Sexual Harassment & Appropriate Sexual Behaviour: An alternative view (Part 2/2)

Continuing from Sexual Harassment: An alternative view, the following post traces the trajectory of the movement against sexual harassment in India.

The first major event that drew attention to this issue was FOWA’s action in the 1980s. A 1991 report from the same organization describes it as –

(…) militant action by the Forum Against Oppression of Women (Mumbai) against the sexual harassment of nurses in public and private hospitals by patients and their male relatives, ward-boys and other hospital staff; of air-hostesses by their colleagues and passengers; of teachers by their colleagues, principals and management representatives; of PhD students by their guides and so on and so forth received a lukewarm response from the trade unions and adverse publicity in the media (FAOW, 1991).[1]

A slew of cases involving prominent people in India before 1997 brought attention to harassment of women at work place. Noteworthy among these are the case against a high ranking officer of the elite Indian Police Service, another against the Environmental Minister in Dehra Dun and against a state Minister in Kerala, by their women colleagues. These in effect, brought to public attention the incidents of harassment of women at work places in India.

In terms of law, the process was to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the ‘criminal assault of women to outrage women’s modesty’, and Section 509 that punishes an individual/individuals for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’. These sections left the interpretation of ‘outraging women’s modesty’ to the discretion of the police officer.[2]

The single most important shift in conception and legal stand on sexual harassment however, happens as a consequence of the case Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan [1997(7) SCC.323] in the Supreme Court of India (SCI). The SCI effect the now widely held and known definition of sexual harassment in India. It stated that sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as:

  • Physical contact
  • A demand or request for sexual favours
  • Sexually coloured remarks
  • Showing pornography
  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature, for example, leering, telling dirty jokes, making sexual remarks about a person’s body, etc

Further, Vishakha Guidelines regarded it as a duty of the employer to prevent sexual harassment and to provide mechanism for resolution of complaints.

Reconfiguration of perception of appropriate sexual behaviour

What began as a genuine and reasonable concern about safety, culminating in introduction of strict laws against crime against women in India, the action in seeking safe working environment and by extension equal rights for women (often framed as oppressed sex) has lost its way. It only seems appropriate to label the current behaviour in men and women regarding appropriate sexual behaviour between them as an acute case of paranoia.  An almost militant imposition of rules of personal and sexual behaviour combined with a predilection to minutely read into every act of men in terms of an act of harassment or as an act of oppression, which is noticeable in several codes of behaviour for employees in organizations and businesses is evident in India. While it is acknowledged that women’s movements has certainly created a safe working environment for women, but it has in the process has left a free form, mutually determined relationship between individuals (same sex or opposite) into shambles.

Then, the credit that women’s rights group takes in having seeded and brought to fruition is not entirely true. Long before the term “sexual harassment” was coined men like Hillary Putnam, John Rawls and Bernard Williams were encouraging women to protest when men of the faculty (in academic institutions) harassed them.[3] In work places now, people feel significant pressure in minding their conversations and behaviour with the opposite sex, with the consequences that social interaction often is laced with anxiety and pressure to sound and appear correct. Such an environment at work place can be labeled adverse at best.

In the understandably passionate and defensive call for action by several women’s rights groups, one also notices that relationships have turned into a turf war with deviations from the determined ideal, hauled up the legal alley with dire consequences. In fact, there are concerns emerging from women’s groups themselves that the feminists have ventured out too far that now any reasonable and enjoyable conversations have become increasingly difficult to handle. Marx spoke of the “alienation” of self as a consequence in an industrial society. Extending that, one can imagine a similar alienation that is likely to befall men, women and other sex, if such an extreme form of perception and ideological bias of men being the oppressor, women the oppressed and that women are objectified, as a default position, is pursued.

Looking ahead, it would be necessary that the state of women and gender based violence as problems are not framed in women versus men binary; nor should it be seen as a male hegemony in the society. The debate and the quest to understand inequality among the sexes as well as gender based violence need to get much more nuanced than this. Factoring the role of media, projection of sexes in media as well “perfomed” roles[4] of various genders would make an appropriate starting point.

[1] Patel, Vibhuti. A brief history of the battle against sexual harassment at the workplace. Source: Date Accessed – 3 July 2015.

[2] ibid

[3] Martha Nussbaum  in a conversation in UC Berkeley. Transcript:

[4] “Performativity” as an  idea in gender was proposed by Judith Butler

Sexual Harassment & Appropriate Sexual Behaviour: An alternative view (Part 1/2)


This post is inspired from a paranoia-laced militant behaviour that I witnessed last week, of a Professor (in a law school) as she spoke about the law school’s sexual harassment code, repeatedly emphasizing how robust the school’s code is. And that it goes “beyond” the Supreme Court of India’s Vishaka Guidelines on safety of women at work place in India. It was tiring and mildly discomforting as I imagined implications of such a paranoid behaviour regarding sexual harassment (and by implication “appropriate sexual behaviour” in the society). It read polemical at some places, but helped me in gathering my thoughts on this issue. 

The intellectual and practical space that the three terms – sex, gender and sexual harassment occupy in the contemporary society is marked with confusion and a collective paranoia about safety of women, in particular. The point about paranoia is made with caution here. It is an impressionistic remark based on the reading of newspapers and other media in the span of last two years. Any discussion on sexual harassment inevitably reduces down to the actions, behaviour and treatment meted out to women, by men. Sexual harassment is steeped into the notion of “men are treating women” in unwelcome, undignified and oppressive ways. The implication of such a default and often combative position is very likely to be against the interest of creating a safe working environment for everyone (men, women and LGBT individuals). Such a bias – that men are the perpetrators and that the burden of change of perception and behaviour lies upon the men, to effect a safe and equal environment for all to live and work in. This article questions this notion.

It is in order, then, that one begins with identifying the trajectories of connotation and meaning that these terms – sex, gender and sexual harassment have taken to arrive their use and meaning in the contemporary society.  Then, legal articulation of sexual harassment is discussed from the perspective of Indian society. And finally, we examine if the current landscape of legal, social and cultural movements in creating a safe working environment must be accepted in its current form or are there spaces that need reorganization and perhaps a rethink.

Trajectories of use and meaning

Sex – the noun form “sex” is first used in late 14th century to mean “males or females collectively” from the latin word “sexus”[1]. Its meaning “quality of being male or female” is first recorded in 1520s, though the source remains uncertain. In the later centuries (19th and 20th) “sex” is used as a signifier of biological and apparent differences between the two occurring forms of human beings – male and female. The physical and morphological features that differentiate between the two types of human form were the basis for the two categories of male and female. By the late 20th century we see many works in human behaviour, anthropology and sociology emerging which speak of the behavioural aspects of a males and females.

Gender – With its proximal meaning with Latin “sexus”, “gender” in noun form derives from Old French in the 14th century to mean “kind, sort or class”[2]. With sex acquiring an erotic connotation, gender came in effective use to signify “sex of a human being”. This is where the interchangeable use of gender and sex begins (as seen in English language), though in feminist writings later on, sex and gender are used with clear distinction – of meaning biological attributes and social attributes respectively. By the 21st century, mainstream sociology, psychology and anthropology makes the meaning of sex and gender (as biological attributes and social, acquired, performed attributes, respectively) commonplace.

Sexual harassment – This term is of the most recent origin among the three. And perhaps the most variedly construed as well as interpreted. It must be acknowledged that sexual harassment is often of subjective nature wherein the individual who has been subjected to such treatment decides the nature of it.  This presents obvious challenges for the law to determine or establish harassment and violation of an individual’s self.

The emergence of “sexual harassment” as a term lies in work of women activists in the US in 1970s when they began speaking of the harassment and unfair treatment, of sexual nature, at their workplaces. It is instructive to read this passage about the origin of the term –

“Eight of us were sitting in an office … brainstorming about what we were going to write on posters for our speak-out. We were referring to it as ‘sexual intimidation,’ ‘sexual coercion,’ ‘sexual exploitation on the job.’ None of those names seemed quite right. We wanted something that embraced a whole range of subtle and un-subtle persistent behaviors. Somebody came up with ‘harassment.’ ‘Sexual harassment!’ Instantly we agreed. That’s what it was.[3]

Prominent activists and academicians along with women’s rights organizations brought sexual harassment to public attention in the successive years and rallied for changes in work place environment as well as demanded a process of redressal.

In later works, particularly of Catherine MacKinnon, sexual harassment is interpreted as a form of sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act, 1964. MacKinnon’s paper “Sexual Harassment of Working Women” becomes a seminal work in understanding of sexual harassment and its interpretation as a form of sex discrimination. MacKinnon notes that that men’s victimization of women “is sufficiently pervasive in American society as to be nearly invisible.[4]

Further, by the time of trial of the case Alexander vs. Yale, MacKinnon’s arguments on sexual harassment and the existing law on civil rights had taken shape of a legal theory. This has been a turning point in the US law as well as the Indian law relating to protection of women against sexual harassment at work place.

It is remarkable that MacKinnon’s work embraces “a philosophy of lawyering that proceeds from individual narratives to legal principle. To advance her conception of equality, she has made women’s experience speak to legal theory.” [5] This approach, as is seen in later years until present, has been at the heart of effecting a regime of strict and perhaps stricter laws against sexual harassment and protection of women at work place.

[1] Online Etymology Disctionary

[2] ibid

[3] Brownmiller, Susan. In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution.

[4] Uggen, Christopher and Blackstone, Amy. Sexual Harassment as a Gendered Expression of Power. American Sociological Review, Vol 69. N0. 1 (Feb, 2004), pp. 64-92

[5] Dinner, Deborah. A Firebrand Flickers. Legal Affairs Magazine. March-April, 2006