Sexual harassment in the workplace has, of late, become fairly common with an increasing number of cases being mentioned on social media, featuring names of prominent men. The complainants are vocal thanks to the MeToo campaign which has unleashed arguments and abuse. The growing feeling among men that they can tease or molest with impunity is hardly surprising. Despite thunderous statements by those in authority, the police seem to be indifferent to such acts or are often themselves engaged in molesting.

The situation is no better in offices where the bosses themselves are the culprits who want to establish intimate relations with women employees and tend to judge performance according to their responses.

It seems almost as if most people in authority have become emasculated and corrupt. Also, there has been an increase in the number of criminalized youth in society. The spread of consumer culture and the accompanying advertisement explosion have played a major role in social degradation.

In the early twenties, long before the expressions like “industrialism” and”consumer culture’ came into vogue, the British historian R H Tawney, described the acquisitive society as one whose “whole tendency and preoccupation and interest is to promote the acquisition of wealth “. As he famously wrote in The Acquisitive Society, “It assures men that there are no ends other than their own ends, no laws other than their desires, no limits other than what they think advisable. Thus it makes the individual the center of his universe and dissolves moral principles into a choice of expediencies”.

As a result, women become special targets of both criminalized youth and corrupt authority. Their lack of physical ability to resist is a major factor. Second, there is the deep-seated cultural factor. Women have been traditionally viewed in terms of stereotypes ~ mother, grandmother and other elders who receive respect; sisters, cousins and others who receive affection; the wife who receives a supposedly pristine and chaste sexual love that doesn’t interfere with the age of her mother as well. Gone are the days when there was no prescribed attitude towards women outside these categories. They are now ubiquitous ~ streets, public places, offices et al. In the absence of a traditionally defined attitude towards women in such roles, people define their own attitudes which, in turn, are heavily conditioned by environmental factors.

One of these is the perception of women as commodities or objects of sexual gratification. This perception has been made ubiquitous by the 20th century industrialism whose ethos has rapidly spread in our country. As Erich Fromm shows in his To Have Or To Be?, it turns the living being into a “commodity in the personality and commodity markets; on the one hand, personalities are offered for sale, on the other, commodities. Although the proportion of skill and human qualities on the one hand and personality on the other as prerequisites of success varies, the personality factor always plays a decisive role. Since success depends largely on how one sells one’s personality, one experiences oneself as a commodity project rather simultaneously as the seller and the commodity to be sold.”

Contemporary advertising frequently capitalizes on women’s sexual attractions to draw public attention to products. In an advertisement of a brand of wheeled suitcases, a sex charged and scantily clad girl is shown dragging one of them. The impact of such publicity may not be difficult to imagine. In her paper Women and Social Violence, in the UNESCO publication, Elise Goulding wrote: “The underlying perception of women on the part of men that makes pornography, rape and prostitution possible is that of objects available for erotic stimulation. “

Perceived as consumer objects, women become victims of the consumer psychology. According to Fromm, “automobiles, television, travel and sex are the main objects of consumerism”. Consumption is a part of the “having” mode of existence which is the result of today’s industrialisation and in which one’s”relationship to the world is one of owning and possessing.” Greed is the “natural outcome of the having orientation. It can be the greed of the misery or the greed of the profit hunter or the greed of the womanizer or the man-chaser…”

In India, a man chaser is not a common phenomenon; a womanizer is. His greed for sex is aggravated by the women who are often attractively turned out, his greed for commodities is stoked by the large numbers and varieties on display or advertised. He becomes the compulsive womanizer who seeks every attractive woman he sees as the compulsive consumer wants to possess all attractive things around him.

In our country, permissiveness has touched only the fringes of a society that remains predominantly conservative.. In the case of the compulsive womanizer as well as the sex-starved individual, frustration often turns into aggression against women. Films often project the teasing of women as a harmless sport secretly relished even by the victims themselves. It is the portrayal of women as sex objects and the direct or indirect association of sex with violence that has a dangerous potential. Such portrayals appeal to large sections because of the distorted concept of sexuality that prevails. Elizabeth Wilson writes in her famous book What is to be done about violence against women? “A taboo area, especially for women, sexuality is defined in male terms. It’s defined purely in terms of male aggression and a major problem for our culture is that aggression and sexuality have become confused. The man must initiate sex and In practice it’s hard to know where sex ends and violence begins.”

Ms Wilson writes with reference to the West and what she writes may not be acceptable even to many who think along similar lines. Yet the basic point she makes has a certain unquestionable validity and holds good in respect of not only the West but large parts of India, indeed all societies where male dominated patriarchal cultures prevail. Clearly there should be a perception of sexuality emphasizing reciprocity and not aggression. Sex must be understood and projected as what it is ~ the ultimate in communication between two persons and not the conquest of one by the other.

Indian feminism’s search for its roots has still a long way to go. We had tended to accept, in toto, western feminism’s definitions of the parameters of the age of the liberated woman. Consequently, childbearing, the dignity of doing household work, the possibility of creating a liberated identity other than that of a professional career woman, have in our version of urban, middle class feminism, been accorded the short shrift. This is to an extent a reflection of Indian feminism’s early origins ~ the campus radicals for whom it was part of a wider movement for social and economic inequality. But it is time,as feminism covers almost five long decades in this country, to seek more meaningful definitions of Indian womanhood.

 

The writer is a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata