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Does This ‘Harmless’ Behaviour Deserve Such Stringent Punishment?

Naureen Bhullar

- April 16, 2021

A recent headline caught a lot of attention. It was reported that a twenty-year-old man was sentenced to one year of rigorous imprisonment and a fine after a 14 year-old girl filed a complaint against him of sexual harassment, which included blowing kisses and winking when she was outside with her sister. The defence lawyer did not view these acts of winking and blowing kisses as sexual gestures. 

From the perspective of social communication, a wink is believed to be an ambiguous nonverbal gesture.  A wink could mean a private joke but also have sexual connotations. It is this ambiguity which is exploited later to proclaim innocence. However, the context was clear in this case as demonstrated by the accused’s behavior before (winking and blowing kisses in the past). So, it was clearly not a one-time event.

The fact that this report got a lot of attention probably points to the general leniency of the law enforcement and judiciary in dealing with similar cases in the past, where it was overlooked and deemed harmless behavior. There are still gray areas that are described for sexual harassment and misconduct. 

A Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) was developed by Kathleen Reardon to help “define and differentiate among types of gender offense” which ranges from ‘generally not offensive’ (e.g., remarks about hairstyle and dress) to ‘egregious sexual misconduct’ (e.g., sexual abuse, assault). It is vital to note that Reardon also qualifies this spectrum on the basis of ‘situation, history of relationship, tone of delivery, and nonverbal actions.’ This scale was devised for the workplace and may not have the same implications in public places.  

In the afore-mentioned example, the context of the nonverbal gestures of winking and blowing kisses makes it a clear-cut case of ‘evident sexual misconduct’ category put forward by Reardon that includes behaviors that are crude or physically intrusive, especially as perceived by the receiver, who is a 14-year-old girl.

What signal does punishment of these gestures send? 

These gestures are perceived by some individuals, including the defense lawyer, as trivial and not worth a prison sentence or a fine. If such behaviors are policed and timely punishment is meted out early on, it would make people aware of the gravity of this situation, especially from the viewpoint of the victims, who suffer these aggressions. These regular every-day harassments like catcalling, whistling, winking, and blowing kisses (even without physical contact) can have a long-lasting impact on adolescent girls and women. The constant anxiety of checking their environment for potential perpetrators can result in a lot of wear and tear psychologically. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with hypervigilance, where the affected person keeps checking their environment for potential dangers and their stress response is on an overdrive. 

Adolescents who grow up in environments rife with people harassing them in public also develop the hypervigilance as noted by countless anecdotes by women who shared their strategies to keep themselves safe on the street. The behaviors which start with these so-called harmless activities like catcalling and whistling could lead to the slippery slope of stalking and assault and even if it does not lead to these dire situations, the constant fear of being victimized also plays havoc with one’s mental health

Street sexual harassment has been reported widely across several countries. In a survey conducted in India, 95% women experience restriction in their mobility due to the fear of male harassment in public. In another study where women were interviewed about their experiences of sexual harassment in public, 40% reported getting harassed in public mostly in the daytime, 33% stopped going out in public and 17% quit their jobs. Street harassment has been linked to anxiety and depression and poor sleep quality in college women. 

Street sexual harassment of women was also used as a tool to prevent political participation by women in Egypt in the political protests of 2012 where they were assaulted and it demonstrated “how seemingly “harmless” forms of street harassment can quickly escalate into more violent behavior.”  This shows the long-term repercussions of harassment for women in terms of their freedom in public spaces, education, and employment opportunities. 

Therefore, this recent news of punishment of a young male for whistling and blowing kisses at an unwilling recipient is a welcome development. There are also anti-harassment programs, platforms and groups that increase awareness about street harassment and its prevention India, including Blank Noise  and HarassMap Mumbai, a crowdmapping deployment that maps unsafe zones in the city based on anonymously submitted reports of street sexual harassment.

Last year L’Oreal Paris launched the Stand Up program that was its international bystander training program against street harassment.

They have a dedicated training website (www. Standup-India.com) which trains people to stand up as bystanders and also helps victims. 5D training is offered – Direct, Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay. The aim of the program is to discourage harassers, support victims and encourage bystander intervention in a safe manner.


About the Author

Naureen Bhullar got her PhD in Psychology from Virginia Tech and taught at Widener University in Chester, PA where she was tenured. She did her post-doctoral work with social psychologist, Ramadhar Singh at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB). She is currently engaged in research across different topics including emotion and emotional contagion, meaning in life, mindfulness, autism in adolescents and adults, women in STEM, and diversity and inclusion. She has published her research in different journals, including Psychological Studies, IIMB Management Review, Psychologia, Personal Relationships, Advances in Autism, Current Psychology and more. She is a reviewer of articles published in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Psychological Reports, North American Journal of Psychology, and Advances in Autism. She is also engaged in research with Serein, which includes writing the yearly handbook, assessment of training sessions, and co-creating activities for different workshops on biases and sexual harassment.

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Siri Prasad

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Siri Prasad is a Safety and PoSH Expert at Serein and serves as an External Member of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) for Serein’s clients. Her work is not limited to, but includes advising in legal procedures, best practices for safe work cultures, and reviewing of PoSH policies and labor law compliance.

Siri is a Gold Medallist and holds a BBA, LLB (Hons.) from Christ University and a Masters in Science (International Employment Relations) from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she also served as the EDI Officer.

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Thejaswini is responsible for the operations and maintenance of Serein’s in-house e-learning platform. She assists customers to deliver learning content and assess employee engagement through Serein’s tracking system. 

Thejaswini is also engaged with finance and other operations to ensure Serein’s 500+ long-term partners are compliant with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) law.

Thejaswini holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Application from Field Marshal KM Cariappa College, Kodagu.

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Ishani founded Serein to provide a data and research-based approach to solving DEI challenges at the workplace. She advises company leaders, startup founders, and venture capital firms on industry best practices to increase diversity and design a DEI roadmap.

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Before Serein, she was a Gandhi Fellow working in rural Rajasthan to address educational leadership and gender equity in government schools. She graduated from Azim Premji University in Bangalore with a Master’s in Education where she specialised in gender and sexuality education.

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Bianca leads the compliance partnerships and workshops on anti-sexual harassment, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws in India, South East Asia, Europe, and the USA. She has 100+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace.

Bianca designs gamified learning modules for a unique and impactful learner experience on topics like gender inclusion, PwD inclusion, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and regional inclusion among others. 

Before Serein, Bianca worked in hospitality for 5 years with Emirates Airlines. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from St. Xavier’s University, Mumbai. She is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality in Global Politics from SOAS University of London.

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Aparna is leading the finance and operations at Serein. She has also been responsible for Serein’s online platform, customer management, and marketing.

She works closely with Serein’s 500+ long-term partners to ensure they are compliant with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) law. Aparna is a workshop facilitator on topics like the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace in languages like Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada.

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Faakirah Irfan

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Faakirah is a legal professional and expert facilitator on topics like anti-sexual harassment, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws in India, South East Asia, Europe, and the USA. Faakirah has conducted 100+ training sessions on the prevention of sexual harassment for employees and internal committee members.

She has 150+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace. Her legal research at Serein includes policy analysis, human rights, women’s rights, and document drafting.

Faakirah is an experienced legal professional. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in law with a focus on women’s rights and policy analysis from the University of Kashmir. She holds a Master of Law degree specializing in alternative dispute resolution from O.P Jindal School of Law.

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Aseem is an Inclusive Workspace Architect dedicated to reshaping workplace diversity and accessibility. He is skilled in conducting comprehensive accessibility audits and implementing inclusive design solutions.


Aseem is passionate about creating environments that foster equal opportunities

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Bhavini Pant

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Bhavini serves as a PoSH external member for 30+ companies in industries like education, healthcare, IT, Pharma, and more. She has 70+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace and supporting partner organizations on the legal procedure and best practices for workplace safety.

Before Serein, Bhavini worked as an archivist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and as an editorial assistant for IIT Bombay’s PR and Alumni Associations department.

She has a Master’s degree in Education from Azim Premji University where she worked extensively with the management on anti-sexual harassment legal implementation. Her work involved the interpretation of the law in a university as a workplace and an educational institution for adults. 

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Kirtika N

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Kirtika is an expert speaker and workshop facilitator on topics like sexual harassment awareness, bystander intervention, and anti-harassment redressal mechanisms. She has developed learning content for investigating committees on topics like witness cooperation in a workplace sexual harassment inquiry proceeding. 

Kirtika serves as a PoSH external member for 30+ companies in fintech, healthcare, business management, gaming, and more. She has 50+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations at the workplace and supporting partner organisations on legal procedure and best practices.

She has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Montfort College, Bengaluru, and has experience working as a trainee counselor.

Sharanya Venkataraghavan

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Sharanya serves as a PoSH external member for 15+ companies in e-commerce, fintech, healthcare, SaaS, and more. She supports partner organisations on legal procedures and best practices to build safe work cultures.

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Sharanya graduated with BBA, LLB (Hons.) degree from Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She has experience in PoSH and employment law with notable law firms like Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and Co., J. Sagar and Associates, among others.

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Sri Padmavathi C specialises in providing accounting consulting services to companies. She helps in assisting & maintaining Serein’s Books of Accounts, GST, TDS, PT filing, financial statements preparation & audit review.
 
She holds an MBA with Finance Specialisation from Annamalai University, and has also has done CA articleship under CA Tom Joseph’s guidance.

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As a PoSH and DEI Workshops Facilitator, Anisha is primarily responsible for conducting sessions and facilitating conversations that enable building of safe and inclusive workplaces for all. Anisha also undertakes in-depth research into various Diversity, Equity and Inclusion issues that plague our work cultures today. All of this research goes into designing bespoke sessions and curating interactive learning experiences for several of Serein’s partners. 

Anisha has a background in History, especially in the history of gender and early feminism in colonial South Asia. 

Anisha has a Bachelor’s degree in History (Hons.) from Gargi College, University of Delhi. She has also studied for an MPhil in World History from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

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