Society Calls Norm‑Defying Women ‘Deviant.’ Why Has this Myth Continued?


Jul 3, 2021


Image credit: Pinimg.com/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

“Finally embracing red pill ideas and all the low quality women are vanishing left and right,” says a post on the Red Pill forum on Reddit. Apart from severe misogyny, the idea of “low-quality” women is also reflective of something else — how society categorises women based on patriarchal expectations of their behavior.

This categorization is closely followed by attempts to monitor and control these “deviant” women who are seen as potential threats to the “respectable” sections of society. These women, due to their “flagrant” and “abhorrent” nature, represent a source of moral panic and thus stand the risk of being stalked, harassed, or even violated. Control in this manner has been central to the maintenance of patriarchal norms and public opinion of women.

While the trend of demonizing woman is amplified manifold by social media, this phenomenon is however not new — especially in India. For centuries, the progress of Indian society has been measured based on how well it controls and monitors its women and their sexuality — a fact reflected in literature, social discourse, and pop culture.

The idea of deviant female behavior grappled the colonial society at large during the 19th and 20th centuries. In Bengal, prominent elite men — like Gyanendra Maitra and Santosh Kumar Mukherjee — wrote several books and articles discussing the ideas of “sexual deviancy.” In her recent book, titled Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, Durba Mitra explores the lasting impact of these thinkers on modern social thought regarding “deviant” women in Indian society.

In the 19th century Calcutta, a very peculiar and clandestine surveillance in the form of print media began to occur. Secret manuals, or nakshas, were created by men to warn others of deviant women and the “dangerous” spaces they occupied. These documents consisted of obscene humor and detailed instructions to remove social evils and excesses of nighttime Calcutta. One of the key examples is Raater Kolkata (Nighttime Calcutta), written by ghostwriter Meghnad Gupta who ventured out in the streets of nighttime Calcutta to observe such deviant women closely and mark spaces that represented the “danger.” These were, in fact, places where women could actually be free and converse with men in colonial Calcutta, such as clubs and theatre houses.

In the modern context, this kind of clandestine surveillance in virtual spaces is also carried out under the garb of anonymity. The aim remains the same — to control and monitor the “non-respectable” woman so that she changes her behavior to conform. This urge to control often manifests in the form of verbal abuse, unwarranted sexual attention, graphic abuse, and virtual threats of violence.

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According to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, abhorrent social behavior often brings a section of society together — leading to a kind of social cohesion. In the current scenario, this is reflected in growing communities like The Red Pill, which reflect a kind of social cohesion among men who wish to protect other men from deviant women. Due to the shared sense of threat from these women, such communities vow to warn and guide men to make them aware of “sexually dangerous” women.  

Shilpa Phadke, Ph.D., from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, explained how women are subjected to surveillance with respect to the access and freedom they have in physical spaces in an interview with The Swaddle. A “respectable” middle-class woman is thus safer in city spaces from crimes as compared to a “non-respectable” woman who “contaminates the city with her presence.”

The idea of the deviant woman begins at the visual perception of these women, which is based on their public profiles on social media platforms. Men trying to police these women are driven by masculine entitlement and privilege. The virtual female contradicts the notion that a moral woman must embody characteristics like submissiveness, tolerance, and docility. The virtual male is thus less tolerant of the supposed “bold” woman on social media, as she might taint the respectable and moral ones with her voice.

Public opinion on virtual platforms is critical to consider here as it has become an essential part of modern social thought. Donna Haraway, a professor of gender studies in the University of California, says “communications technologies and biotechnologies… embody and enforce new social relations for women worldwide.”  

Today, a number of women on social media platforms are trying to deconstruct this myth of morality that society has perpetuated for centuries. A female creator on Instagram urges her female audience to “bust the shame that the society makes you feel around your body and sexuality.” Online movements like Free the Nipple and #IWillGoOut attempt to assert women’s freedom — to express themselves and exist as they are without being policed.

These are but a few examples of women breaking the mold of what is expected of a “respectable” woman and choosing to be deviant.


Written By Twisha Singh

Twisha Singh is a Ph.D. research scholar at the Department of History and Classical Studies, McGill University, Canada. Her research area includes Modern British History, South Asian History, Theatre and Performance Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and her theoretical approaches include feminist and post-colonial literary theories.


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