In a land where ‘discussions’ (if they can be called so) about sexual consent are limited to whether 16 or 18 should be the legal “Age of Consent” and where marriages are still considered certificates for forced physical contact, expecting people to actually know about consent seems like asking for too much.
But, just the fact that most of the people don’t know enough about consent brings home the fact that we’re still not on the right paths to ensure spaces free from violence; sexual and mental. Our job doesn’t end at steps like demonstrations at India Gate to demand a particular punishment for a rapist, it is important to analyse the problem of gender-based violence from its roots and identify ways to get rid of it by attacking them.
At the onset, we, as a society, desperately need to accept the fact that sex among young adults, adults and just sex before marriage in general is as much a reality for us, as it is for anybody else. (*eureka moment* if you spent most of your life thinking it’s a ‘Western influence’…err!?) Only when there is a non-hesitant and informed dialogue around this, there is some hope of a change for the better.
Next comes, realising and acknowledging that violence isn’t necessarily (and exclusively) committed by a horrifying, unknown figure emerging from the dark. More often than not, the perpetrator is known to the survivor. We aren’t so neatly divided between who we like to call as terrible, almost animalistic beings who commit crimes on one side and loving, compassionate beings on the other. Both of them are personality traits bred by and inside the same society, and they do not exist in such exclusivity. By looking at the broader picture in such polarities, we are being part of the problem. Still not able to connect the dots? Read here!
Now that a certain context is in place, it is also important to understand and reflect on how we look at sexual assault and eventually end up holding the survivor responsible for their own assault. Fortunately (or, unfortunately), it won’t be difficult for us to think of instances where we have heard something on the lines of, “But she was out at night, drinking with her guy friends, what else was she expecting?” Statements like these and in general, a mindset such as this reeks of a sheer lack of any and every notion of a person’s agency and consent. In its place, lies a seemingly overarching and almost sacred ‘moral’ code which puts out messages on the lines of…if a woman is out at night, partying with her guy friends, she is ‘inviting’ assault and it ceases to be a case of assault because well, she was enjoying it! Let me break it to you folks, in no circumstance, the kind of (and amount of) physical contact an individual wants or expects, can be presumed or taken for granted until and unless that person gives a visible enough go ahead for it.
What is Consent?
Consent in the simplest terms refers to the “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” Before going any further, it is important to look at the parallels between social consent and sexual consent in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy creates and sustains a culture which makes it easier for men to define and maintain their boundaries as individuals than it is for say, women. Hence, the concept of consent is strongly dependent on how much say an individual has in the society. The lack of social agency for women and queer identities also manifests itself in their sexual lives and everybody needs to be mindful of this at all times.
Now it will just be clearer how sexual consent works and what needs to be done.
Sexual consent reads like this,
Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or says “yes” to sexual activity with other persons. Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say “yes” or “no” or stop the sexual activity at any point.
There are two parts to it; seeking and giving consent. In India, because of how female sexuality is demonised and tabooed, it isn’t such a simple task for women to be active seekers or givers of consent. I talked to some women who are in heterosexual relationships and tried to understand what consent means for them. Two most common responses were, “I’m too shy to actively consent for it, even when I want to.” and “I don’t think I wanted to but I didn’t want to make him feel bad, so I caved in.” Both are sheer violations of consent; the first one deals with how sexual autonomy is tagged as too radical for women, taking away their agency and the second one deals with how we’ve made it a norm for women to please men with sexual favours, even if it means going out of their way.
Here, women need to understand that no matter how difficult it is for them to actively consent or not consent for something, it is dangerous to give out mixed responses. One of my acquaintances, who wishes to stay anonymous said, “When he asked me the first and the second times, I denied. But then he asked the third time, and I agreed.” This sends out a message that you are gullible enough to be coerced into it. When you are not sure, it is always better to say just that and not sugarcoat it because you don’t have to please him. You can be as outright as you want to be. And well, men, you need to understand that asking repeatedly is not how it works. If it’s a no the first time, that should be it. Asking repeatedly is pushy and thus ceases to be consent seeking, and rather becomes coercion. More importantly, couples and sexual partners need to have these conversations openly, before, during and after sexual activity to understand each other better and ensure that no one feels harassed or wronged.
We are majorly lagging behind in sex-ed lessons for children, young adults and adults.Talking about consent is a major part of it and its importance needs to be recognised at the earliest.
What is NOT consent?
Because of all the twisted notions of consent and agency that our dearest popular culture teaches us, even as I write this, no wonder we no longer understand what qualifies for harassment and what doesn’t.
- Any type of clothing or the lack of it, is never an invitation for any sexual activity, unless it is stated so.
- “Inviting looks/gestures” are not consent.
- Silence or immobility: It should not be obligatory for the other person to explicitly say “no”. If a person is silent or not resisting physically, it does not mean they are okay with it. Ask them!
- Marriage/any kind of relationship: Assuming somebody would be up for sexual activity at any point, just because they are related to you in some way is not consent. The Indian Law doesn’t consider marriage as non-consensual, but we shouldn’t always be needing laws to treat each other like humans.
- Consent given at some time in the past is not consent forever. It needs to be sought every time any kind of physical contact is being initiated, especially when the other person is not responding immediately. Also, consent once given can be revoked at any time even during the act and it is the responsibility of the other person to stop there and then.
- Consent given for one act is not consent given for anything and everything. Consenting for kissing in no way implies consenting for anything beyond that.
- Incapacitation: An unconscious, drunk or drugged person can not give active consent. However, some people seek drunk sexual activity consensually. But it’s a slippery slope and must be treaded carefully, with clear and constant communication between the partners.
- Constantly asking somebody pressurises them and is nowhere near to consent.
What are some ways to seek and ensure consent at all times?
- The only best way is to ask, politely yet firmly, but not more than once.
- Another thing that helps is regularly checking-in on your partner at the time of any kind of sexual activity. Words like, “Hey, do you like this?”, “How are you feeling?” etc.
- Just try to focus on your partner’s body language at all times and if something feels amiss, please pause right there and ask them if everything is fine.
Sexual Harassment and Consent
Whatever online research I could do, this is one aspect I did not see being covered anywhere, as yet. Consent is of special significance for survivors of sexual harassment. This is primarily because their bodies have already been home to unwelcome physical contact and from that point, any surprise or uncalled physical contact might act as a trigger for them. And, if we like to accept it or not, most people are still silent survivors and thus the person next to you might just be a survivor you have no idea about. Hence, assumptions are dangerous and consent needs to be sought.
Considering the kind of torture sexual assault survivors go through in this society, sometimes expecting a sort of understanding in this regard seems too much. But it needs to be said nonetheless. Even if one person is careful enough next time, at least something’s moving forward.
Consent is not too difficult to understand if you understand that everybody has a different relationship with their body. No matter what kind of a relationship you think somebody has with their body, it’s still very personal. It’s thus only legit to be able to respect each other’s bodily autonomy and not just mindlessly go on impinging on them.
There is a reason why the ‘Age of Consent’ is called so. Sexual activity with somebody who is not eligible to give consent is considered a sexual offence. That however, doesn’t mean that everybody who is eligible to give consent is always up for all sexual activity with anybody and thus need not be asked. I am eligible to give consent, so please, would you ASK me first?
And for the couples who are thinking that too much talking kills all the fun, have you ever tried it?
PS: If there are still people who think that enough has been done by that Vogue #MyChoice video, please read this.
Author’s Note: Since some time, I have been reading about the kind of conversations we are having about consent on the internet. To my utter dismay, conversations set in the Indian context and by Indians were almost negligible as opposed to the diverse conversations about the topic in other countries. This article is meant to be a conversation starter and hence the other aspects of the topic (for example, Indian law and consent) would hopefully be touched upon in later articles.
Some useful links for further understanding: