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

“Madam Sir”!!

Jai-Gangaajal
Priyanka Chopra in Jai Gangaajal – a poster from the film

 

Saw “Jai Gangajal”,.It is a typical Prakash Jha film and the structure of the plot is almost the same as the earlier film Gangajal- A brave and honest cop in a small town, taking on the combined might of corrupt feudalistic politicians and economic interests with collusion of the law and order machinery.  She moves forward by triggering off forces of vigilante justice and negotiating his/her way through this mess to finally establish that Law must prevail for both the oppressors and the victims. The main difference is that in this case, the protagonist is a woman who is addressed by her subordinates and also many others as “Madam Sir” I do not know whether or not it is a prevalent practice in at least some parts of the country but that is not very important. What stayed with me is the symbolic significance of this oxymoron.

At one level, it is nothing more than a somewhat cute but silly way of the people concerned to come to terms with a situation that they may not be accustomed to. However, it also tells us how strong is the hold of “gender roles” in our psyche and how deep our entrenchments are. The simplest explanation of this oxymoron is that the two words are signifying two completely different things. While ‘Madam’ acknowledges her gender, ‘Sir’ on the other hand is an affirmation of her status and authority. By obvious implication, ‘Sir” is seen as having a strong co-relation with power and authority as compared to “Madam”. If this be so, then it is a strong statement about our difficulty in associating power and authority with the female gender.

There is another factor which makes the issue more complex  – the nature of the profession itself. Had the protagonist been a politician or a bureaucrat or a corporate executive perhaps an expression like “Madam Ji” may have sufficed. Here we are talking of a profession which is largely regarded as masculine. There is a strong link between the picture of an “ideal police officer” that we carry in our mind with qualities that we associate with masculinity. Thus, in many languages, words like courage, valour etc are often used interchangeably with manliness.  At one time people described Indira Gandhi as the only man in the cabinet, and this was meant as a complement and as a sign of her effectiveness. Similarly expressions like “hathon mein choodiyan pehnan” (wearing bangles in ones wrist) are regarded as symbols of cowardice. The term “Namard”(Impotent)  signifies  lack of courage in a man and inability to stand up for what is right. In this context, the term “Madam Sir” can be interpreted as a “Woman who is showing all the qualities associated with masculinity”

The term “Madam- Sir” can also be seen as an integration of the feminine and masculine principles. The portrayal of the protagonist does incorporate the qualities normally associated with the two genders. The soft, gracious and dignified way in which she holds her own ground in relating to her “patron” is indicative of her approach in dealing with both explicit and implicit oppression. However the most interesting element in this context was the contrast with one of the other main characters-  the Circle Inspector (called Circuit Babu) B.N.Singh-the totally masculine but corrupt police officer who had been helping the Bablu/Dablu duo in their political/economic misdeeds. Singh eventually turns the corner and joins the fight against Bablu/Dablu, but the trigger for this change is the betrayal from them and the disrespect shown towards his uniform. In fact “Wardi Par hath nahi lagana chahiye tha” (Don’t show disrespect to the uniform) is a sentiment which he expresses more than once. I think, Jha missed an opportunity by not contrasting the preoccupation with concern for “Wardi Pe Hath” (disrespect from others) with “Wardi Pe Daag” ( sanctity of the uniform).

Nonetheless, the two different ways one can look at “honour” is of significance. The masculine way where the concern is with extra-spective lens (how one is seen and treated by others) and the feminine way where the concern is with the introspective lens (maintaining one’s sanctity in one’s own eyes) Sadly, like in all other spheres of life, it is only the masculine way which is focused upon by most of us including women.

In its own way “Madam-Sir” says a lot about the times we are living in. On one hand, the traditional bifurcation of socio-economic roles associated with the two genders are fast disappearing and we find women who are playing roles associated with men (e.g.police force) and to a lesser extent men playing roles associated with women (e.g. house-keeping, child-care etc.). Simultaneously the gender roles configured in our minds are still determined by the social arrangements of an earlier era. . The expression “Madam-Sir” is only the tip of the ice-berg. Beneath lies a complex world of power inequities, gender roles and relationship between the masculine/feminine principles which are part of every human being irrespective of his/her gender. While to some extent the issues of inequality are being recognised and dealt with , all other issues are either ignored or treated as “problems” to be taken care off.

The issue of the co-holding of the masculine and feminine aspects is almost totally ignored. Hence while the world is becoming a little less patriarchal (with slightly reduced difference between the relative status and power of the two genders) , it is simultaneously becoming more Patri-centric i.e. governed by masculine principles.Femininity is seen as a weakness with which even women do not want to identify. While, many of them may proclaim as how they value their femininity, scratch the surface and you will find that this “valuing” is of “Women with balls” variety.

The issue of frozen gender roles is relatively easier to see, but it is often denied in oneself and projected on others like we do with all such uncomfortable phenomenon. Thus it is not uncommon to find people who claim that while they themselves are free of all such biases and prejudices, most other people are not and hence they are forced to compromise. On the other hand, there are people who believe that these “frozen gender roles” are how things ought to be and in the name of women’s liberation we are playing havoc with the existing social order. There are also people who own up these frozen roles, feel guilty and ashamed about them and work hard towards getting rid of them. Personally, I have not been able to resonate with any of these and have found them counter-productive. The more I deny them or the more I project them on to others or the more I try to fight them, the more virulent they become.

I am a product of a patriarchal heritage. While the family I grew up in was reasonably liberal and progressive for its time, the basic codings that I received about gender roles were essentially based upon patriarchy e.g. associating the role of a provider/protector with male gender and associating the role of an ambience builder with the female gender. Rationally, I know that these codings are no longer relevant in the present day world, but these codings have an emotive force which I can not deny. In fact, the more I repress/suppress this force, the more I push it into my psychic under-belly and the more lethal it becomes. I would like to say a gentle and gracious good bye to these codings but it is not easy. So far I have only been able to convince them that they have already over-stayed and taken them to the threshold. I do not intend to push them out of the door. Instead, I will patiently wait for them to leave of their own accord.

I would like to hear your experiences with gender roles and dynamics between masculine/feminine principles both within your self and the larger context.