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Dear Indian Men, Which Of Your Actions Can Put You In Jail For Sexual Harassment?

It shouldn't be hard for men to educate themselves on what comes under the gamut of sexual harassment, and to avoid such behaviour, if they are willing to listen to what survivors say.

“But does this even come under the category of Sexual Harassment?”, many people asked when a case was filed against Shakar Mishra for urinating on a woman and exposing his genitals to her.

Section 354 (A) of the Indian Penal Code defines sexual harassment as “a man committing any physical contact, advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures… against the will of a woman”, and mandates a punishment of rigorous imprisonment for a term that may extend to three years for it. Though this situation is not explicitly covered, the fact that a man thrust his genitals at a lady against her will certainly qualifies as sexual harassment.*

Most people, however were not willing to admit it was a case of sexual harassment

The argument they made was that the perpetrator did not “intend” to expose his genitals and neither was there any “motive” for him to do so, and therefore it cannot be called sexual harassment.

While the Indian Penal Code doesn’t explicitly go into the difference between “perception” and “intent”, the POSH Act (Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013), which governs sexual harassment at the workplace does, and it clearly specifies that any act that is perceived as “unwelcome” by the woman will be treated as sexual harassment. While “intent” can be considered at the time of sentencing, lack of “intent” cannot be used to plead innocence to prevent conviction.

While the law will take its own course, this throws into focus the larger debate on sexual harassment.

Men, understand that your ‘intent’ doesn’t matter if the woman perceives it as sexual harassment

Conversations with men in real life and on social media conclusively prove that most men have only a vague idea of what constitutes sexual harassment. They seem to believe that only explicitly soliciting sexual favours from an unwilling woman with the promise of advancement at work can be called sexual harassment. They are not even willing to concede that sometimes an unspoken threat of withholding professional advancement might also come under the definition of coercion.

While men (and women) are quick to label women as someone who “slept her way to the top”, they do not similarly call out the men who demanded sexual gratification in return for professional favours. Even in cases where it is documented that a man in power used a similar modus operandi with more than one woman in a subordinate position, an effort is made to seek exemption on the ground of “she was willing” or “he didn’t realise what he was doing was wrong.”

Seeking sexual favours, though more spoken about, is only one of the many types of sexual harassment. Locker room banter, off-colour jokes, commenting inappropriately on a woman, singing or humming songs which may make a woman uncomfortable, touching women against her will all come under sexual harassment. Yet, there is extreme reluctance on the part of men to acknowledge them as types of sexual harassment. Men seem to believe that since all those types of behaviours have always traditionally been acceptable in the workplace, they can continue to indulge in them (or look away when others indulge in them). There is an urgent need to sensitise men (and women) on what does and does not constitute as acceptable behaviour.

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Men also try to argue that as long as they do not intend to sexually harass a woman, it will not be deemed as sexual harassment. This mindset needs to change, and men need to understand that when it comes to sexual harassment, the perceived impact is more important than the intent. While the punishment for sexual harassment might be lower if the perpetrator can demonstrate lack of intent, the incident still gets classified as sexual harassment if the victim can prove that she perceived it as such.

The pitfalls of sensitisation workshops… because men refuse to learn better!

While there is urgent need to conduct sensitisation workshops, especially at the workplace, women have reported that the attitude of men towards women occasionally changes for the worse after these workshops. Many men start indulging in passive aggressive behaviour and make a big show of talking about how they need to be careful of women, because women can take offence at the slightest provocation and slap a case of sexual harassment against them. Though this is made out to be a joke, by constantly talking about how “women have the power to charge men with sexual harassment,” women in fact get disempowered and reluctant to speak up even if they have a genuine complaint.

It should not be hard for men to educate themselves on what comes under the gamut of sexual harassment, and to avoid such behaviour. However, in order to do that, men should be willing to listen to women on what they consider inappropriate behaviour, instead of dictating what should and shouldn’t qualify as sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can cause a range of mental, emotional and even physical symptoms in the victims. It is essential that both men and women understand the entire gamut of sexual harassment and work together to eliminate it to the extent possible.

* Section 354 (A) of the Indian Penal Code is not the only section under which Shankar Mishra has been booked. A case has also been registered under Section 294 (obscene act in public place), Section 509 word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman, and Section 510 (misconduct in public by drunken person) of the Indian Penal Code, as well as under Aircraft Rules.

Image source: YouTube/ short film The Feeling is Mutual

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

54 Posts | 57,736 Views

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