Sexuality, Work spaces and Me Too

This is a politically incorrect piece. It can easily be misconstrued as a defence for the predatory behaviour of several powerful men (and some women)and/or victim shaming of those who have suffered at their hands. My intent is to do neither but only to highlight how the present deluge of “victim-perpetrator” narratives can trivialise the very serious matter of sexual exploitation.

In the present deluge, there is a preponderance of the “victim-perpetrator” lens. The prevalent narrative is that these “victims” have at last found the courage to expose their predators. Not surprisingly, a counter narrative has begun to emerge viz. these are women who used their sexuality to get ahead in life and are now crying foul (significantly, in many cases, after reaching a stage when either they don’t need the patronage of their erstwhile perpetrators and/or when their sexual prowess is on the decline)

This bout of allegations-counter allegations is likely to be counter productive. One because these are rarely “black and white” situations but more importantly, because it is likely to create a situation where we may get desensitised to the severity of allegations. Admittedly, to begin with some heads will roll(which in turn may act as a deterrent) but simultaneously, we may start looking at them as “routine affair” and treating everything as ambiguous. This would be alarming as the “victim-predator” lens is crucial in some situations, but when it is applied indiscriminately, it becomes self-defeating.

Accident prone zone

Admittedly, there is a very thin dividing line between sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation, but it is important to differentiate between the two. A lewd comment and rape may stem from the same seed of “male entitlement” but putting the two together in the same basket, desensitises us about the severity of rape. Sexual exploitation is primarily concerned with use of coercive power (physical or positional) to gain sexual advantage over the “vulnerable other”. On the other hand, Sexual misconduct is an inappropriate action in a sexual situation. It may or may not have elements of exploitation, but when this misconduct occurs vis a vis a person who is lower in power/status hierarchy, it is likely to be seen as a case of sexual exploitation.

The complexity arises from the fact that a large part of the game called Sexuality is covert in nature. Very few women would blatantly seduce and very few men would directly woo or coerce. While in some cases the transactions are explicit and direct, in most others they are “implied” and hence subject to the ability of the parties involved to read the messages accurately. Just as there are many women who complain that their overtures were wrongly interpreted as “come on” signals, there are many men who feel surprised that what they considered as a “consensual arrangement” had a very different meaning for the other party.

Thus the realm of sexuality(particularly in work spaces) is highly “accident prone”. While many of these “accidents” have strong elements of sexual exploitation, not all of them do. If all such misconducts are viewed through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, unwittingly we end up reinforcing the source from which the problem emerges vis. the sexual codings which see Man as a predator and Woman as a prey

The predator and the Prey

There are many codings that we carry around sexuality. This is not the space for a detailed exploration of their origin and how they may differ between men and women. However to appreciate the complexity of the issue, it may be worthwhile to look at some of them.

1. The sexual act carries strong connotations of Dominance and Submission. Several everyday expressions like F You, got screwed, up yours etc. are a clear evidence of it. In the popular film Three Idiots, the friends of the protagonist acknowledge his superiority by “offering” their backside to him.

2. Powerful men often assume a certain “sexual entitlement” and many women in less powerful positions often assume “sexual obligation”

3. A certain amount of resistance by the woman is not just treated as “par for the course”, but is also held as desirable.It is also believed that it is the job of the male to overcome this resistance either through “wooing” or through “coercion”.

4. Men are assumed to be more promiscuous than women in sexual conduct.

5. Unwarranted sexual initiatives by men are likely to make the woman feel “violated” (e.g. expressions such as outraging the modesty of a woman). On the other hand, unwarranted sexual initiatives by a woman may seem offensive or disgusting but are less likely to be seen as “outraging the modesty of a man”

6. The sexual act is often seen as a “means to an end” for the woman and an “end in it self” for a man.

7. Physical attraction and sexual fidelity are of greater significance to men, whereas women put greater emphasis on resources/power/status and emotional commitment.

The important issue is not whether these codings are an accurate reflection of reality or not. So long as they exist in our minds we will see Man as “ever ready” and Woman as someone who has to be wooed or coerced. Note for instance that we generally use the term “sexual favours” in respect of what a Woman offers to a Man, and very rarely, the other way. Thus we almost take it for granted that proactive initiation belongs to Man and resistance/vulnerability to Woman. The most sinister side of this basic configuration is the motif of predator and prey. Sexual exploitation is a direct consequence of this basic configuration.

This configuration stems from both socio-cultural factors (such as patriarchy)and also bio-existential factors (e.g.role of the two genders in the propagation of the species)and is not likely to disappear in a hurry.However, by viewing all sexual misconduct of Men through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, we may unwittingly reinforce it even further. The more we strengthen the “predator-prey” motif, the more sexual exploitation are we likely to encounter.

Sexuality in the work space

Work spaces are human collectives where men and women bring their values, beliefs, orientations etc. including some of the codings described above. It is neither feasible nor perhaps desirable to make them sexually sterile. Whether we acknowledge it or not, Sexuality plays a huge role in the human dynamics of work spaces ( see my earlier piece on sexually charged workspaces)

In most part of human history, men and women have worked (and even lived) in segregated spaces with fairly clearly defined codes of engagement. The tight demarkation of roles is fast disappearing and increasingly men and women find themselves having to engage with each other in workspaces. This requires them to deal with sexuality in a hitherto unfamiliar space. Purely in evolutionary terms, we are ill-equipped to handle this in a mature, responsible and dignified manner.

Unfortunately most organisations pay very little attention to this need. While they invest heavily in promoting Diversity, these efforts rarely go beyond the usual rhetoric of bias, prejudice, equal opportunity and affirmative action. The only time sexuality enters the picture is in respect of transgressions and prevention of sexual harassment and misconduct. The basic assumption is that either sexuality does not exist in workspaces or that it is purely a personal matter. So long as there are no transgressions, we can all close our eyes to the impact of sexuality in workspaces.

The more we adhere to the perspective described above and push issues of sexuality under the carpet, the more prone we will become to looking at all sexual misadventures through the “victim predator” lens. Ironically, it will reinforce the codings described above and hence make us more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. It is high time that we accept that if men and women relate spontaneously with each other, sexuality will necessarily enter the picture and bring all its messy side along. Rather than getting embroiled in the “victim-perpetrator” frame, we need to invest into enhancing our ability to deal with sexuality in work spaces (including its messy side) in a responsible, mature and dignified manner

5 thoughts on “Sexuality, Work spaces and Me Too

  1. Very well written Ashok. Indeed, the unabated continuance of #metoo with a predator-victim mode and media trials are likely to alienate the genders even further, also perhaps enhance the trust deficit. Worthwhile for everyone making their voice heard today to share in retrospect what could have been a more responsible, mature and dignified manner of dealing with the issues, so that youngsters learn from them. Further, if society fails to distinguish between misdemeanour, overture, exploitation and rape, then as you mentioned, blunting of this distinction would only give rise to more heinous acts; for the delinquents if entire continuum of that temptation is bracketed together, they would find equal risk with differing ‘ends’

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    1. Thank you Harish- what you have written is precisely the issue that I have tried to highlight. I myself have been guilty of sexual misconduct as also been on the receiving end. Also, I don’t know of any man or woman who hasn’t been. Admittedly, it leaves the recipient with scars, more so for women. I can empathise with the need for healing, but I am not sure whether the present deluge helps. It does provide a cathartic release but I am not sure whether it heals.

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  2. Your blog raises several questions for which i may not have answers right now… there are parts that i agree with and there are parts that i do not understand.

    For example, the deluge of the victim-perpetrator narratives that you refer to, and while i do not really agree with the term deluge, empowers the woman to work and counter the ‘shame’/’shaming’ process – that of shaming the victim and break its stranglehold.

    On the other hand, it induces a different phenomena for men (including the perpetrators) and that of ‘guilt’. The world of guilt is perhaps much easier to counter especially if you are powerful – the Kavannaugh narrative for example is a great way of powerful men being able to explain away the accusations and their own guilt.

    Many of us including me, would get pushed into feeling guilty for the misdemeanors that you refer to. I was even feeling guilty of liking the King’s book IT for it ends in an orgy of sorts. But as stated earlier, i think i have better resources within to deal with all kinds of guilt.

    I suspect the only way forward is to build new narratives from women that counter the 7 myths that you refer to – many of these myths are being challenged elsewhere and very rarely in India.

    For example there are women narratives that speak of desire and promiscuity or seeing sex as an end or going beyond dominance and submission. There are women narratives that question the hegemony of monogamy … and the list goes on.

    But my rambling apart, I am quite upbeat about the ‘deluge’ and would like to see it in isolation- I think we really need a deluge for i think shaming the woman is the way to exercise power and if she lets go of the burden of being shamed – we are in for a new relatedness. of course there will be collateral damage or some innocent men going through hell. Will it perpetuate or intensify the predator-victim mindset and games – I am not too sure… yes we would get inured by more narratives and become less insensitive – but here we are the observers and commentators only … to the victim – a freedom from shame may really mean a lot.

    I am with you on workplace sexual dynamics and how these need dialogue and work. I think ‘cleansing’ mindset or denial will never work.

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    1. Thank you Gagan for your thoughtful response. The main difference between us is reflected in your usage of the term seven myths. The term I had used was codings. Perhaps for you they are myths to be challenged. For me they are just codings which exist within us- they are neither true nor false, neither immutable and unshakable nor easily discardable. They arise in a certain context and need reconfiguration as the context changes. It is futile to wage a war against them. The best that one can do is to acknowledge them and ensure that they don’t overwhelm us and make us their captive. In process work, we have made some head way in doing it at the individual level, but finding viable ways at the macro level is a huge challenge.
      There is also the issue of my preference for empathetic understanding as against the shame/guilt path. It is for this reason that the distinction between sexual exploitation and misconduct is important. When it comes to exploitation, one does not have any choice but to resort to guilt/punitive action. Misconduct on the other hand is amenable to empathy. Just as I will not shame a Woman for using her sexuality to get ahead in life, I will not condemn a Man for assuming sexual privilege when placed in position of higher status/power. In both cases,when a certain line is crossed,empathy will have to give way to shame and guilt. Admittedly, the dividing line is fuzzy but an important one.

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  3. Your musings are indeed interesting.
    There are a number of emotions that the Me too has raised- Fears, Outrage and Hostility( both for Men and Women). These need addressing and resolving.
    Unfortunately , the underlying substratum of culture and society in its current form is ill equipped to deal with the demands that this movement is making. It requires a re calibration and engagement especially with emotional labour that this change would entail, the requirement for women and men to step away from their comfort zones – to change the narrative from victim and prey to move towards a more humanising …narrative.
    Hope and Faith for a better future.

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