Sati, consent, and power: White men and predatory behavior in Asia


During our trip to Phuket, Debalina and I were inundated with images of White men, mostly middle-aged and above, roaming the streets of Phuket with women that seemed to barely have crossed their teens or just beyond their teens.

This sight, of the "old White man" with a young Asian woman, often old enough to be his daughter, is a fairly common sight across East and Southeast Asia.

The image is so common that it is naturalized as part of the scenery, a normative element of the "unique selling proposition" of Phuket, Bangkok, Bali.

The liberals and Asian apologists of cultural tourism have often responded with the concept of consent, noting that the women participating in these "relationships" offer their consent in participation, that they are fully aware of the consequences of participating in such relationships, and therefore, make active choices.

However, consent and participation are never devoid of power. To construct some elaborate narrative of human agency devoid of the structures at play reproduces the exploitative nature of the structures.

Consent is constituted within networks of power, tied to the seductions and affordances offered by power, even as power constrains the possibilities available to those at the receiving end of powerful relationships.

Consent thus is imbricated within the network logics that make up possibilities, possibilities of a better life, possibilities of mobility, possibilities of negotiating structures, possibilities of economic access.

The nature of sexual consent is further complicated by the ways in which patriarchies shape the normative expectations within and outside of institutions. Relationships of power, embedded in clearly signalled differentials in economic access, constitute specific logics of consent that reproduce the vastly unequal terrain of power and control.

The apologia of the "old White man with a young woman" discourse is a reminder for me of the apologia for Sati, the practice in India rooted in the marriage of young women to Brahmin men old enough to be their father or most often, grandfather.

The discursive justifications of Sati were often rooted in notions of consent, celebrating the agentic choices women made in their participation in the ritual, which ended in them being forced onto the pyre of their dead husbands.

In any social system, the powerful deploy the notion of consent to reproduce structures of power.

The notion that "women enact their consent when participating in exploitative relationships with predatory men" reproduces the circuits of power, upholding the participation of institutions to reproduce these logics of exploitation.


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