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The battle of the sexes

It doesn’t matter if a woman is attractive, accomplished, talented, well-paid, successful, even famous. So long as she is a woman, victimhood is a cross that she must bear, says Seema Goswami.

sex and relationships Updated: Jul 17, 2010 18:39 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times

Over the last few weeks, I have been getting increasingly tired of the narrative of woman as eternal victim. It doesn’t matter if she is attractive, accomplished, talented, well-paid, successful, even famous. So long as she is a woman, victimhood is a cross that she must bear.

And what annoys me even further is that some women seem only too happy to play up to this stereotype when it suits them – and all too often it does.

If they aren’t hired for a job, it must be because of sexist reasons, not because they don’t have the necessary qualifications. If they don’t get a promotion, then it must be because they are women and the bosses are misogynistic so-and-sos. The idea that they may simply not be good enough does not factor in the welter of accusations. And if they are fired, then it must be because they resisted the sexual advances of the Big Bad Boss.

It is not my case that sexual harassment does not happen at the workplace. Of course it does, and women need to make a stand against it, just as companies need to be sensitised to their concerns. But it doesn’t really help any woman’s case when she only levels charges against her superior years after the event – and then after she has been denied promotion or fired.

Harassment at workplaceThe David Davidar-Lisa Rundle affair (for want of a better word) is a case in point. Rundle sued Davidar for sexual harassment after working with him for three years, during which period they went out for meals, played tennis together, attended the theatre and travelled out of town on business. She spent time alone in his office watching Roger Federer on TV, she gave him gifts, he dropped her home. And yet, three years after this long and apparently consensual relationship, she sued him for sexual harassment.

Well, the Davidar-Rundle case has been settled out of court, with all parties signing a confidentiality agreement. So, we will never really know the truth of the matter. Did she really send him ‘cream-filled biscuits’? Did he really ‘force’ himself into her hotel room wearing ‘excessive cologne’? Was it a case of sexual harassment? Or was it a ‘consensual flirtatious relationship’ that went wrong?

But what bothers me about this whole affair is the assumption that any male who is in a position of authority over a female subordinate is ipso facto guilty of sexual harassment even if both parties were willing participants in the relationship.

Why should this be so? Why are we so unwilling to allow women the option of free will? Why are we so reluctant to believe that women can make decisions about their own sexual lives? Why can we not respect a woman as a mature adult who takes responsibility for her own life choices? Why is a woman’s word worth less than that of a man?

The feminist movement has spent many years fighting for the woman’s right to say no. And now, it is received wisdom that a woman has the right to say no to a man at any point. She can ask him up to her hotel room, she can make out with him, she may even invite him into her bed. But right until the moment of consummation she has the right to say no, and he has an obligation to respect that right.

No means no. We all accept that. And any man who does not and forces a woman into having sex is guilty of rape.
Well, my point is this: if no means no, then shouldn’t yes also mean yes?

If an adult woman willingly enters into a relationship with her male superior at work, then it is her choice. She has made her bed, as it were, and now she must lie in it. It should not matter that he is her boss, or that she reports to him, or even that he decides on her promotion.

If she consents to a relationship with him, whether or not it includes sex, there should be no suggestion of sexual harassment. Yes means yes.

You could argue that the man should not be entering into such relationships at the workplace. And his employers would be well within their rights to fire him for vitiating the atmosphere at work and for creating a conflict of interest.
But does the woman have a case of sexual harassment against him? I think not.

Yes mean yes. And every woman has the right to say no if she wants to.

It is specious to argue that often women have no choice but to give in to the sexual demands of their superiors. Frankly, if that’s what the workplace is reducing you to, then it is time to find another job. And the time to complain about being sexually harassed is when sexual advances are first made to you. Crying wolf several years after the event is just plain stupid – especially if you have consented to a relationship all along.

Women need to take responsibility for their own decisions if they want to be treated as equals at the workplace. They need to move their personal narratives beyond that of eternal victimhood. They need to understand that just as no means no, yes means yes. And which one of these words they utter is their choice – and one which they must exercise judiciously.

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First Published: Jul 17, 2010 14:29 IST