulation of desire and sexuality is not going to wait for the world to change – for the emergence of an unembarrassed language of sexuality and desire, based on mutuality and respect; but striving for such a language can certainly contribute to that change. One crucial element in such a reformative approach to the articulation of desire is the element of consent; it becomes all-important in the making of a relation based on such an articulation. The understanding of consent itself is different in this instance, in that, it cannot be seen in contractual terms – i.e., as binding, once given – but must be understood in processual terms – i.e., as continuously sought and continuously given, mutually. Another is the need for men to realise that they – all of them, including this writer – are the problem, and therefore, they need to look to women (and other minority genders) for the solution; the problem of toxic masculinity cannot solve itself. This means that men need to stop believing that only they have the answers, and the expertise to organise society. Men need to learn to listen to the voices of the violated, and to understand what it means to be violated. Men need to not only respect the dominated, but work actively to dismantle all oppressive and repressive structures of dominance. Which means that, whether one’s political work is primarily based on class, or caste, or communalism, or racism, issues of gender and sexuality need to occupy front-and-centre space, alongside whatever other political base. And it means that these issues and concerns should not remain relegated to gender and women’s studies departments, but become central to all learning – indeed, to all social practice. Working towards this end would itself be a major step in tackling gender and sexual violence.

The further discussion of these issues however, must wait for another paper.


Althusser, L. (1995). On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (2014th ed.). Verso.

Barrett, M. (1980). Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis. In Labour / Le Travail (Vol. 11). Verso.

Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1993rd ed.). Ballentine Books.

Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Polity Press.

Dworkin, A. (1987). Intercourse: The Twentieth Anniversary Edition (1997th ed., Vol. 8). Basic Books, Inc.

Foucault, M. (1972). POWER/KNOWLEDGE: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (C. Gordon (ed.); C. Gordon, L. MARSHALL, J. MEPHAM, & K. SOPER (trans.); Paperback). Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. (2001). Power. Vol. 3 of The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (J. D. Faubion (ed.); Paperback). The New Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith (eds. & trans.); Paperback). International Publishers.

MacKinnon, C. A. (1998). Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination. Feminism and Politics: Oxford Readings in Feminism, 295–313.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In Screen (Vol. 16, Issue 3, pp. 6–18).



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