It was a test to find suitable inter-generational viewing in lockdown, but in our house, the Indian Matchmaking series on Netflix seemed to fit the bill. Night after night we assembled upon the sofa — myself, my husband, our two children and my 84-year-old Punjabi mother-in-law Surinder — to watch the latest efforts of Sima Taparia, a leading Mumbai matchmaker, to find suitable matches for her broad range of clients, who were based variously in India and in the US.
In India, and among the Indian diaspora, marriage is mostly treated with unashamed high seriousness, something that often makes it a source of fascination for non-Indian communities in the West. Although light in its approach — which made the most of the fascination across all cultures with an individual’s search for lasting love — Indian Matchmaking also touched upon the more painful side of a heavily marriage-oriented society: the sometimes uncomfortable intensity of family pressure to find a spouse, the anxiety about being older and unmarried, particularly among women, and the stigma of divorce.
The programme met with a mixed response from critics – particularly from writers of South Asian heritage, some of whom had felt the pressure of an arranged-marriage culture themselves. It sparked a fierce debate over the matter-of-fact way in which Taparia’s tick-list evaluation of any given client aired not only prejudices around looks, height, weight, affluence and education, but also of ‘colourism’ (with a preference for fair-skinned matches) and conformity to caste — prejudices which infuse Indian society in complex ways.
It seemed that the programme was caught up in the modern argument on what a television show is meant to do – whether it is enough simply to reveal a situation to the public gaze, and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions, or whether it is imperative also to steer the viewer’s judgements in an approved direction. The zeitgeist has shifted towards the latter.
What did become clear, when watching it with my mother-in-law, was that the full complexity and range of situations covered by the term ‘arranged marriage,’ were not touched on. For Taparia’s educated, upper and middle-class clientele, the modern ‘matchmaking’ service was akin to a hand-picked dating opportunity, in which they were free to refuse the proposed matches, and often did.
A large number of my mother-in-law’s contemporaries had a more traditional form of ‘arranged marriage’, in which their spouse was chosen by their parents, with very little input from the bride and groom themselves — a scenario which is reliably met with Western fascination or horror. My mother-in-law herself had a ‘love marriage’ which took her across both religion and caste, since she is Sikh and my late father-in-law was Hindu. Yet many ‘arranged marriages’ among her close friends – some of whom met on their wedding day — appear to have been notably long and happy ones.
Part of the reason that such marriages succeeded was because they were rooted in a different era and set of expectations from those in contemporary white Western culture. They were — and are — seen as not just the union of individuals, but of families, in which specific roles, duties and wider relationships are implicitly understood. Love was expected to deepen over time, rather than follow the initial ‘thunderbolt of attraction’ narrative now beloved by the West.
To observe this – and to note that for many couples, it has worked well — is not to ignore those for whom it has done the opposite. Some arranged marriages turned out to be terrible mismatches, from which extrication was difficult. And a culture which places a very high value upon marriage per se can bring a blessed sense of security and wider support to a happy couple, and their children.
But it can also function as a trap for the unhappy, whereby women in particular who abandon a marriage for any reason – including a spouse’s domestic abuse, addiction or infidelity — are at risk of being stigmatised. So, too are those who are deemed undesirable in the heterosexual marriage market, or who actively choose to reject it because it asks too high a sacrifice of their career ambitions, sexual orientation or personal freedom.
In its most negative form, a society that places too much weight on the institutional, structural or financial importance of marriage can obliterate the rights and wishes of the individual almost entirely. In India, that finishes up in instances of child marriage or the demand for heavy dowries (both now illegal, but still prevalent).
Elsewhere, the institution of marriage — beneficial in so many ways — has nonetheless often been bolstered by shunning those who fell outside it, and sometimes silencing those within. In Ireland, for example — until the late 20th century — young women who had a baby out of wedlock were deemed ‘fallen’ and could be incarcerated in institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries. So too could girls deemed too troublesome or flirtatious, or who spoke out about abuse. For women in bad marriages, divorce was only legalised in the Republic of Ireland after a referendum in 1995, when it was passed by a wafer-thin majority.
The template of ‘the good girl’ sits at the centre of a heavily traditional vision of marriage and family, in which a woman’s role as wife and mother is understood to supersede all other possible ambitions. The good girl is demure, stoic, hard-working, loving, domesticated, faithful and uncomplaining. She unquestioningly sacrifices her own desires and ambitions for the care and advancement of others. Her education is useful only until her ambitions appear to get in the way of her fulfilling the immediate needs of the family, at which point it is dispensable.
Some of this, of course, overlaps with the notion of simply being a good person: it would be a highly selfish individual, male or female, who always insisted that their own concerns and wishes should take precedence over everyone else’s. But the notion of ‘the good girl’ is slightly different, in that the expectation of domestic virtue and self-denial automatically falls upon the woman.
In its most rigid incarnations, any woman who walks away from a marriage — for whatever reason — is held to have broken a priceless social pact. If a girl in the family is subjected to sexual abuse by a male relative, it is tacitly understood that she should protect the family’s honour with her silence: in such circumstances, the only way she can remain a ‘good girl’ is to say nothing. While such codes still persist in many parts of the world, the battles to break down this aspect of culture in the West were hard-won and relatively recent.
It may seem self-evident to most young women in the UK and Ireland now that a woman should be able to leave an abusive marriage without blame or economic ruin. But feminism in the West had to engage forcefully with such attitudes, and publicly challenge them. Girls in both the UK and Ireland who spoke about sexual abuse in families or communities were often chastised, disbelieved or dubbed a disgrace for even raising the topic.
Those of us who came of age in the UK in the late 1980s were the beneficiaries of arguments won by feminists in the 1960s and 70s on issues such as equal pay, sex discrimination and domestic violence legislation. A broader set of negotiations within marriage became possible. Many women of my generation have navigated a way pragmatically — and often erratically — through the career path that feminism opened up and the demands of relationships and children (if we have them). Life has often become a series of messy compromises between work and family, particularly for women with children, as we try to balance security and freedom, ambition and duty.
But, then, life itself is messy, and mined with competing demands for most adults: bills need paying, children need care and meals need cooking, and it is now widely understood, at least, that roles can be shared and men can be expected to compromise too.
In the case of women’s rights, having won many of the big legal battles on equality in the West, one might perhaps have thought that feminism would then concentrate on campaigning for the most vulnerable in our society — such as low-income mothers, female prisoners, at-risk girls or women escaping domestic violence — while also speaking up for fundamental women’s rights worldwide.
All credit is due to those committed grass-roots feminist groups who do work and campaign tirelessly on exactly such issues. But another, more popular and media-friendly strand of feminism seems to have spun off from practical concerns, into the realm of endless ideological debate or personal performative signalling, for which university campuses and social media are the perfect arenas. Meanwhile, just as #MeToo has been ‘calling out’ historic and current incidences of sexism in the workplace, violent misogyny has been given a free pass to plant a worryingly large flag in the bedroom.
Every so often you read a story that makes your brain spin a little in the gap between the gravity of the experience it describes and the relative casualness of the discussion. For me it was the BBC report last year that “more than a third of UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex”. A young woman called Anna spoke out about three separate sexual encounters with “ordinary guys” in which this had happened to her without any prior discussion or warning. The first man, she said, began with hair pulling and slapping before he tried to put his hands around her neck to choke her. When she talked to her friends about it, many reported a similar experience.
As Anna observed, “If someone slapped or choked you in the street, it would be assault.” What she experienced was also assault, of course, and arguably more terrifying than a street attack because she was alone with someone in whom she had placed trust. Why is violence now becoming such a common element of young women’s sexual experience, something which the generation before them would have found aberrant?
The explanation that keeps cropping up from women and women’s organisations alike is the unparalleled contemporary reach and content of porn. In recent years, not only has hardcore pornography become normalised and ubiquitous, but sexual violence against women, including strangulation and choking scenes, has risen rapidly to become a very big element of it – so much so that many male consumers, steeped in the repeated imagery, either confusedly assume that’s what all women want in real-life encounters, or simply don’t care enough to ask.
The porn industry constantly seeks out new taboos, and enriches itself by the thrill that comes from busting them. (Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, has written of the new mainstreaming of ‘step’ porn with incestuous themes, often using actresses who are over 18 but look much younger.)
But certain taboos — especially those against incest and sexual violence against women — exist for a reason: to protect vulnerable women and children. The behemoth site Pornhub, owned by MindGeek — which has boomed in lockdown and cannily tweets its “solidarity against racism and social injustice” — has been repeatedly accused of hosting and profiting from actual images taken from ‘revenge porn’, rape and child trafficking.
Along with the mainstreaming of porn, and its staged depictions of incest and violence, a new female role model has arisen: the ‘cool girl,’ who reframes her own experience of male violence as empowerment to general cultural acclaim. The first notable ‘cool girl’ in porn was a young actress called Sasha Grey, an intelligent, articulate 18-year-old brunette who – to hipster delight – referenced existentialism, French New Wave cinema and sexual self-discovery.
Grey quickly became known for something else too. In 2006, on her first day on set with a veteran porn star called Rocco Siffredi, Grey reportedly asked him to punch her in the stomach – something she later instead called “an exercise in improvisational fantasy”. Her willingness to ‘push the envelope’ on combining violence with sex gave her a unique selling point, and she rapidly attained celebrity within the industry, before departing it at 21 to pursue a career in mainstream acting, writing and presenting.
If Grey helped to normalise depictions of violent sex in pornography, the fashionable mainstream — with virtually no self-interrogation — quickly moved to do exactly the same in real life. The Huffington Post called Grey “a role model for sex positivity“. Art Tavana in LA Weekly said “she made self-degradation seem like fine art, and, for that, she appealed to edgy tastemakers like American Apparel and VICE”. Allure magazine did a feature on her make-up, and how in her porn work she had decided to “‘amp up the scenes’ realism” with non-waterproof products.
Vanessa Grigoriadis, who profiled Grey for Rolling Stone, said: “To me, what’s most important about her is her impact on feminism”. She noted that “porn has been one of feminism’s most divisive issues” and that, “Grey says, ‘If you look at me and you think “Here’s a woman who’s intelligent, cognizant and making her own choices”, and you still tell me that what I’m doing is wrong, screw you, because that should end the debate.’”
It didn’t end the debate, however, because the argument wasn’t about Grey’s sexual choices – which are indeed her own – but the way a multi-billion pound, international porn industry decided to commodify and popularise those choices, cheered on by much of the women’s magazine industry, without any thought for how that might play out for women in real life. The result has in fact been to sprinkle ‘progressive’ icing sugar on some deeply regressive and dangerous misogyny.
Women’s Health magazine, for example, breezily asked its female readers in 2016, “Choking as a sex move – is it for you?”. The report said, “If blindfolds and sex moves have veered into vanilla territory for you and your partner, there are still plenty of sex moves that are considered extra freaky. Like choking.” In a piece that explored the potential excitements of what it called “breath play” it did have one little moment of warning, “If choking is up there on your sexual bucket list, prepare for a buzz kill. The reality is that it’s crazy dangerous for beginners”. The ‘buzz kill’ — as spelt out by an expert — was a pretty big one: how easy it was to die if things went slightly wrong.
Another potential ‘buzz kill’ – not mentioned in the article – is the increased risk of stroke and brain injuries from non-fatal strangulation, which a recent Bangor University study showed might take days or weeks to manifest themselves. Researchers said that strangulation was now the second most likely cause of a stroke in women under 40. None of this seemingly concerned Cosmo magazine this April, when it promoted ‘breath play’ as a “great place to start” for young female readers who “fancy trying something new” in bed (the magazine subsequently amended the article following complaints).
We are beginning to get some idea how the cultural normalising of violent sex on a vast scale is playing out. A large number of women under 40 (38% in the BBC survey of 2002 women) reported experiencing non-consensual violence at one time or another during consensual sex – in other words, assault of varying degrees.
But just as the ‘good girl’ of the 1950s found it hard to name date rape or marital rape – which society often viewed as just a man ‘going too far’ or ‘insisting on his conjugal rights’ – so the ‘cool girl’ of 2020 often can’t quite find the words to protest against violent assault, and not only because a pair of hands is clamped around her throat. The collision, and collusion, of ‘rough sex’ pornography and women’s magazines has inculcated many girls and young women with the idea that affectionate or simply passionately enjoyable non-violent sex is ‘vanilla’ or boring. To react with outrage or anger at violent or contemptuous treatment in bed is to be deemed unfashionably prudish.
In what has become another form of glamorised self-harm, some young women are now openly proud of their ability to absorb damage. The Netflix Polish thriller 365 Days, with a plot in which a woman is abducted and subjected to sexual violence, has sparked a series of memes on TikTok in which girls parade their bruises as a badge of honour. One fresh-faced young woman, Kiara, posted footage of extensive bruising across her body with the perky words “Decided to watch 365 days with my ‘guy friend’”. The bruises were difficult and sad to look at. The post got millions of likes.
Young women today grow up in a world in which increasingly brutal, immersive porn provides sex education to boys, and often to girls too (even back in 2010, a study of 302 popular porn videos found that 88% contained physical aggression such as slapping or gagging, overwhelmingly towards female performers and received with apparent approval). Some girls or women have internalised its codes, to the extent that I have heard of men saying they have been made uncomfortable by requests from younger women to hurt them during sex. Many other women will become the unwary victims of those men who increasingly feel sexualised violence is normal and permissible. Some women will both seek out such violence and be harmed by it.
It’s not the job of society to police choices which people make in their bedrooms, including consensual BDSM within the limits of the law. But nor should it be society’s role to cheerlead for things that potentially cause significant psychological and physical harm to women.
Those young women who are understandably horrified at the prospect of being suddenly choked, gagged or punched during otherwise consensual sex, are now compelled to navigate a landscape in which there is a significant likelihood that such a thing might happen to them. Meanwhile such violence is often processed socially — not as the criminal assault which it is — but as a lesser offence, a male lapse in erotic etiquette, a manifestation of permissible ‘kink’ that failed to declare itself with sufficient clarity at the outset. Precisely such ‘mitigations’ used to be applied to cases of rape.
Western society now broadly acknowledges how the historic template of ‘the good girl’ worked to confine and silence women, and still does. It is often vocal in its critique of other, more traditional cultures and the ways in which they can render women voiceless.
But one day perhaps it will also be honest enough to ask itself how easily the West — including a significant section of self-described ‘sex-positive’ Western feminism — allowed sexualised violence to be commercially rebranded, glossily mass-produced and re-enacted in real life on innumerable ordinary girls and women who never consented to it. The consumer construct of the ‘cool girl,’ who drinks up pain like champagne, has sold a generation of women down the river.