Sexuality and Harassment

The debate around sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement already seems to be saturated in terms of meaningful dialogue. While on the one hand, these conversations have led to a social and political awakening about systemic issues facing women in patriarchal societies, on the other hand, it has resulted in the flattening of nuances involved in negotiating a sexual relationship. The purpose of this one-day round table was to reopen this dialogue and move beyond cautionary tales about perpetrators and narratives of victimhood in order to see how we can provide a radical challenge to the ways in which we sexually relate to and work with one another.


These conversations, co-organized by Partner for Law in Development (PLD) and the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality (CSGS), spread across three panels, will look at the many dimensions involved in sexual desire, attraction, boundary setting, agency and transgression. Can we universally codify what it means to be in a consensual relationship? Do we understand the cultural undercurrents and the formal structures that inform our agency to give consent, as well as the power differentials that underpin it?

These questions are not entirely new, but by looking at them through the lenses of psychological formations, cultural practices, and legal frameworks, we intend to throw open the complexities of desire, the difficulties of defining “due process” and the limits of harassment, the centrality of the law and within that, our approaches to crime and punishment in the context of sexual violence.


The round table was held at the India International Centre in New Delhi on December 1. You may find a report of the entire conference here.


The psyche has been largely neglected in our public engagements with sexuality. Instead, we overwhelmingly rely on law, and its vocabulary of crime and punishment as the primary tools with which to address sexuality and harassment. Such a skewed emphasis has resulted in a lack of knowledge about how, why, and whom we desire. It also flattens out structural complexity in favour of punitive certainty.


It is worth asking, for instance, how students on a university campus—who have just about reached the age of consent as per legal definition—understand their sexual selves in an environment riddled with peer pressure, ideas of sex peddled by popular culture, as well as growing awareness of their sexual desires?

How do adults navigate the realm of intimate pleasure-seeking relationships at their workplace? A recognition of the power differential in sexual relationships can lead to a clampdown on intimacy at the workplace; mind/body dualisms can be invoked to deny the presence of a desiring physical body. This panel addressed how a psychoanalytical approach to sexuality can help us negotiate better the complications of power and the messiness of desire.


The discourse on sexual harassment in the public domain seems to be dominated by the ethical complications of the #MeToo movement, primarily concerned with debating the pros and cons of a “naming and shaming” campaign. Such campaigns take refuge in the binaries of yes and no, calling for “affirmative consent” as the universal touchstone for negotiating sex. What are the implications of such a policy on our sexual lives?


If all we understand by consent is a clear and unequivocal “yes” at every point of the sexual encounter, then do we also leave people confused about the many unspoken acts that make up a sexual relationship in its entirety? Does such a policy not treat consent as a settled matter, relevant only for the

determination of crime, rather than a field of transformatory possibilities? This panel will try and explore the spectrum of “consent” beyond the necessity of its legal codifications. In the context of institutions and structures that are inherently hierarchical in their composition, how do we reach an understanding of “mutual consent”? How do we, as individuals, approach questions of comfort and unease within the subjectivities and power differentials embedded in our cultural framework?


Can harassment and abuse be tackled meaningfully without a robust engagement with sexuality? Can a concept such as consent, now part of the legal lexicon, be applied neatly across the spectrum of sexual experiences? This panel will address the following questions: Is the law capacious enough to accommodate the complexities of desire? How does the law deal with the range of ways in which people communicate their sexual desires or lack thereof? When sexuality is taboo and consent is not culturally embedded in routine social relationships or institutional functioning, then does the burden of the law, particularly on young adults, appear reasonable and just?

Likewise, an overwhelming reliance on stringent punishments, short circuiting of due process, and strict liability provisions, suggest a consensus on deterrence as the pathway to sexual justice. The recent instances of “naming and shaming” of sexual offenders adopts the deterrence model even as it rejects the “due process” aspect of the law. This panel focused on the understanding of due process and punishment applicable to formal or informal processes, to comment on notions and approaches to justice.

Final Thoughts

This panel had speakers conversing with members of the audience as we attempted to think together about structures of Psyche, Agency, and Law in relation to sexuality and harassment.