The Phantasy of the Asexual Workplace: What lies beneath?
One of the oft repeated lines I get to hear from my clients is – “We don’t allow the firm to be influenced and or affected by sexuality – we are a professional organization that endorses values, norms, boundaries, and with a working culture that allows men and women to work collaboratively and efficiently!”
And on that emphatic note, ends any further enquiry or dialogue on the theme of Sexuality and working relations and politics within the system / organization.
Yet, there are organizations, that employ thousands of men and women, cloistered and cosseted together for more than 12 hours a day, across maniacal shifts and stressful environs, managing heated conversations with clients, prospects, and stakeholders. And yet the theme of sexuality is shrugged off as a lewd and wanton agenda of the consultant irrespective of leakage, harassment, and sexual violence.
Sexuality is best seen as a threat by the modern corporation for it is interpreted as avenues of potential harassment and abuse – and thus gets quickly transferred, bounded and owned up by committees on ethical governance. Sexuality is perceived at its worst as the monster lurking beneath the surface that seduces moral men and righteous women from their ethical stances and social roles – an evil and powerful force that reduces the civilized human being and the professional into an animal.
What struck me deeply was the encountering of a collectively held phantasy in modern corporations and business organizations is that: “… the modern workplace must subscribe to the notion of, and consequently be designed as ‘a-sexual’ for it to remain functional and effective… to remain untouched and untarnished by this powerful force…”
Organizations and systems thus seem to be intent in denying any conscious space or forums to engage, to dialogue on, and to explore with sexuality, desire, and attraction. It is as if, one when swipes his or her card to enter the organization premises, also is supposed to ‘wipe’ clean his or her mind of sexuality. One has to become, for lack of any better word, the asexual being!
And yet, sexuality resurrects, its refrain guised in the nomenclature of desire, of flirtation, of jokes and innuendos, of tender romances, of passionate encounters, of withholding, of adulation, of brutal aggression, and of non-consensual violation …
It is difficult to adhere to the asexual phantasy that stakeholders owning and managing the modern workplace, seem to believe in…
In this blog, I would like to explore and share some of my thoughts on the institutionalization and socialization of the Asexual workplace and the underlying and unconscious intents that perhaps need articulation and change. I would begin by offering three lens may be useful to discern what may be happening…
Looking at Asexual Workplace from a Feminist Stance
Let me take the reader back a few decades …
It was Kate Millett, a sculptor, in 1969 who started her doctoral thesis as ‘a witty and tart paper’, (her very own words), and titled it as Sexual Politics. She critiqued the misogynist stances of the literary greats including D H Lawrence and Henry Miller, and aimed to show how the relationship between the sexes was one of “dominance and subordination.” She brought attention to the power relationships between men and women, irrespective of class and race, that got institutionalized through patriarchy and demonstrated how patriarchy was a form of “interior colonization,” a kind of oppression “sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification.”
While Kate did not really anticipate the impact her thesis on Sexual Politics would generate and unleash, she was soon titled as the Mao Tse-tung of Women liberation by the Time Magazine and made it to its cover. Kate’s work on sexual politics triggered Germaine Greer (another feminist and the author of the Female Eunuch) to quote – “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.”
While all of this happening in the 1970s, the business organizations in terms of culture and structure remained entrenched in patriarchy and hyper-masculinity for many decades. Though the term glass ceiling was first uttered by Katherine Lawrence of HP in 1976, the metaphor of the glass ceiling got its due recognition from academia a decade later in a widely-cited article in the Wall Street Journal in March 1986. The article was written by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt who defined the glass ceiling as “not something that could be found in any corporate manual or even discussed at a business meeting; it was originally introduced as an invisible, covert, and unspoken phenomenon that existed to keep executive level leadership positions in the hands of Caucasian males”
The gap between the feminist’s movement and the entrenchment of systems and business organizations in patriarchy only grew longer. It is only in the last five to ten years, organizations are beginning to acknowledge and value diversity and gender as legitimate causes… a skeptic would believe that perhaps more so for the modern organization is driven by the pragmatics of leveraging a diverse labor as opposed to real beliefs and shifts in the ideology.
It is interesting to note that Organizations and modern management across the world, while accepting and acknowledging critical and yet more palpable themes of racial diversity and gender diversity, have chosen to ignore sexuality by continuing to reinforce the notion of ‘asexual’ spaces.
It would be useful to ask why?
A speculation, I have around this stance of sustaining the notion of asexual spaces is that it is a win-win for men –
- If women choose to adhere to the notion of asexuality – they inevitably support the cause of patriarchy and hyper-masculinity by remaining silent of their own sexuality – it is rendered voiceless. While the men can create alternative spaces and forums that contradict the asexual banner, and seem to have special privileges – their private ‘locker-room’ spaces, their bitching corners, their late-night camaraderie, where they can take a deeper dive into male sexuality and of a particular kind. I do not think women have as many such privileges … and thus brings in an inequity.
- If women choose to express their sexuality – they invite deep hate, and fear from many men across class and caste. A man expressing sexuality gets not just condoned but often lauded for his passion and ‘leadership’. A woman expressing or working with her sexuality gets termed as a slut, a whore, and offered many other abuses apart from male aggression and violation. Perhaps Greer was right for I do notice how many men end up ‘hating and fearing’ sexual women at the same time.
Thus, the notion of ‘asexual spaces’ is as much as a red herring as ‘gender-neutral’ spaces – for both of these serve the interests of patriarchy. The feminist lens is seen as disruptive by most CXOs, and the Asexual dimension is the best way of thwarting any re-writing of patriarchy.
Looking at Asexual workplace from a postmodernist stance
Let me begin by offering some anecdotal evidence of how systems are being designed and its consequences.
Today many thinkers are talking about integrating millennials into the workplace. Several firms are experimenting with workplaces that are designed as ‘fun high-school spaces’ to lure and retain the young man and the woman. The inherent design of such spaces including colors, layouts, and the excesses, as well as routines and practices, that reinforce the experience of a college/university campus – of belongingness, fun, spontaneity, counter-dependence.
One possible consequence of ‘fun-high school spaces’ is that these encourage regression for the young adult into adolescence. The young adult, by becoming a teenager again thus, and unconsciously, becomes mistrusting of his or her own adulthood, including self-authority, negotiability, and autonomy, and becomes dependent upon the system. The fun-high school campus ambiance is one way of promoting self-doubt, low self-esteem, and followership into the adult – who copes with all this by being a consumer, spoilt for choices, and yet dependent on the larger system.
The only problem with the regression into adolescence is that of sexuality – and I think lately, the notion of ‘asexual spaces’ becomes an interesting metaphor in this regard. While the workspace retains its youthfulness and energies of the young employee – it ought not get dissipated with sexuality.
There is nothing like tempering the fun & frolic space by eliminating the very force that makes it lively and fun – that of sexuality. Perhaps the grave consequences are beyond the one-off sexual encounter in a forlorn corner between two people – the asexual workplace becomes a veritable prison, bringing discipline over one’s body and one’s desire. It becomes a veritable Panopticon guaranteeing docile bodies for extensive work within the modern organization.
The unequal gaze of the Panoptican is strengthened through the promise of the Asexual workspace – disciplining our bodies and enforcing bio-politics that are aligned to market capitalism.
The interesting split in modern capitalistic society is that between the consumer – who is seduced by sexuality to buy and consume more and that of the producer who is to deny sexuality while producing and marketing the very same goods.
This splitting of producing and consuming systems is an intriguing contradiction for firms that produce have to be asexual systems and that the market or spaces for consumption need to be embedded in sexuality – whether one is selling cars, or mouthwash or perfumes or even home loans. One almost gets the impression that the denial of sexuality in the first gets overcompensated by consumption in the second spaces – and that reinforces the vicious cycle of demand over stripping supply.
(This section is inspired by the writings of Michel Foucault)
Sexuality through the Right Wing Indian Political Lens
Right wing Hinduism is steadily dismantling the richness of our heritage when it comes to working with sexuality. In the recent years, right wing organizations including Bajrang Dal have been attacking any form of sexual relatedness beyond boundaries of socially ordained heterosexual marriage quite vehemently.
There have been growing attacks, reprisals, and violence on any form of expression of sexuality, and especially by women – the attacks have been on attire (women cannot wear jeans or skirts), love-jihad (rescue women from men of Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam) and countering Valentine Day celebrations as an attack on Indian culture and the list goes on and on.
It is interesting that for a land, that has for many centuries celebrated all forms and expressions of sexuality is now being threatened by the purveyors of Hindu Nationalism – who seem to be threatened by sexuality (when expressed by women) or hold a disdain towards it.
The Bajrang Dal’s slogan is ‘Sevā Surakṣā Sanskṛti’ or “service, safety and culture” and yet the organization breathes life into a form of patriarchy very antithetical to the cause of the modern man and woman.
For all India’s historical claims of celebrating sexuality – I would like to offer a snippet from the Mahabharata (an Indian epic) that resonates with how sexuality is perceived and worked with today…
The Encounter between Arjuna (the Hero) and Urvashi (an immortal Nymph) – as translated by Apam Napat
One day, Indra (Arjuna’s father and the King of the Devas) noticed that Arjuna was gazing rivetedly at Urvashi, as the Apsara was dancing in the court. The king of the celestials smiled to himself, for it was indeed a rare man who would not be captivated by that most beautiful of the divine nymphs. After the court was dismissed that day, he took his friend Chitrasena aside and asked, “Did you notice how my son was staring at Urvashi in court today?”.
Indra said, “That is my opinion also. Go to Urvashi and represent these facts to her. Tell her that she would greatly gratify me if she will sport with Arjuna. There is no doubt that she would be very pleased to obtain so personable a young man, and such a great hero as her lover.”
When Chitrasena conveyed Indra‘s message to her, Urvashi was very glad. She told Chitrasena that she will carry out her sovereign’s wishes. That night, she dressed herself with great care, and decorated herself with beautiful jewels and applied divine perfumes to her person. She too had noticed how ardently the prince had looked at her in the assembly. Her vanity was gratified, and besides she too was attracted to the handsome prince.
Soon, she arrived at Arjuna‘s abode and sent word through his attendants that she had come to visit him. She was immediately led inside. When Arjuna entered the room, he was filled with exceeding wonder, and a nameless fear, as he saw the resplendent form of the divine nymph. He received her with great respect, but averted his eyes from modesty, for she was clad rather scantily and seductively. He said to her, “O Lady, I am indeed honored by your presence. I am your servant, command me.”
Urvashi was by this time completely under the influence of her passions. With deep sighs, she told him about the command of his father, and of how it coincided with her great passion for him. She concluded with, “I have come here by the command of your father and driven by my own desire. Do that which will be agreeable to me, you and that which will gratify your father also. A maiden asks you to gratify her out of love for you, act as a man should, when faced with such a request.”
Arjuna recoiled from her. He shut his ears with his hands, fixed his gaze firmly on the ground, and said in a voice choked with emotion, “Blessed lady, are my ears deceiving me? I have ever regarded you as my superior, and my regard for you is as that of mine for Kunti, my mother. Do not utter words that are unbecoming, against the scriptures, and that cause me so much pain to hear.”
Urvashi was amazed. She said, “What is this nonsense? I am a woman, and you are a man. I tell you I have cherished a great passion for you since I first beheld you. My heart craves your embraces, I am well-nigh distracted by the grip of my desire. And here you are, recoiling from me as from a snake! Did I not see you gaze longingly at me today in the assembly? Indeed, I could not be mistaken, for even Indra and Chitrasena had noticed it. It was but today that you cast such glances betraying your desire for me, and now you are claiming that–“
Arjuna interrupted her with, “Stop! Stop! O divine lady, do not traduce my character so! It is indeed true that I gazed admiringly at you today while you were dancing, but my sole thought was: ‘It is this beautiful lady that is the progenitor of the Kuru race’. You were the wife of my ancestor Puroorava, and thus I am your lineal descendant. Just as I revere my mother Kunti, just as I revere Lady Sachi, the wife of my father Indra, just so do I worship you as my mother. I am indeed sorry to have behaved in a way that led you and my father to misconstrue my true feelings. You have been momentarily distracted, please regard me as your son, and behave accordingly.”
“Indra‘s son, you are confused. The Apsaras are immortal, they do not have any relations as mortals do. We are free spirits, and sport with whoever strikes our fancy. The sons and grandsons of Purooravas race, who have attained heaven at the end of their days, have sported with me without incurring any sin. I am an eternal virgin, not your mother. Today, I am a maiden who desires you, that is all that you need to know. Our union shall not be one of sin, it will be just the culmination of our mutual desires.”
Arjuna replied, “Beautiful lady, listen! Let the celestials witness my assertion. Just as Kunti, Madri, and Sachi are my mothers, so are you, the parent of my race, and an object of reverence to me. Return to your palace, O amiable one. I worship you as my mother, it behooves you to protect me as a son.”
Hearing these words of the Pandava, Urvashi‘s desire turned into wrath. Her whole body shook with anger. She said, “Since you have turned away a woman who had come to you of her own accord, one who, dead to all shame, has openly avowed her desire for you, may you lose your manliness and have to spend time among women, unregarded, and scorned as a eunuch.”
With these words, the Apsara fled precipitately from Arjuna‘s abode. Arjuna stood rooted to the floor, pondering the violence of the curse pronounced by her. He soon regained control over his stupefaction and sought out Chitrasena. He narrated all that had passed between Urvashi and himself. Chitrasena took him to Indra and explained the situation to the sovereign.
Indra embraced his son and said, “I always knew you were a brave warrior, but today you have surpassed even my expectations. Not even the Rishis with their senses under complete control could have resisted the temptation of Urvashi‘s embrace, especially when she had come inflamed by her desire. You have demonstrated your rigid self-control. As for her curse, fear not. It will be to your benefit. I shall grant you the boon that you will be a eunuch for the period of just one year, and that of your own choosing. It will be useful to you when you have to spend the thirteenth year of your exile incognito.”
This entire episode of Arjuna and Urvashi perhaps symbolizes the resurgence of the ‘static-masculine’ dimension of Indian society – of Roles, of Boundaries, of Self Control, and of Rules and how femininity – both static and dynamic is to be contained and held. If Urvashi was to symbolize raw and intense sexuality, Arjuna represents in this episode, the essence of the static masculinity that today reinforces patriarchy today in India.
I am aware that this episode can be interpreted in several ways – both symbolically and as it is – but I choose to offer the reader an example of how sexuality gets caught and inveigled in the politics of war, of structure and of masculinity. The a-sexual context created by the nymph’s curse was re-defined as a boon for the hero of the epic.
I am not too sure whether Arjuna ever really experiences the scorn that Urvashi curses him of – he, with his daddy’s boon, uses the eunuch’s guise to his advantage and hides in a rich palace as a tutor to the princess on dance and music. For all who claim that Arjuna used the curse to explore his feminine side, in the form of Brihannala the eunuch, it would be useful to dialogue on how the feminine was really worked with – stripped of its own sexuality.
And this is perhaps working with gender and not working with its deep connects with sexuality becomes a difficult proposition.
The Way Forward
This blog got triggered by my recent experiences as a consultant across two group relations conferences – one in India and the other in Netherland – where both these conferences allowed space and time for the creation of a collective system by the participating members and staff, with an intent to enquire, experience and dialogue on emergent key themes that otherwise may lie under the surface or in the unconscious.
Both the conferences created systems where sexuality became a critical theme and yet in both these systems, it was difficult to have any real encounter and dialogue within… the theme provoked fear, anxiety, and untouchability.
I see the similar processes across the organizations that I work with as a consultant – the Asexual organizational metaphor is not my construct – it is a claim that gets talked by designers and leaders.
What lurks beneath this banner is a myriad of complex processes – political, ideological, and socio-cultural – processes that resonate with patriarchy or with market capitalism or with culture that seek to ensconce and entrap if not altogether deny the force of sexuality.
Thus sexuality – one of the most potent forces driving humanity, is rarely worked with – but it is reined in, bounded, and denied. These processes actually take away the energy within the individual and the system.
One wishes that Sexuality could be discerned, valued, and worked with – that relatedness between men and women could be explored leading to rejuvenation and replenishment.
One wishes that sexuality could be just treated the way it is.
A few months ago, I was at the Hoysala temples that were built around the 12th century a few hundred miles northwest of Bangalore.
In the Siva temple, erotica was a subject that the sculptors expressed with beauty and creativity. There were beautiful renditions of numerous sexual acts including orgies, multiple partners etc. (as per the Shakta practice) along with exquisite sculptures of the Indian epics. Interestingly a middle-aged couple, next to us, got evoked and frisky and tried to find a cozy corner in the lawns behind the temple – only to be caught by a burly policeman who was intent on deploying a series of punitive punishments.
One wishes that sexuality could be just treated the way it is and that it may yet invite a greater collective consciousness that challenges violation, hatred, and exploitation… of men and women alike.
What do you think?
- Kate Millett: ‘Sexual Politics’ & Family Values by Judith Shulevitz
- Power / Knowledge and Discipline & Punish by Michel Foucault
- Urvashi’s Curse – translation by Apam Napat