The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Sexual Harassment discourse and its unimaginative feminist politics

Photo: Caixin Global

By Cheshta Arora and Debarun Sarkar

This article is in response to Adkar and Ranjan’s “When ‘Feminists’ Tolerate Sexual Harassment in Academia”. We argue that the article is symptomatic of much of what is wrong with the discourse of sexual harassment today which fails to interrogate the phenomenon in a critical manner beyond a politically correct stand of coming out in support for the supposed victim. Sexual harassment as the authors claimed shook the left in the last few years. What they do not understand is it shook us on the left because this narrow neoliberal imagination of feminist politics is something we on the left do not share. Radical, socialist, Marxist, anarcho, queer feminist has been concerned with creating and reinventing a new ‘social’, a new way of relating to one another, a whole revolution of relationships of objects and bodies and how they relate to one another. Challenging ‘sexual harassment’ is only one tiny bit of this massive endeavor.

The Avital Ronell case is certainly more peculiar than List of Sexual Harassment Accused (LoSHA) academics in India because unlike the Kafila post which defended the right to fair trial and the principle of natural justice for the accused listed, the letter in defense of Ronell is more direct and dismissive of the accuser. We do not take a stand on this particular case because we are continents apart and we believe that the nature of harassment cases are extremely particular, affective and local unlike what this social media circulated hysteria around sexual harassment seems to be projecting. Our concern here is to bring forth the assumptions that allow the authors to articulate their stance with regard to this particular case and sexual harassment at large in university spaces. To emphasize, our concern is not with particular cases of sexual harassment or to challenge their legitimacy but to highlight the logic and assumptions that seem to be driving the discourse.

The authors cite NYU policy which “specifically prohibits a consensual romantic relationship between a faculty and student” and the authors take it upon themselves to inform the readers that it is the “responsibility of the feminists to point to and defend the University policy of protecting research scholars from predatory sexual advances”. It is surprising that in recognition of their feminist responsibilities authors have no qualms about supporting the university policies that deny students and teachers a right to consensual romantic and sexual relationship and attempts to cleanse the university space of certain desires that it deems unfit. In their attempt to speak for the university, they obliterate the anti-establishment refrain of feminist politics that has always protested this management and control of desires by powers that be. The recent feminist student campaigns such as pinjra tod, pads against sexism, kiss of love, take back the night have raised their collective voice precisely against this management and control of desires, a legacy of the feudal, colonial and patriarchal regimes that continue to have deep implications on the everyday. The authors fail to interrogate how the discourse of sexual harassment, which resonates from silicon valley to the corridors of Indian academia, wearing the clothes of the messiah, becomes a new and distorted tool of neoliberal power to manage and control desires and bodies for its own sustenance.

The authors in the process become vehement defenders of this paranoiac law and the university which they think is supposed to know everything and is always right. Feminists in America have been vocally against this policy for a while now. Policies such as these try to govern and codify relationships in a paranoiac manner as if by doing so these symptomatic problems shall disappear without actually altering the ‘social’. The authors, we would want to polemically reiterate, probably have never had a chance to be in an intellectual sexual/romantic relationships. It is as if the authors have never fallen in love.

The authors also absolutely fail to grasp the historical nature of harassment discourse which opens up the sexual to a new regime of truth by classifying good and bad sex. They support the university legislation as guarding against “unequal intimate encounters” between the student and the teacher, assuming a mutually exclusive relation between the field of the sexual and the field of power. If one pushes the logic of this argument to its limits, then interracial relationships, intercaste relationships, interfaith relationships, all of which are power laden would become illegitimate.

Recent turn towards policy solutions to legislate and act upon sexual harassment as being different from say, gender discrimination as such, opens up ‘sexual’ conduct and behavior to governance and carries within it certain normative tendencies. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 in India which was welcomed with much fanfare, must be historically located as emerging within a certain historical condition and not as a teleological goal of feminist politics. The 2013 Act recommends organizations of all shades and colors, beyond a certain organization strength, to open up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) which might have its own representational norms and has the cursory power to mediate between the accused and accuser and punish the accused within its limits. Opening up of the sexual to management at this micro level limits its radical potential. This can have grave consequences for non-normative bodies, sexualities and desires which are suddenly opened to management and governance by different groups and individuals with their own claims of ‘feminism’ and gender politics. We want to reiterate that this doesn’t mean that this problem can be solved by a mere act of minoritarian representation which will bring to forefront again a whole set of new normative issues.

Sexual harassment isn’t evident. It isn’t a transcendental universal truth, a constant. The discourse around it emerges within a certain historical context and resonates because of it. It wasn’t because of no reason that the early Indian feminist response to sexual harassment was dismissive, branding it a bourgeois and American issue. It isn’t because of no reason that in the contemporary neoliberal era the resonance of sexual harassment discourse is so high wherein the debate is categorized as a generational conflict between the old and the young. This categorization, used by the authors themselves to attack their agonistic opponents, should be seen in light of disruptive neoliberal markets where innovation is the buzzword and anything old is automatically rendered obsolete.

The (im)possible question to ask, we believe, is what would a workplace and public space bereft of affective resonances resemble – humans without emotions, without the capacity to affect and be affected by, without the field of the sexual? Is that even possible? And if it is, is that a world we as feminists want? We aren’t absolutely dismissive of such a peculiar post-human, asexual imagination if it is thought well, which however, is not even in the feminist radar of the authors but could be an unintentional consequence of their stance.

But, what we certainly take issue at is the narrowing down of current feminist discourse to sexual harassment as the ultimate feminist battle to be won, creating all sorts of moral hysteria over it and in turn censoring diverse voices, wherein a world without harassment is suddenly seen as the feminist utopia. We take issue at this unimaginative feminist politics.

Cheshta Arora is a PhD student at School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

Debarun Sarkar is a PhD student at Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai.


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