BFM host Umapagan Ampikaipakan, activist Masjaliza Hamzah, clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan and Art for Grabs director Pang Khee Teik joined Projek Dialog on December 17 for a very invigorating discussion on love, sex, and boundaries.
The forum was an exploration of vulnerable spaces and negotiations between people in intimate relationships, and some thoughts on power and power dynamics were highlighted as well. Before the forum started, Pang expressed that the panel topic made him feel vulnerable, but also felt that some level of vulnerability would be required to broach the topic successfully. The panel was in agreement with him on this.
Victoria Cheng, the moderator, started the panel by asking each of the panelists to explain what they felt a truly egalitarian relationship meant to them. There is a catch – they had to first opine on whether a truly egalitarian relationship was possible to begin with. Opinions and thoughts varied across the panel, with Masjaliza saying that she felt it was possible, if both parties understood what mutual respect meant in their own definitions. Vizla on the other hand, believes it can never be entirely possible because there is constant negotiation of power in relationships.
Pang interjected by saying that non-heteronormative relationships, and even relationships that are polyamorous also have their problems, and have an abundance of power negotiation instances as well. Uma believes that there are many layers to an egalitarian relationship, and many barriers to break down and analyse, be it class, gender, or religion.
The next question was concerning the depiction and access to private lives via public platforms. In an age where relationships are laid bare on social media platforms, and private lives are brought into the public eye, our fears and insecurities about relationships are magnified and broadcasted. To add to that, many people out there who want to raise awareness on issues like sexual harassment and toxic relationships are inadvertently casting doubt and caution on almost every aspect of a relationship. That said, how do we draw boundaries between what we define as private or public concerns? Is the act of naming and shaming on social media necessarily the best recourse?
Both Vizla and Mas were quick to point out that due to the lack of avenues available for sexual harassment victims to make complaints and seek justice, some of the best ways they can seek recourse is through social media. The moderator then followed up with a deeper probing into boundaries and spatial awareness – how do we know where to draw the line between what is deemed as problematic and what is just the most suitable arrangement for any given relationship? In other words, when does conflict become abuse? When does a difficult emotional argument become ‘oppressive’? How might intervention take away from a better understanding of abuse, rape, and neglect?
Again, Vizla jumped in with a quick anecdote on what constituted emotional abuse, and how it plays out in relationships. Pang added that he had come across a comic which was inspired by another person’s writing, on how relationships can be one-sided because one of the partners often carry out much of the mental labour. Management of house chores and daily tasks, for example, is in and of itself mental labour eventhough the person is not doing any physical labour. They have to remember everything, direct everything, and make sure all bases are covered. The other partner only needs to execute the tasks when told. This imbalance in a relationship can result in a lot of dissatisfaction and misunderstanding, so it is advised for anyone in relationships to talk about this.
The moderator next asked about the commonness of traditional and “romantic” notions like sacrifice, chivalry, protection, and the relentless pursuit of an object of desire which could sometimes become stalking or harassment. Is this detrimental to our understanding of relationships? The initial focus was on the idea surrounding relentless pursuits. Uma gave some examples from movies that romanticized a situation where a man never gave up on pursuing a woman, and that in the end this caused the woman to accept him and they both had a happy ending. These movies would also somehow indirectly opine that if the woman had accepted him much earlier, the romance would not be so exciting or challenging. It was interesting when Vizla pointed out that a common trope circulating amongst some women is the idea that they have to play coy in order to get the best out of a relationship, and this would result in the idea that men have to relentlessly pursue a woman even if she said no, because now saying no is seen as playing coy.
This transitioned well into the second half of the forum where the panel was beginning to wonder about the politics within and around intimacy. When intimacy becomes politicised and policed, do some forms of sexual expression and playfulness for lack of a better phrase, “go extinct”? Do rules of appropriate public behaviour apply to the intimate realm? The panel decided to leave this question for the audience, and opened the floor to Q&A. One attendee shared a story of how marriage courses for Muslims sometimes would demand very strange responsibilities from women. This led Uma to also share how he had come across comments by marriage counselors saying that if a woman is unable to have intercourse with her husband for any reason, she had to allow her husband to use her belly button or armpit instead. Mas attributed this to society’s propensity to prioritize male pleasure to the extent of making it a rule for women to obey.
Another question from the floor concerned menstruation. The attendee speaks openly about menstruation with her younger brother so that he would not see it as taboo or as something dirty and repulsive. At school, his teacher apologized for being unwell and told the students it was “a lady thing”. Her brother replied by saying it is okay to say she is on her period. As a result, her brother was punished for uttering those words. He is now confused on whether he did the right or wrong thing. Pang answered his question by saying that so long as he was not speaking on behalf of a woman, he did nothing wrong. If she had already mentioned it, albeit in veiled terms, her brother did not cross the line. In fact, it is quite common for some women to still feel ashamed about saying the actual words openly.
The panel was drawing to an end, and each speaker was asked to say some final words. They all agreed on the importance of being aware of power dynamics, and to constantly negotiate these power relations in relationships. Noticing signs of abuse or power imbalances will come with such awareness and active negotiation. The panel ended with a feeling of lightness because, as Pang had mentioned earlier, vulnerability was required to a certain degree to be able to discuss this topic with depth and thoughtfulness.