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

Paradox of Frameworks

I have a very ambivalent relationship with frameworks- I love them because they help me to think cogently but simultaneously, I hate them because they restrict the free-flow of my thoughts and feelings.Feeling/ Thinking is a fluid process on which structure can be imposed only “post-facto” Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the “chain of thoughts” but the possibilities are so many that no one can predict as to the direction in which this river of thoughts and feelings will flow. The experience of a “falling apple”, made Newton ask a certain question which led him to the path of discovering the principle of gravity. There is no particular reason for him to have traversed that path, instead he could well have speculated about the taste of the apple or its nutritional value or the different colours,shapes and sizes in which they come or even what would have happened if the apple had fallen on his head and injured him etc. etc. The possibilities are endless and the connections between any two thoughts can only be in hindsight.

It is here that frameworks play an important role. They channelise the thought process, put them into a pre-fixed structure and enable us to make some sense out of them. However, this structuring extracts a heavy price. It requires us to ignore (or at least put aside) all such feelings and thoughts which do not fit into the pre-fixed structure. For example, if one is thinking about the issue of “gender relations” using the binary framework of Men and Women, then it becomes necessary to exclude all thoughts about people who do not fit into this binary.This is most evident when people use simplistic frames like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, success-failure, right-left, liberal-conservative, selfish-altruistic, introverted-extroverted etc. The more rigidly a person holds the framework, the more he/she is forced to “exclude”. For example  a person who has very rigid ideas about “good” and “bad” will end up excluding everything which is “grey” as compared to the person whose framework is more nuanced.

However, no matter how complex and nuanced a framework may be, it will necessary exclude something and whenever we engage with the excluded phenomenon ,we will be confronted with a paradox. To understand this, we need to understand the nature of paradox.

Paradox is one of the most misunderstood and misused  terms in general discourse. Often we mistake it as any contrary/contradictory pull. For example if I say that I want to be at home and at work at the same time, then this phenomenon is NOT a paradox, it is merely a presence of two conflicting desires. Paradox arises when a logically drawn conclusion from a premise, contradicts the premise itself. A simple example of a paradox is the assertion “I always tell lies”. The difficulty with this assertion is that if it is true, then the person is telling a lie and hence it is necessarily untrue. In other words, a paradoxical assertion has to be “false” in order to be “true” and vice versa.Similarly, a paradoxical injunction can only be followed by disregarding it. When a parent tells a child “don’t listen to me”, then a parent is giving a paradoxical injunction to the child. The child is being asked to “listen” to the parent in order to “not listen”.

Normally, such paradoxes do not create much difficulty for us because we take it for granted that the assertion or injunction is not to be applied to itself. In the examples given above the statement “I always tell lies”  – if not applied to itself ,becomes a simple confession of a compulsive lier. Similarly the parental injunction for “not listening” is simply asking the child to develop his/her own thinking. The difficulty  arises when the  assertion/injunction is applied to itself.  In paradox theory, this  is called  “self-referrence” i.e. when an assertion or injunction is applied to itself. For those who are interested in this subject may like to see my paper   “Beyond The Law Of Contradictions” available here. For the limited purpose of this piece, it is enough to note that the paradox arises  from this phenomenon of “self-referrence”

The paradox becomes apparent whenever a framework (i.e. structure of ideas) is applied to itself. Can an insane person see his own insanity?  In order to do this, the person will necessary have to step out of his/her insanity. The same is applicable in virtually all spheres. An introverted person must be able to step out of his/her introversion in order to recognise it and similarly an extroverted person can see his/her extraversion only by turning the gaze inwards. Take the example of Defence Mechanisms- a very powerful and useful framework for understanding human behaviour. So long as the person is caught in a defence mechanism, it can not become visible to the individual. The moment a memory or an impulse is repressed, it becomes inaccessible to the individual and hence an assertion like “I have repressed something” is self-contradictory or paradoxical.

Thus, the meaningfulness of any framework rests on our ability to stand apart from it. However, the framework by its very nature prevents us from this side-stepping. The framework becomes a sentry of sorts which screens our thoughts and feelings and views their admissibility from its own unique lens. Thus, if an individual is using a framework which looks at organisations as purposive instruments then he/she can only engage with thoughts which pertain to efficiency, productivity, output, skills, competencies etc. All feelings and thoughts about human sensitivity,ambience,  ecology, etc. must be blocked as potential distractions and irrelevant to the matter at hand. The only way in which these thoughts and feelings can find an entry is through questioning the assumption on which the framework is built, which in the case cited above would be – Is organisation only a purposive instrument of performance? If this question is not asked then all endeavours  of humanising the organisation will paradoxically become instruments of further dehumanising as can be seen in expressions like human resources, human inventory, human assets etc. whereby the human being is reduced to being a “commodity”.

Similarly if one tries to fit the phenomenon of “intimacy” in a framework of introversion-extraversion, one will  constantly be running in circles. In intimacy there is a deep connect both with the Self and the Other- it can neither be regarded as introverted nor extraverted. Even if one regards introversion and extraversion as two poles of a continuum, with a large middle ground, it still can not explain intimacy. Intimacy does not happen in any middle ground- it is a state wherein both introversion and extraversion are intense and mutually dependent upon each other. In a sense one is deeply connecting with oneself through connecting with the other and vice versa. Hence in order to engage with intimacy, one has to go to a higher/deeper level wherein introversion and extraversion can be held in simultaneity rather than as two poles of a continuum. This is not to suggest that the framework of introversion and extraversion is of any less value, but only that like all frameworks it stands on some basic foundations (in this case, a clear separation between “inside” and “outside”) and any attempt to engage with phenomenon which go beyond the limits set by its foundations will necessarily create a paradox.

This is in line with the theory of paradox which stipulates that no paradox can be resolved/dissolved at the level in which it arises. In order to address a paradox meaningfully, one needs to move to a higher/deeper level of enquiry. In case of Frameworks, this deeper level refers to the philosophical underpinnings of the framework.

Interestingly, we are living in times when our reliance on frameworks in virtually all spheres of life is increasing exponentially. Be it our personal lives or professional, we are inundated by frameworks like diet charts, exercise regimes, child-rearing practices, competency mapping, bench marking, balanced score cards etc. etc. Simultaneously  our patience and  willingness to understand  the underlying assumptions of these frameworks is coming down. Consequently the only criteria by which we can assess any framework is its relative popularity and acceptance in the market place and the only understanding that we have of any framework is what can be quickly gathered through Google and Wikipedia. The motto of our life seems to be “Why waste time in thinking? Just Google it and act”It is therefore not surprising that today in the name of frameworks what we have are mere fads- which come and possess us for a little while and are then replaced by another set of fads. This is an inevitable consequence of the all too prevalent aversion towards philosophy in our times. Nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley had painted the picture of a “Brave New World” which will only be driven by technology and in which Philosophy will have no place. It seems we are proving him right.

Frameworks are extremely useful provided they are used for stimulating our thinking and organising our thought process. Paradoxically, if we become their captives they can also become the biggest stumbling block to our thinking and hence defeat their own purpose. Perhaps instead of looking at frameworks as “providers of answers”,  if we engage with them as  stimuli for questioning and deeper understanding, we can forge a more meaningful relationship with them.

 

 

Where is the Bhartiya Purush?

Bhartiya Nari is a powerful symbol. It evokes/provokes both reverence and derision. To some people it symbolises all that is great and beautiful about our culture and to others it depicts our misogyny and hypocrisy whereby women are simultaneously deified and oppressed.The symbol represents all the virtues which are associated with a woman and hence an ideal  for every  Indian woman.  Interestingly, there is no male equivalent of this symbol.  I have not come across any term like  Bhartiya Purush in any discourse. Often,all wrong-doings by a woman are treated as a slur on Indian womanhood, whereas in case of men they are treated as personal failures/shortcomings and not in any way reflective of the collective  . Thus it seems that while we have a fairly clearly defined notion of what an ideal Indian woman ought to be, the culture seems to be relatively silent on what an ideal Indian man ought to be.

The obvious explanation for this discrepancy lies in the power/status difference between the two genders. In any system(family, work organisation, society at large) the code of conduct is more strictly enforced for those who are lower in the power hierarchy. People at higher levels, generally have more flexibility and leeway for transgressing boundaries. Their primary task being to ensure that people below them adhere to the prescribed norms by disciplining them.  A patriarchal social design creates power inequity between men and women. Hence it is not surprising that the demands for preserving the culture and its values is placed on women and men can act as the gatekeepers and monitors.

However, there may be another complication in the Indian context. In my understanding (which is also supported by insights gained from scholars like Ashish Nandy) Indian culture is essentially androgynous (integration of the masculine and feminine principle) If anything, it leans more towards the feminine side. Most of the cherished Indian values e.g. primacy of familial ties, peaceful co-existence, looking at nature as a living entity, treating guests as god, faith in cosmic benevolence, respect for wisdom and innocence and not an exclusive worship of youthful virility etc.,have a distinct feminine flavour. These values may not necessarily translate into actual behaviour but they do have a strong normative pull in the Indian Psyche.

On the other hand, the Indian social design is highly patriarchal and reinforces the superior status of men over women. This tension between the essence of the culture (tilt towards the feminine) and social design (tilt towards the masculine) is perhaps resolved through excessive codification for women and ambiguity in the notion of an ideal man.

Thus, while a woman is expected to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good wife, and a good mother; for men the injunctions go rarely beyond being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. Depictions of ideal husbands and ideal fathers are conspicuously absent from most Indian mythology and folklore.  There are many stories about a son sacrificing for the sake of father (e.g. Rama going into exile for 14 years to honour his father’s word, Puru sacrificing his youth for his father Yayati, Bhishma giving up his claim to throne and accepting a life of celibacy so that his father can marry) one hardly comes across similar sacrifices made by fathers. Similarly there are countless stories about a wife’s love and devotion towards a husband but hardly any the other way. It would seem that the underlying message is that while women must grow into multiple roles,men must remain stuck in their “son” role and thereby never truly embrace mature masculinity.

This leads to an uneasy relationship between Indian men and their masculinity. The cultural tilt towards femininity becomes more a source of shame and smallness rather than something to be celebrated. Often these feelings of shame and smallness are discharged through insensitive oppression of not just women but of anyone who is seen as lower in status hierarchy.

Centuries of external aggression and dominance have fuelled the feelings of inferiority even further and left us with a sense of not being sufficiently manly. Thus it is not surprising that the cultural tilt towards femininity becomes even more burdensome for Indian men and they often seek refuge in culturally alien forms of masculinity. What we need to recognise, accept and cherish is the reality that the only form of masculinity which will be meaningful for us will be of an androgynous variety i.e. which has a strong integration with the feminine principle. In recent history a powerful example of this was provided by Swami Vivekanand whose masculinity was accompanied by  strong compassion and service orientation.

In this sense, there ought to be no difference between our notions of an ideal Indian Woman and and an ideal Indian Man, because both are essentially a derivative of the androgynous construct of Ardhnarishwar. By over- codifying  the notion of Bhartiya Nari, we seem to have passed on the entire responsibility of preserving Bhartiyta (Indianness) on to the women. Is it any surprise that it has become a caricature and invites more derision and defiance than respect and inspiration. It is high time that Indian Men start embracing the values which they associate with the construct of Bhartiya Nari. This interestingly may be the only viable way for them to come to terms with their masculinity. The first step in this endeavour is perhaps to go beyond the limited definition of being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. The multiplicity of roles which they associate with an ideal Woman (daughter, sister, wife, mother) needs to come alive for themselves as well ,particularly in terms of their husband and father roles.