‘Sweety’ And ‘Baby’ Are Not Always Intended As Sexually Suggestive Remarks: Calcutta High Court

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A single bench of Justice Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya of the Calcutta High Court recently noted the common use of terms like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ to address women in specific social circles, emphasizing that such expressions may not always carry a sexual connotation.

Furthermore, the Court cautioned against the potential misuse of the provisions outlined in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act (POSH Act), highlighting that such misuse could inadvertently create additional barriers for women in the workplace.

A female employee of the Coast Guard lodged a complaint accusing her superior of engaging in various forms of sexual harassment, notably by addressing her with terms like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’.

The employee asserted that the senior officer’s choice of words carried sexual connotations. Conversely, the senior officer countered that he never intended any sexual implications with these terms.

He clarified that he ceased using such language once the employee voiced her discomfort. While an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) deemed the use of such terms inappropriate, the High Court noted that they may not necessarily always carry a sexual connotation.

The bench in the judgement, “The use of the expressions ‘baby and sweety’ has been held by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) itself to be inappropriate. However, it is to be noted that once the petitioner informed the respondent no.7 (alleged offender) about her discomfort in that regard by WhatsApp and otherwise, he never repeated the terms of endearment to address the petitioner. Such expressions may be prevalent in certain social circles and need not always be sexually coloured”.

The judge highlighted that Section 2(n) of the POSH Act delineates ‘Sexual Harassment’ to encompass sexually suggestive remarks and any unwelcome verbal behavior of a sexual nature.

“However, per se, the use of the above two expressions (‘Sweety’, ‘Baby’) need not be construed necessarily to be sexually coloured”.

The Court deliberated on the cessation of the accused officer’s usage of the contentious words following confrontation by the complainant.

Consequently, the Court deemed the conduct no longer “unwelcome.” Furthermore, the Court highlighted that the respondent refrained from reiterating the words subsequent to the complainant’s expression of disapproval, thereby nullifying the aspect of ‘unwelcome.’ This restraint in repetition, though acknowledging the impropriety, suggests an absence of deliberate intent to distress or sexually harass the complainant.

In the context provided, the complainant had accused her superior of various forms of sexual harassment, such as inappropriate staring and invasion of privacy by peeping into her room.

The Court, however, emphasized the lack of corroborating witnesses for these allegations. Additionally, the delayed filing of the complaint precluded the availability of CCTV footage to substantiate the accusations.

The bench further remarked that staring behavior encompasses various nuances and may not invariably amount to the type of sexual harassment envisaged in the 2013 Act.

Furthermore, the Court dismissed the assertion that the senior officer’s use of the expression ‘hugging the coast’ held a sexual connotation during interactions with the complainant, noting its standard usage within coast guard terminology.

The bench said that such terminology being usual in Coast Guard circles and having been used by the petitioner first, a repeat of the same, even if any, without sexual overtones, as corroborated by witnesses, defeats the allegation itself

The timing of the complaint raised doubts in the Court regarding the authenticity of the allegations.

Consequently, the Court ruled against the complainant, dismissing the writ petition and upholding the Internal Complaints Committee’s verdict clearing the accused senior officer of any misconduct.

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