Consent simply means ‘giving permission for something to happen or to do something’. Sexual consent has been explained in this article really well. However, one needs to keep in mind that giving or not giving consent is not always as simple because of the systemic barriers that privilege some people over the others.
What does this entail?
Well, to begin with, your gender. Your gender disadvantages you (or advantages you if you are a cis heterosexual male) from your consent being validated based on various criteria. Wearing clothes that reveal too much of your skin, drinking alcohol, smoking, having multiple sexual partners, and coming home post-stipulated ‘bhartiya sanskar’ hours are tried and tested methods in ensuring that your consent will not matter to the larger society. For example: I have been told by close family members that if I am out post 9 PM wearing a dress, they would not come to help me if I got raped. That was lesson number one for me:
Post x hour, your body is not your own to consent or not consent.
Many women, like me, can afford to come home at the ‘bhartiya sanskar’ hour and raise their voice in case of an emergency. Of course, as lesson number one taught me, I shouldn’t be drinking, smoking or showing my skin in order for my consent or the lack of it to be considered. The loophole (among many others) in this is realizing that not everyone can afford to follow these ‘rules’ (and should not be made to). For example, coming home at ‘sanskari hours’ is not a luxury that working women from lower middle and lower class backgrounds have. In fact, the bourgeois sense of ‘home’ that most of us have is a luxury for them and they have to find shelter in makeshift settings, or sometimes on the streets. Thus, the question of consent for them over their own body is a luxury that they most certainly don’t enjoy.
And when class and caste come together, being a dalit/lower caste woman, makes consent an even more an alien concept. The India’s National Crime Records Bureau records that more than four Dalit women are raped everyday in India (and possibly these are only the reported cases). Consent is most often assumed in the case of Dalit women, thus leading to unimaginable cases of sexual violence against them.
Whom are we giving consent?
Another barrier to consent is ‘who’ it is being given or denied to. If I withdrew my consent from an upper class, upper caste interaction, my consent seems to not matter. For example, when I was walking home with my (now ex) partner I consented to kiss him but I stopped him from touching my breasts, he was visibly angry and left. When I told my friends about this, I was told that it is only natural and maybe I should’ve continued. In contrast to this, when I was traveling in Himachal, a stranger guided me to a temple that I wished to visit. I told my friends and family about this and I was told that I was stupid to have consented to this man since I could have been easily ‘taken advantage of,’ because of course that man belonged to the lower rungs of the society.
As a married woman in India, it is even worse. You are obligated to have sex with your husband whether you want to or not, as it is your duty as a wife. Consent is alien and assumed. Under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, a woman can get a divorce or book her husband under sexual abuse, but he will not be tried or seen as a rapist under the law. Thus, her rights as a wife are recognized but not as a rape survivor.
What we are basically teaching women is that you have the right to give or deny consent, but under the society’s conditions. Consent does not apply to women who ‘flout’ these rules-Dalit women, Adivasi Women, sex workers, women with multiple sex partners, women who drink and smoke, women who stay out beyond the given time are all voices that do not matter.
I had the privilege of growing up in a house where I was taught to say ‘no’. My mother, wanted to ensure that the word ‘No’ would roll off my tongue like water. She hoped that I would learn to say no to strangers to avoid being ‘taken advantage of’, she taught me all about ‘safe touch’ and ‘unsafe touch’ at the age of eight, and told me that I should be assertive. During these lessons I ended up learning some of these things, but mostly I learnt that for my NO to hold ground in the eyes of my mother, my cheriammas, cheriachans, velliamas, velliachans, ammumas, my teachers, friends, friends parents, and almost everybody with an opinion about women and their bodies, I had to fall within the boundaries they set for me.
I eventually realized the intricacies of all that I was taught. I was told that consent would be my choice. This, I realized was only an illusion of choice and agency, my consent would be valid only if I followed the checklist of a ‘good girl’. This goes against the entire idea of what consent is supposed to mean, and we must break out of this.
This idea of consent does not develop over night. It develops over time and gets mixed up with other strands of the society, as we grow up. When we try to grab the attention of a child on the street or make faces at it, when the child’s mother forces them to acknowledge us with a wave or a smile (even though the child is seemingly uncomfortable), it contributes to how the child will come to understand consent. When I was a teenager, I was at a wedding. My ammuma’s sister came up to me and kissed me on both my cheeks and touched my face a lot. I was more than uncomfortable but I was told “it is okay, she is old and it is only her!” by my father. Later that year, my parents’ friend came home and I was seemingly uncomfortable around him, but as I was told that older people and people I know cannot be said no to, thus they were allowed to invade my personal space. Henceforth, we need to teach children that no matter what, no one should be allowed into their space if it feels like intrusion to them, including parents.
Is consent gendered?
Consent has been made into a gendered concept in the patriarchal society, thus there are more barriers in a woman giving consent than a man. A seemingly empowering concept like consent, thus, is then mingled with class, caste, gender biases. If there are no structural changes within the existing system, consent and its misconstrued understanding that the society holds is not going to help us. If a woman is at a position of saying yes, her choice and free will may sometimes even be coerced, and then a yes means yes holds no value.
Consent becomes all the more complex because it is fit into the standardized box of the law. Now, a yes means yes and a no means no is scrutinized by patriarchal laws and more often than not, the voice of the woman is drowned. An example of this is the 2016 rape case where the Supreme Court ruled that a sex-worker cannot ‘cry-rape‘ if her customers fail to pay her. This is a clear violation of her consent as it was made on the grounds that she would be paid. The court in this faulty judgment also claimed her demeanour was not ‘like’ that of a rape survivor.
With the law and society having confused concepts of consent, we can only resist this by breaking norms on regular basis and hearing women out when they come out and talk about sexual assault. We must ensure that younger children are taught about systemic barriers and given sex education (with the word SEX in it) and are taught about enthusiastic consent so that they learn to respect each other. To be honest, I don’t have a readymade solution for this, but I believe that the more we keep questioning the structures, the closer we’ll keep getting to the possibility of making the society a space where consent is understood for what it is and isn’t a luxury only some people enjoy.