To argue, as some do in the case of Kirsten Stewart, the highest-paid Hollywood actress, that it is still the woman who is shamed for having an affair is to overlook that, in recent times, men such as Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kerry have drawn intense criticism and social disapproval for their marital transgressions. But the larger point is this: real feminism is about not only rights but also responsibilities. Therefore, to portray all women as victims, and all of society as irreversibly patriarchal, as many radical feminists do, is to self-servingly underplay the context in which individual cases unfold, and the fact that at any given time, in any culture, there exist varying levels of gender-related progress depending on socio-educational and economic backgrounds. Relative to these circumstances, then, the same act acquires different significances and consequences.
Efforts to fight lop-sided power equations must adopt methods of positive discrimination so that disparities entrenched over time are narrowed, if not bridged. Rightly so, then, the feminist movement has not only demanded special rights for women but also re-evaluated the world from a female perspective to make people more conscious of overt and covert gender injustices. Problems arise, nonetheless, when contemporary narratives of gender oppression make sweeping generalisations and equate women who struggle for survival without money, education, and/or community support, or women like Geetika Sharma who're preyed upon by the powerful, with women who mindfully use sex as currency. Is it really fair to cry women's exploitation even when, say, Anita Advani claims a relationship with Rajesh Khanna? Surely, it is not misogynistic to conjecture that the woman who asserts her legal rights only after the erstwhile superstar's death might have taken up with him to use him as opportunistically as he did her.
Regardless of gender, infidelity is also about opportunism just as it is about power, dominion, and sexual politics. Therefore, it is misleading to defend cheating, as some do, by invoking human hormones and natural instincts. For years, men have tried to underplay the abuse of power by citing biological differences and dismissing sexual harassment, rape, and paedophilia as "the call of Eros". If feminists want to create a more gender sensitive society, it is counterproductive to make a case for base desires and behaviours, even if the woman in question is a 22-year-old lured by the sexiness of an older, more experienced man. Stewart is no disempowered damsel: she earns more than most men or women, and commands a star power greater than the film director with whom she had the affair. Case in point: do you remember his name? It is exactly this star power, then, that makes her the talking point of the story and not the fact that she is female. There is no good reason that Stewart must not be held accountable for her deeds as would be any adult, male or female. Celebrities are indeed real people, too.
Of course, as some say, young men and women must learn to live in the real world and accept that people change, cheat, give in to lower instincts, and hurt others, including their own selves. But what they must not learn is that it is all right for them to use, cheat, or hurt others to further their own ends. Many women and men do not cheat by choice, not naiveté/sexual repression/religiosity/sanctimony/social fear/hidebound values, and young men and women must learn that, too.
Oh, well, many might say, Stewart made a mistake, she is only human. Shouldn't she be forgiven? Of course, she should be. All of us make mistakes; that is how we learn and grow. Besides, Stewart has not only apologised but also lost Pattinson, a good man who loved and respected her. That said, the message to take from this must be that of empathy, not of ruthless, crass consumerism. People are not commodities, relationships are not barter, and sex is not a tool for material advancement.
Contemporary calls for higher ideals are not renewed expressions of orthodoxy. They stem from new locations of knowingness and becomingness, not a regression towards rigid gender roles, or religiosity couched as morality. They represent the success of long-standing feminist efforts and, therefore, the desire for a more enlightened construct of self-interest and gender equality: what is wrong for men to do to women is just as wrong for women to do to men.
Nandita Patel is a Mumbai-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal