Sexual Harassment: What does it really mean?
The global anti sexual harassment movement, the #MeToo Movement saw manifestation in India when last year, former Miss. India and actress Tanushree Dutta in an interview, mentioned about how she was sexually harassed on the sets of the movie Horn Ok Please.
One could ask – how did sexual harassment become such a global movement? Across the globe, it Is often misunderstood that to constitute sexual harassment, the offence must be as heinous as a case of grave/ serious molestation or akin to rape or an attempt to rape. Something that is perhaps physical in nature and involves physical abuse. Anything else, whether a repeated casual brush against someone’s skin, or commenting on someone’s body (without checking the comfort level of the person spoken about), or cracking bawdy jokes are deemed to be casual and acceptable gestures. Of course, to say whether brushing against someone’s skin or commenting on someone’s body or cracking jokes would amount to sexual harassment or not would depend on facts and circumstances of each incident, given that a sexual harassment experience is purely a subjective one.
Given the subjective nature, to understand sexual harassment, it is important to understand what may be ‘unwelcome’ to a person and to understand ‘unwelcome’ it is important to understand boundaries, and the boundaries that each individual has or creates around themselves. On a deeper analysis, one would see that everyone’s boundaries are different. This is because personal boundaries are very subjective in nature and differ from person to person given several factors such as comfort level, social conditioning etc. This, is the primary reason why, sexual harassment is also so subjective.
Let’s take an example of schools, when we were In school, did we share our tiffin with everyone? Did we call everyone our best friend, or was it one or two people only? Did we grow up talking about our personal problems to everyone? Why is it so important to understand this, that we grow up unconsciously creating boundaries around us? Now, those boundaries may differ and change along with age, but as adults certain habits inculcated during childhood stay along with us.
Think of a work place, does everyone have the same nature or demeanour? Some are vocal, some are quiet, some like communicating only on emails, and some like talking face to face. To each his own. Everyone has a different way they respond to the environment around them. But do we actually try to understand what the boundaries of other people are?
Moreover, even if we tried, how easy is it to understand the boundaries of others? Will they come and explain it to us? Are we supposed to go and ask them about their boundaries? Or are there some other ways through which we can understand this? Human beings are gifted to communicate non verbally, even if they didn’t want to. Our body language expresses a lot even without us intending to do so. That’s why it’s called body ‘language’ because if looked at carefully, the body has a very clear language of its own.
Look at the example below-
Picture a college or a social party post work, there would be some people who would not participate while dancing in a group. They would either hide out or stay away or totally just sit back and enjoy the music instead. On the other hand, to a person who loves to participate and dance in groups, this reluctance may seem difficult to fathom and they may wonder how one can enjoy the same music while seated, and not join in the dance with everyone instead.
In this case for some people, dancing in a group may NOT be comfortable as they view dancing in close quarters with many people in a small area as a violation of their own personal space or boundary. Thus, when they decide to stay away from dancing, they may be giving away cues of discomfort by way of body language.
It is also important to note that, very often people don’t say a NO that easily. Take the example of an after office party at a pub. One may feel uncomfortable with the alcohol and smoke, however, how often do people really verbalise their feelings or emotions about such things? There are several factors that play a role in this. On the one hand one may feel that others may find it rude, they may not be able to become part of the group, peer pressure, lack of surety about position in the team etc. and on the other hand, personal thoughts and beliefs, upbringing, society, culture etc. people often tend to get confused on how they want to react to such situations. Hence, while different people react differently, most of the times, the first situation, especially in the workplace context, trumps over the second.
But things like these happen everywhere, and even in cases of a violation of personal boundary, we repeatedly downplay the incident by saying ’It was not an experience of sexual harassment’. Unfortunately, any form of harassment whether it is of sexual nature or not, is often understood the best by the person who is harassed. Take the example of driving to work on a rainy day when there is a lot of traffic, but when you share the experience with someone at home who has probably not stepped out and seen the traffic first hand, he/she may not understand or feel the ‘tension’ and the stress as you did. But, did you feel harassed by the traffic and rain and chaos and long day that you lived through? Yes. Will anyone else who has not experienced what you have experienced that day feel harassed when you tell them about your ordeal? They may understand your situation but certainly not experience that feeling themselves.
I would like to end this article by recalling a line from the famous Harper Lee novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”:
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
– Shayanti Roy, Associate at POSH at Work