Trigger warning: Intimate partner rape, Abuse
You and your boyfriend are dating for many months. Like any usual day, you were spending time with each other. You kissed, cuddled and caressed. He laid you on the couch and started to unbutton you. But you buttoned yourself back. He quickly moved his hand down and tried to stimulate you with your clothes on, but you removed his hand. He then undressed himself but you tell him that you didn’t want to have sex that night. He kept insisting and you kept refusing, until the 8th time, when you finally gave in to his demand.
You and your partner are in a live-in relationship. One night he returned home late at night and by then you were fast asleep. You were only woken up by his snuggles and kisses while he lay right behind you. As you turned towards him to give him a hug, you realized that he was naked. You asked him how his day went by but without giving a reply, he rolls you onto your back, pulls down your lower and penetrates.
Marital rape or intimate partner rape is deeply pervasive and everyday reality contrary to what Indian men or women typically like to admit.
Every once in a while when you refuse sex to your boyfriend or partner he issues a subtle threat that his fidelity to you is only limited to the point you have sex with him. If you don’t, he would seek out someone else. You don’t want to lose him, so you not only engage in sex, but also perform sex acts that you dislike, just because he wants you to.
Did something about these incidents make you feel uneasy or violated?
These are real anecdotes from women’s everyday lives.
Whilst, these scenarios are not overtly horrifying or dramatic as a stranger rape, these are, nevertheless, examples of non-consensual sexual intercourse, or date/intimate partner rape. So, even without the use of physical force or violence, the man clearly imposes his sexual urges upon the unwilling woman, while wilfully ignoring or recklessly disregarding her lack of consent or (explicit or tacit) refusal. In doing so, he undermines her sexual autonomy and violates her bodily integrity. In other words, her consent is not his concern.
Is this what sex looks like in dating/ intimate relationships?
Regardless of the relationship between two people, the most fundamental reason they engage in sex is mutual pleasure and enjoyment for all that it involves. However, when a man in his own mind decides that his pleasure is only what matters, consciously does away with cues about his girlfriend’s/partner’s disinterest and blatantly proceeds without her consent, he not only dehumanises, disrespects and debases her, but also displays his flippant disrespect to the bond of affection or respect they both share.
Despite the deep resentment any woman would feel in such situations, she may or may not consider pressing charges against her boyfriend/partner, for several reasons. However, there are things we all can do to change this dynamic, which I discuss later in the article.
Status of Consent in Date/Intimate Relationships
With patriarchal mindsets still continuing to descend down to present generations, our societies are replete with men who undermine women’s sexual agency and respect for their bodily integrity. This is most conspicuously evident in the way in which men approach the issue of sexual consent with women. At the extreme end of the spectrum, there are men who conveniently “assume” woman’s consent to their sexual advances and thus consider seeking it unnecessary. In other scenarios, where men do seek consent and receive a silence/no response or an ambiguous response, most often than not, they seize the benefit of doubt (by interpreting these responses as ‘yes’ as opposed to a ‘no’) to pursue their own sexual interest. In yet other scenarios, where the woman clearly refuses to engage in sex or the proposed sexual act, her refusal is met with persuasive (though polite); coercive; manipulative or pressure tactics aimed at altering her initial response to attain her participation, or at the minimum, cooperation to the level of non-resistance.
In fact, date, marital, or intimate partner rape is not something that goes down our throats so easily.
Marital rape or intimate partner rape is deeply pervasive and everyday reality contrary to what Indian men or women typically like to admit. In fact, sex against will of one’s wife is not even considered rape in India, thanks to the patriarchal marriage contract which entitles man to unrestricted and unlimited sexual access to his wife.
Similarly, with a narrow and stereotypical understanding of rape, dating men also refuse to admit, and almost choke with rage when they are accused of having forced sex upon their girlfriend/partner. This is because most men harbour the incorrect understanding of force (as just physical force). Also, they hold a false image of ‘men who rape’ as desperate, cruel and/or immoral; an unruly class of people with aggressive temperament, criminal dispositions and draconian value systems with whom they hate to relate themselves.
While excluding themselves out of “that” category of men who “physically” force women into sex, they grossly miss out on the understanding that force can also be mental and/or emotional. So even when a man alters a woman’s conviction using verbal or non-verbal means that contain element/(s) of persuasion, coercion, menace, compulsion or manipulation (in Indian context especially, emotional blackmailing and false promise of marriage) to negotiate a response that is more favourable to him, but has not arisen out of her free will to engage in sexual intercourse with her, he technically uses force to get her consent. He engages in forced sex which makes him equally culpable (of rape) as someone who uses physical force.
Sadly, in reality, most (though not all) men consider this as the customary process of establishing sexual intimacy with women.
Men’s propensity to act in this way is supported by a culture where patriarchy defines male, female sexuality and dictates the dynamics of man-woman sexual relationships. Founded on notoriously misleading notions of male “entitlement” to sexual access to a woman’s body and male sexual pleasure as the highest priority, guardians of patriarchy have concocted a series of false beliefs, myths and stereotypes that implicitly support man’s invasion of woman’s most private domain to make way for his own sexual gratification. This dangerous and biased construction creates an environment that fosters and justifies rape (rape culture). The manifestation of this is seen in real life in the way that most men in intimate relationships think that the woman “owes it” to them. And where she is a stranger or an acquaintance, they call upon all those rape myths and stereotypes to validate when and why it is OK to violate a woman’s sexual integrity.
For example, every time a woman exerts her agency as a sexual being or exercises her autonomy under her right to freedom of expression, she is seen as sexually deviant, whereby she immediately invokes a series of assumptions, or rather, discernments about her sexuality, elasticity of her (sexual/moral) character, and her availability for sex. So, if a woman wears an attire that is less than modest, overtly conducts herself as less than uptight, initiates or frequently engages in non-sexual touching as part of the conversation, leans on a man’s shoulder, goes out alone at night, drinks at a party, reciprocates a kiss, or was previously sexually active- all this is, by default is interpreted as “she wants it” or “she’s asking for it”, and are taken as signs of “passive” consent (that makes it redundant to seek verbal consent). Further, having played loose, the woman cannot refuse sex and is bound (under this virtual sexual contract) to take it to completion.
As such, when a woman is perceived as giving passive consent, verbal refusal is considered purely sanctimonious (by most men). This is because her actions, conduct or behaviour is seen as signs of her mental willingness to indulge in sex, which speak louder than her words- typical situations where men take “no” to mean “yes”, unless it is accompanied by physical resistance (often to her utmost) to prevent penetration.
Furthermore, for men who hold sadistic tendencies, woman’s utterance of the word “no” reinforces their sense of hegemony which further enhances their erotic experience. Instead of getting dissuaded by that signal, these men derive pleasure and yearn for more of it to escalate onto a more exhilarating climax.
Consent Lies In The Eyes of Men
Anyone can see with even half an eye that men see consent in everything. They misinterpret women’s behaviour as sexual even when women do not mean or intend anything on those lines.
Ironically, it is women who pay the price for this.
Acting on their perceptions/(mis)interpretations, men invariably attempt or actually go on to establish non-consensual sexual contact with women leaving them physically harmed, emotionally agonised or both. To prevent this, women are forced to constantly police their own behaviours to ensure no wrong signal is being given out which could be seen as consent, resulting in constrained lives with limited/lost personal and professional opportunities, and restrictions to unleashing their highest potential.
There are steps we need to take collectively as a society to prevent date/intimate partner rapes.
If this was not enough, every time when a man sexually transgresses, rape culture comes to his rescue and exculpates him by shifting blame on the woman by smearing “consent”, “invitation” or “provocation” on her face. When that doesn’t seem to work, it slaps woman for falsely crying rape as an act of vengeance against the man, leaving the latter shamelessly unapologetic, while begetting impunity and recidivism.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
We need an attitudinal shift in the way the matter of sexual consent is approached. Some of the steps we as a society can take collectively to prevent date/intimate partner rapes. These are
- Consent education for all men and women of all age groups to help them unlearn the patriarchal meaning of consent to replace it with enthusiastic consent ;
- Parents and educators need to invest in young men and women to help them unlearn the concept of entitlement and the patriarchal meaning of consent to replace it with understanding of enthusiastic consent;
- We need to push for legal reforms for enthusiastic consent model to be incorporated in statutes.
What is Enthusiastic Consent?
The patriarchal model of consent that continues to operates in our society is the conventional ‘no means no’ model of consent. It is founded on a myth that women are willing to engage in sex with any man, at anytime. Stemming from this blanket assumption, a woman’s response to a man’s sexual advance, be it silence, ambiguous reply or a verbal refusal is almost always interpreted or assumed as consent (unless the refusal involves dramatic acts of physical resistance, screaming or yelling). Also, once given, woman consent to all sexual acts, and cannot revoke it.
However, the revolutionary enthusiastic consent model or ‘yes means yes’ model, as implemented by one of the most futuristic societies of our times scraps this blanket assumption. It has been implemented in State funded educational institutions across California, US to arrest the growing epidemic of date rape cases. It redefines consent to mean a response that is not just affirmative, unambiguous, and a conscious decision by the woman to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity, but a ‘yes’ that is enthusiastic. Sexual consent thus means:
- a woman’s decision as to whether or not she wants to engage in sex, and to what extent,
- she makes that choice out of her own free will (without coercion or pressure), and
- expresses her intent to participate clearly.
So, the instigator (usually the man) must seek an enthusiastic yes from the other party (usually the woman) before he initiates sex, and also during sex before he embarks on any successive step involves greater intimacy.
Enthusiastic consent, thus, ensures that a sexual interaction would start only when the man receives an enthusiastic ‘yes’ from the woman, contrary to the draconian ‘no means no’ model where the man would stop only when he hears or interprets a ‘no’. (To read more about enthusiastic consent, watch out for my next article).
No matter where we are at with gender equality or respect for women’s rights superficially, with men sharing responsibilities like childcare or partaking in cooking meals for the family; and with women holding positions in parliaments, as judges or as MPs; respect for sexual consent of women and focus on mutual sexual pleasure is the sole determinant of how much, at its base, the society has truly evolved. This can only happen when we discard the divisive patriarchal regime and the sinister rape culture; and instead, step up our communication standards to talk about sex with our partners in a frank and non-judgmental manner.
At the end of the day, we need a culture of respect, not rape.
- Erick Kuylman, “Constitutional Defence of “Yes means Yes”-California’s Affirmative Consent standard in sexual assault cases on college campuses”, available online at https://gould.usc.edu/students/journals/rlsj/issues/assets/docs/volume25/Spring2016/3.Kuylman.pdf
- Lois Pineau, “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis”, Law and Philosophy 8 (2):217-243, 1989.
- Catherine A. MacKinnon, “feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law”, Harvard University Press.
- Stephen J. Schulhofer, “Unwanted Sex: The Culture of Intimidation and the Failure of Law”, ATLANTIC, October 1998
Featured Image Source: Fiveprime