When does a man sexually harass a woman? Wow, such a pertinent question to ask these days. Even a long stare can be considered abusive and harassing, if it makes a woman feel uncomfortable. But, again, how can you consider looking as abusive, strong, or soft as it appears to the other person? The act of looking also constitutes admiration or a command. So, which is more important when determining whether an act is sexually harassing: intent, personal evaluation, or the consequence? In this regard, you can suggest that any ways of looking that make a woman feel unsettling, anxious, and uncomfortable can be considered harassing. It may appear absurd, but in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and a series of allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation, and harassment against men from various professional backgrounds, these descriptions and discussions have become rather necessary for exploring and assimilating the new realities of work, relationships, emerging social values associated with sub-cultures and lifestyle alternatives, and finding a middle ground or mutually inclusive comfort zone.

Seriously, this surge has forced men to reconsider the concept of men and women’s relationships outside of marriage and family from a completely different perspective. For example, if a man has a meeting with a woman in this office room, he is well advised to keep his door open, tell his colleagues that he is having a meeting with a woman alone, and also keep his CCTV camera open for further verification if it becomes necessary. Here, it is important to understand that unlike sexual abuse that involves physical assault or intrusion, sexual harassment includes a spectrum of actions, reactions, words, habits, and behaviors, from serious incidents of sexual assault, including rape, to sexually suggestive inappropriate gestures, manners, and comments and communication about appearance, clothing, or body parts.

As the discussion goes on about sexual harassment, it has been suggested that touching is a big no. When a man touches a woman without her consent, which is a big red-line. Words can be sleazy and extremely vulgar, but they are tolerable. A casual flirt or even a sexual invitation with simple spoken words doesn’t constitute sexual harassment, if women are professionals, they can tolerate words, at least in some sense. But, even with words, what really matter is “who” is speaking or texting these words. For example, a male colleague who is a friend at the same level of managerial hierarchy with a similar age group and nonmarital status tells a female co-worker that you look sexy or hot today, and this utterance may not be a big concern if it remains only as an expression and not as a wrong intention. However, if a married male employee in the upper levels of management uses sleazy language or engages in a casual flirtation with an unmarried female employee, the act can be framed as sexual harassment because this act may appear as offensive, unwelcoming, and intimidating to the other person. Besides, seeing women as sexual objects or objects of pleasure is morally wrong. Hence, the matter of abuse and harassment is not just about men and women; it also involves other demographic profiles, social status, power position, professional and managerial hierarchy, the nature and depth of a mutual relationship, and the level of comfort between two individuals. More importantly, the matters of abuse and harassment can no longer be hidden behind the narratives of allegations, gossip, and rumors. After all, the allegations may come and go, but the issues and threats of abuse, allegations, mistrust, legal proceedings, and arrest remain.

New Realities

With the #MeToo movement and different allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation emerging in different professional contexts, we have seen directors, actors, sports stars, editors, corporate executives, writers, and journalists all come under some sort of scrutiny and criticism for their inappropriate actions towards their female colleagues. Even among the diversity of charges, there is a common thread that runs through most of these cases: these men and women have worked together. “What does men and women working together has anything to do with sexual harassment cases?” Many people may wonder. Here, we should not forget that the concept of men and women working together is a recent phenomenon, especially in our socio-cultural context. And many of us are unaware of the micro-level sexual consequences of men and women working together. Therefore, we also hear conservative voices shouting here and there that men and women must not work together. After all, in our society, gender roles have also been mostly rigid; therefore, intermingling between men and women in a common workplace for a sustained period of time has raised some concerns that have never been thought out before from moral, ethical, and social perspectives.

More importantly, in the context of new, emerging, and even disruptive realities related to work, profession, the nature of male-female relationships, gender roles, cultural value shifts, and morality/ethical standards associated with sexual behavior, framing the issues of sexual abuse and harassment only from a specific socio-cultural perspective is becoming increasingly difficult. We need to move away from our mindset that still allows men to frame their female colleagues within the parameters of traditional gender roles and socio-cultural expectations and assumptions. Indeed, even for the generation just prior to us, work belonged to the domain of men, and family life was separated and segmented for women. However, times have changed, and men and women working together in the same workspace is now a reality without any point of return. Hence, the concept of gender equality transcends socio-political and economic discourses and also necessitates collective cultural, behavioral, and ethical progress.

Similarly, we human beings are biological creatures; hence, attraction towards the opposite sex is supposed to be normal. Apart from other competences and skills, we also carry impulses of attraction, lust, and pleasure into our workplace, and the incidents of sexual advances, abuses, and harassment mostly germinate from this source. Sexual desires are such a powerful impulse that even a strong wall of social values and cultural norms crumbles and bursts before them. Therefore, we must recognize the challenges and complexities of both men and women as biological entities with sexual impulses and emotional attachments working together in different professional settings. Besides, it is common in organizations to find sexual predators and perverts covered underneath nice suits. Likewise, sexual relationships have also become power and political games within organizations. Both genders have used sex as a means to gain unfair advantages and undue preferences. People belonging to both genders have and will compromise sexual favor in exchange for organizational gains. Women, on the other hand, bear the brunt of the consequences of any sexual encounter, whether forced or consensual. Therefore, a casual yet consensual sexual encounter can be considered abusive. Because like every other act, sex also involves responsibility, and it can’t remain separate from guilt, shame, and the feeling of being abused.

But again, allegations of sexual harassment have exposed the limitations of men and women working together as biological creatures. If men and women are going to work together, perhaps we need to rethink our sex morality. And, with no rules governing micro-sexual behavior in an organization, only time can decide when a sexual invitation, casual flirt, or consensual sexual encounter returns as abuse or harassment down the line. Another challenge here is that sexual behavior is mostly a private incident between the alleged victim and victimizer without the direct presence of a third person as a witness, but allegations and scandals always get public, hence these allegations and scandals fall under the realm of fake news, conspiracy theories, gossip, rumors, and a whole lot of speculation.

Moreover, beyond marriage, sexual behavior has become rather acceptable in other forms of relationship between a man and a woman as well. Besides, these days, loving relationships, living together, friendships, relationships as partners, casual dates, and one-night stands all involve sexual behavior. Hence, the distinction between premarital and marital has become rather irrelevant. It’s a new reality that we have become more sexually active than ever before, whether due to easy access to contraceptives and birth control pills, emerging lifestyles and acceptance of sub-cultural values like free sex and love, gender rights issues, or simply as a consequence of living as a part of a global village.

Continue the discussion 

As we move towards greater expansion of gender participation and equality in various dimensions of human life, and as we recognize and accept sexual behavior as something normal and not deviant in other different orientations of male and female relationships apart from marriage, we need to radically shift our mindset that still associates sex morality within rigid circles of marriage and traditional values. Still, our legal framework and social norms make it difficult for our society to consider the presence and acceptance of sexual behavior outside of marriage.

As professionals, many women have encountered different impressions of sexual harassment, from subtle to gross, from their male colleagues and seniors. As a result, they continue to feel pressure as professionals to accept these misbehaviors as compromising realities of their professional lives, rather than anything personal or exclusive. A little bit of touching, tapping, tight hugging, leering, pushing, patting, pinching, double-meaning jokes, and flirting need to be accommodated, compromised, and accepted as both intentional and unintentional consequences of men and women working together. Hence, we are still a long way from creating a gender-friendly and inclusive work space, as indicated in Sustainable Development. Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere; and, more importantly, eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including sexual exploitation and other types of exploitation.

Similarly, there will be consequences for both men and women working together in a common workplace as biological and sexual beings. Therefore, it is necessary to draw the lines between “yes” and “no,” between “unwanted invention” and “mutual consent,” between short-term and long-term relationships. Likewise, women need to keep their voices up, loud, clear, and sharp to challenge the patriarchal mindset that regards women as objects of pleasure and disposable items after fulfilling their sexual gratifications.

More importantly, it is also necessary to consider human sensibilities and ethos before framing any incident, event, or invitation within the parameters of sexual abuse. Indeed, there must be a distinction between a casual flirt, teasing, or sloppy or poor appraisal and a serious allegation of sexual coercion, molestation, or sexual violence. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that there are differences in individual behavior in any relationship involving a male and a female. As a result, some undesirable and unpleasant behaviors must be identified, cautioned, and warned as an opportunity for the individual involved to correct himself, while others require close scrutiny and a strong response with both professional and social consequences. Even in a minor case of sexual abuse, it is always wrong and unjustified to coerce or even give suggestions to the victim for compromise, tell the people to forgive and forget, or simply ignore the incident. And, when there are serious allegations of abuse that need to be framed and charged, proper legal proceedings and punishments are of the utmost necessity.

Furthermore, we must engage in comprehensive discussions about sexual harassment in various professional and public settings with contextual perspectives in order to raise awareness about intentions, actions, and the potential consequences of our individual actions on the other person. And it is necessary to realize that your comfort zone can appear as an area of concern or discomfort for another person. Hence, let’s become more conscious and careful.

(Gaurav Ojha is a writer, researcher and educator at different educational institutions. He can be reached at ojhagaurav84@gmail.com)