The Curious Case of Choice

Is it sexual harassment if a relationship between a man in power and a female subordinate is based on obligation or fear?

In a world of liberals and conservatives, I am forced to consider some middle paths. The attachment to some tags – liberal, feminist, humanist- sometimes make it difficult to even consider some thoughts. Nevertheless, let me try.

Consider this situation:

A male political leader is alleged of moral turpitude, as a result of an extra marital relation with a woman and the political party decides to expel the member based on this issue. An added offence was that the person was alleged to have used the official premises of the party for this incident.

Although this post is inspired by the above mentioned incident, it is not about the incident per se. The effort is to have a broader discussion on moral standards of public leaders. I have no idea what happened between the two people and that is not of interest to me. In this note, let me consider a hypothetical situation of a political leader who engages in extra marital sexual relations with a woman. 

I found that there are two responses to the question, “How fair was it to expel the person from the political party?”

There is no doubt that this decision would have appealed to the conservative sections of the society. A married man, engaging in extra marital sexual relations, does not appeal to their moral standards and therefore they may appreciate the move. Neither is our legal system free from such moral standards. Isn’t adultery still a crime?

The second type of response comes from people who hold a more liberal view about sex. They believe that consensual sex outside marriage is nobody’s business. The political party could have taken action against the member for using official premises for personal purposes. The party, however, has no business making moral judgments on a man’s personal life, especially regarding his choice of a sexual partner. This was an infringement on his sexual freedom.

For the sake of this post, henceforth I refer to these set of people as “liberals”.

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I find both responses problematic.

I find the first response problematic because, like the liberals, I don’t believe that sex outside marriage should be treated as a crime. I don’t believe that the state/government/organization has a role to play in deciding the morality of anyone’s sexual preferences. However, between the partners, such an incident may cause pain, if there was a promise of exclusivity. Therefore, there are chances that this incident might lead to conversations about ethics and morality between them. But, that too, is nobody’s business.

In the case of the second response, while I believe in the basic premise of their argument, there was something about the situation which was disturbing. This post is a response to this liberal argument.

I believe that the power equation between the involved people has to be considered and scrutinized before we hold flags for the man’s sexual freedom. My dilemma is this – How can one be sure that the relation between those involved is indeed one of consent? The liberals argue that this can be determined based on whether the woman complains or not. As long as the woman does not complain, it should be assumed that the relationship is based on consent. If not, interference would just be a case of moral policing. However I am not convinced that sexual freedom for a person in a position of power, is as naïve as it sounds.

Am I wrong in expecting that a person in a position of power should be accountable to higher moral standards, not because extra marital sex is wrong, but because potential for exploitation is much higher with that kind of power? 

Am I wrong in expecting that a person in a position of power should be accountable to higher moral standards, not because extra marital sex is wrong, but because potential for exploitation is much higher with that kind of power? Therefore, I argue that when a political leader is alleged to be engaged in an extra marital sexual relationship, it should be scrutinized even if the woman does not complain.

Now, that was problematic for the liberals.

I was making an assumption that there was a possibility of exploitation. They were making the assumption that that the sex was consensual and therefore, the organization need not interfere. According to them, my argument denies women of their agency to make a choice.  They argue, this is sexual freedom for the woman, too. But, is it? In the rhetoric of sexual freedom of the man, I find it disturbing that the abnormal situation between a female subordinate and a male superior is rendered invisible. The purpose of this post is to look a little deeper into the notion of choice, as it seems to be, in these relationships.

Consider the case of casting couch in the film industry. How often do women complain? If women, don’t complain, does it mean that there is no harassment? Should we wait for that one woman who complains or can we interfere on the basis of allegation from a third party?

Before entering into the realm of even answering those questions, there are a few things one needs to understand regarding sexual harassment in the context of organizations which are predominantly male.

Sexual harassment is not rape. It is far more subtle than that.

Think of the following relationships: A male boss and a female subordinate, a male teacher and a female student or a male political leader and a female citizen. In each of these situations, it could be possible that the male plays the role of a mentor, guide and in the case of the political leader, may have helped out the woman using his political influence. In any case, these three relationships are founded on feelings of obligation, fear or respect.

Most importantly, these men, even when they make sexual advances, are not just about that incident. They are not villains. They are men who help, support, guide and mentor. Just one problem. They asked for sex, at some point.

Is it ethical that the man initiates a sexual relationship?

Let me be clear. Personally, I don’t think it is unethical for men to initiate a romantic relationship with women that they feel attracted to – if the relationship is equal. In those cases, the woman does have the choice. However, I don’t think, the situation is similar when the person is in a position of power.

The liberal superior, in all these cases, will most probably say this. “I felt attracted and I asked her. The ball was in her court.” When the person in a position of power makes such a move, the ball is not entirely in her court. I feel it is unfair to make the woman decide the direction of the relationship when in reality this decision is not free from the shackles of hierarchy, obligation and respect – something that the man is aware of. Moreover sexually motivated moves, are not a direct, “Can I have sex with you?” It is often couched in a million other moves, hints and so forth. How fair is it, to expect the woman to constantly take responsibility for each of those hints?

Why does the man make the move?

Either he is not conscious of his power, or he is misusing his power. In this debate regarding sexual freedom, I fear that the infringement on a subordinate’s freedom will go unnoticed. We can talk about sexual freedom as much as we want. But, I don’t want the man to say, “I didn’t think, she didn’t have a choice?” I want him to assume that she has a less equal choice.

I say so, because I think the situation is tricky. There is no way of knowing what actually happened. Consider the situations, I mentioned above. It is very unlikely that the woman would complain. The situation is complicated. There is no evidence. The woman still respects the man for a lot of other qualities. And she has much to lose.

Therefore, I believe the onus for being careful about relationships should lie with the person in positions of power.  Thus, teachers should not consider students, superiors should not consider subordinates and political leaders should not consider help seekers as possible sexual partners. The reason being, it is very difficult to gauge whether the relationship was indeed consensual or a question of power.

By now, I am sure the liberals are up in arms. How is it possible? Am I then saying that superiors should not foster romantic relationships with their subordinates? Am I implying that political leaders should not fall in love with anyone in their constituency?

Hmm…! I was a little disturbed. Am I indeed saying that? Obviously, I don’t believe that.

Therefore, I referred back to these scandals – Bill Clinton, David Davidar, Tiger Woods – to find my answer.

Look at how the script unfolds. It begins with a prompt denial from the man and ends with an apology and promise of loyalty to the wife. Surely, these men are not crusaders for sexual freedom! If they had indeed stood up and fought for sexual freedom, I would have appreciated their stand. I do believe that sexual freedom is what will set women free, forever. These men don’t stand for any such liberation. The apology to the wife is a sad reminder that she shouldn’t be doing what they just did. But, there lies a more important question – what about the woman they had sex with? What did it mean to her dignity, when they denied the relationship, the moment it became public?

The liberals dream of a world, where sex is not associated with a woman’s dignity. I too dream of that world. But that world does not exist today. The liberals argue. that rules, based on the status quo, strengthen it further. While I think that could be true, how can one be blind to the lived experiences of women who live in today’s world? In today’s world, sex is indeed associated with dignity.

With this assumption, let me attempt to answer the question, I asked before. Do I mean that superiors cannot foster romantic relationships with their subordinates? Am I saying that political leaders cannot fall in love?

I realized, I am not saying that. I believe they can foster romantic relationships. The trouble in these scandals lies in the clandestine nature of their operation. When a person in power initiates a sexual move, it is usually not a call for a relationship but rather, a call for clandestine sex. According to me, this is problematic. Therefore, I don’t find it unethical that Karunanidhi has two or three wives/live in partners, but I do have a problem if a leader like him, was alleged of a one night stand with an unknown woman – because there is a possibility that this was a question of power.

Since an outside person cannot verify whether exploitation has happened or not, I would expect that leaders do not engage in clandestine relationships where the possibility of exploitation is very high. If they believe that sexual freedom beyond marriage is nobody’s business, they could very well air their opinion, and fight for their right.

This is not a moralistic position on sex. This is about setting higher standards for leaders. This is about letting leaders know, that they cannot be perpetuating possibilities for exploitation. It could be possible, that some leaders may be nurturing a genuine, but clandestine sexual relationship, which is not built on exploitation. But for every one relationship that is genuine, I am afraid, there are many more which are exploitative. Since an outsider cannot distinguish which is which, I expect leaders to open themselves to such scrutiny.

For example, take the case of teacher-student sex in American Universities. I believe most Universities discourage such relationships. If you regularly watch American sitcoms, you will see how this is portrayed. They show the teacher, feeling guilty for wanting to pursue a sexual relationship with a student. They also show the teacher being cautious, because of the University rule. The accountability is clear. The boundaries are defined. The norms are set. I would prefer that such norms are set in politics as well. Therefore, I argue that extra marital, clandestine relationships of political leaders should be open to scrutiny.  At the same time, open relationships should not be stigmatized.

Another question that liberals ask, is this – What if the woman also wants to have sex, but with anonymity?  If the organization interferes, does this not affect her privacy?

Yes. It is possible that her privacy is intruded. I just have a weak counter argument. I somehow believe that there are very few women in our country who are free from the sex-dignity association – in their own minds and in the society that they live. In any case, I would hope that the investigating authorities maintain the dignity of those involved by holding the investigation with as much sensitivity as possible. If the investigation findings state that the relationship was indeed one of choice, the matter can be closed without any further action. Some people would find that this interference is not called for, in a case where the woman has not complained. I believe, that in many cases, the issue is beyond a woman, because potential for exploitation is very high, in a clandestine sexual relationship when a person of power is involved.  It is possible that leaders may have developed genuine interest for someone in a less powerful position. But the organization will have no way of knowing. Hence, responsible leaders may have to be open to this kind of scrutiny.

It sounds like an infringement of rights, but power does come with a price tag, doesn’t it?

PS: Although, I mentioned a male superior and a female subordinate, the principle remains same for a female superior, as well. The same holds true for homosexual relations as well.

Thanks to Fourth Estate Critique e-group for triggering this discussion.


About the Author


Preethi is currently pursuing her Graduate Studies in Sociology in Purdue University in the US. She believes that her two years at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, where she did her post-graduation have read more...

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