Sexual Harassment: Looking Beyond the Binary

By Anubhab (Cyain), UG’22

A part of The Edict’s Cultures of Harassment series

Content Warning – This article has mentions of sexual harassment, casteism, gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, and racism.

Even in the 21st century, the world continues to paint itself as one within a binary, despite the existence of those who identify outside this two-dimensional space. This makes it really difficult for trans, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, and/or other identities to fit their experiences in the existing dominant narratives of binaries. The bio-essentialist view of sexual harassment as pertaining to actions involving – during, preceding or succeeding – penetrative sex of the identified cis-gendered man and cis-gendered woman is invalidating, as sexual harassment can never be tackled in such a dichotomy. Inherent queerphobia, transphobia, ableist, classist and casteist biases seep into acts of intimacy and even justice for sexual harassment. This is why identity representation is necessary for spaces of justice and redressal. I wish to lay bare the issues removed from mainstream two-toned discourse of sexual harassment – issues that are both a personal experience and the lived reality of many. 

The discourse around sexual harassment needs to be inclusive. Slogans like “Fu*k Men” alienate masc identifying trans and queer people. It instigates a feeling of unwantedness, refusal of space, and reinforces anatomy with problematic concepts of AFAB or AMAB thus invisibilizing a whole spectrum in between. It also pushes savarna/white cis women to abuse their power as the presumed innocent against DBA/black men. It is important to decentralise penile penetration as the main source of abuse. Moreover, there can never be a standard image for a victim, and every survivor must be treated equally irrespective of their identity. 

We need to abolish hierarchizing violence in cases of SH. People have different triggers and circumstances where they have been violated. SH dynamics extend beyond that of penetrative sex of flesh organs. What others would put under the ambit of “hitting on” or pursuing someone, is often violative for someone else, especially someone with prior trauma. Trans and non-binary people are often made to believe that their experience is either not important enough for redressal or not as significant as cis-gendered SH. Cis-centric spaces thus tend to leave them feeling inconspicuous, which makes it harder for Queer-Trans people to call out their SH due to the invisibilisation of their bodies. Being a “minority”, and considered anomalies, their experiences tend to be discussed only when certain exceptions occur. Trans people may get triggered by dysphoria during certain sexual acts and might be unable to verbally reflect that, or even freeze. What would their method of redressal then be? This is why we need to have trans and queer bodies in active SH discourse, to create the space and the inclusive legal mechanisms for trans people to be able to address sexual harassment.

Similarly, SH discourses also invisible asexual people. Asexuality doesn’t mean the absence of sexual experiences/wants for everyone. Asexual people who inherently may desire/engage in sexual activities to various degrees exist. Ignoring or taking over their narratives is harmful. Drawing from my own experiences, often ace-phobic, or as they like to say “sex-positive”, societal narratives make you hate your body, wish you were “normal”, and initiate harmful cycles of societal validation. This validation is often sought through sexual exploration. How do you ask for redressal when the sexual violence you were subjected to was born out of this exploration, due to toxic societal norms? 

It is about time Ashokan activism around sexual harassment questions its inclusivity, instead of questioning and forcing people to come out with their gender and its relation to their trauma. Perceived as a cis man and my vocabulary drought in describing myself as a trans-non-binary-masc person, makes me feel like either someone who needs to lay bare a receipt of my trauma to gain solidarity or prove that I am less “masc” than cis men.  Everyone should have access to safe spaces irrespective of their gender; proof of a certain gender identity should not be necessary for one to feel safe. It is of paramount importance to abolish the binary we observe people in. People might be harassers/perpetrators while also being a survivor/victim. Not only is it harmful but it is insensitive to characterize people through this binary, unless they consent to identify as one.  

As for consent, it can never be seen in a vacuum. A meagre yes or the absence of “no” doesn’t cut it.  Many young people and queer folk on the path of self-exploration – who often have a history of trauma, dysmorphia and dysphoria – find the easiest reaction in uncomfortable and violative situations as freezing and complying. Similarly people resort to alcohol as a medium to lower their inhibitions or for exploration. A person under any influence is not capable of giving consent. Since they cannot comprehend the circumstances around them, it is highly unlikely for them to understand they were violated, until much later when they have sobered up. Thus, as suggested by Professor Bittu in CASH meetings, even if very impossible, it is best to not engage in sexual activities when under the influence of substances.  And under circumstances should such instances occur, and the person who has been violated wishes to bring forth the discussion, the most humane thing to do is to not gaslight them, rather actively listen to them, and try seeking mutual help and redressal. It should be realized the mutual presence of substance does not justify gaslighting the person who felt violated. The transformative discourse should not be moral judgements on the influence, nor victim-blaming, rather spreading more awareness on how to de-link the allure of sexual activities under influence.

Ultimately, existing structures and narratives often fail us due to their gender binary and bio-essentialist perspective, making sexual harassment redressal increasingly problematic under them. What could be a way forward, of different experiences and complicated situations? The idea is to not to pause but stop the harm, it is to allow survivors to “heal” rather than conform. To search for transformative justice with various stakeholders, in a victim-centric method, where the perpetrator is held accountable and allowed the space of reform, acknowledging the systemic nature of harassment.

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