Why Talking About Consent Is Probably The Most Important Conversation

Published on 29 Apr 2019 . 1 min read

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With women being increasingly participating in their own narratives and the Internet giving a platform to everyone to be able to raise their voice, we are finally seeing women speak out about harassment.

The recent #MeToo movement took the world by storm as woman after woman shared her story. The fact that harassment is much more common than we’d like to admit was glaringly visible for the world to see.

In the wake of such a movement, a buzzword we hear often is ‘consent’. The number of cases brought forward in the movement highlight how urgent the need for education about consent is. Talking about, understanding, asking for and giving consent is probably the most important conversation any of us will ever have. And if not now, when?

So what exactly is consent?

Consent is a voluntary, enthusiastic, and clear agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity.

Consent isn’t a foreign or an American concept. It is a universal and basic human right. It simply means that you have complete and absolute ownership over your body. Whether you allow someone else access to it and if you do, how far - is completely your choice.

My own journey with understanding consent was quite complicated. For the longest time, I used to think it is as simple as wanting or not wanting to have a sexual relationship with someone. While that isn't incorrect, there actually is so much more. It was only after reading and research after all these events that I understood all the nuances. It isn't just about the yes or no. It is also the when, the where, the how, the how much, the how far.

In order to simplify the concept further, there is an excellent video by Blue Seat Studios that draws parallels between asking for consent and asking someone for tea.

Let us use that example too to understand consent as done in the video and see if it makes sense.

#1. Consent must be clear

Yes is yes. No is not yes. Maybe is not yes. I don’t know is not yes. There is no scope for ambiguity. If you offer someone tea, you cannot give it to them unless they say yes, they want it.

#2. Consent is on-going

Just because someone said yes to a cup of tea, doesn’t mean they cannot change their mind. Or maybe they can have a sip and then not want to have any more. Just because you made them a cup of tea doesn’t mean that they’re under any obligation to drink it. Besides, just because someone wanted to have a cup of tea with you last week, doesn’t mean they want it now. You have to ask again.

#3. Consent is coherent

If someone is intoxicated and cannot accept or refuse a cup of tea, it doesn’t mean they want the tea. If someone is asleep or unconscious, they definitely don’t want to drink tea.

#4. Consent is voluntary

If someone is offered tea, they only want it if they accept it willingly. Not because they feel pressured to. Not because you asked them again and again till they finally gave in. Always, voluntarily.

Okay, but who asks for consent and how?

Consent needs to be asked for before engaging in any sexual activity. Whether it is a long-term relationship or something more casual, it is extremely important to set boundaries and know what both partners are comfortable with.

In a healthy sexual encounter, both partners should feel free and comfortable to communicate what they want to do or do not want to do.

Typically, the onus lies on the person initiating the sexual activity or taking it to the next level to ask for consent. It doesn't necessarily have to be the man.

Asking for consent is actually pretty simple - as simple as “Is this okay?” or “Can I (fill in the blank)?

If at any point, you feel uncomfortable, it is completely okay to stop your partner and say so. If at any point, you sense your partner is uncomfortable, please stop and ask them if something's wrong.

Does consent always have to be verbal?

Shakun Vijay, a member in our Love, Sex and Relationships community recently asked this question.

"All of us believe that consent is a must- have with the establishment of this fact about thoughts of our community my mind started tickling with a new question.

Communication that too loud and clear is good for a healthy relationship so that assumptions are kept at bay. What do you think- should consent be shared by saying out loud or expressing through the gestures/behaviour? Why?” she wrote.

It drew myriad responses from the other members of the community.

Most women felt that saying it out loud verbally left no room for ambiguity. While some said that it would often be difficult to say no or they felt shy and they relied on more non-verbal cues.

"If we understand with the behaviour that's well and good, if not instead of misunderstanding it is good to communicate to maintain a healthy relationship.” summed up one member.

“I think gestures are enough in case of close relationships. They understand. If not, say it aloud. Naturally, gesture comes first in my case. Next move is to speak out loud. Clearly.” another agreed.

"I seriously don't understand how someone can blame the person if she wasn't clear about her thoughts and opinions in the first place. Of course, it's the other person's fault if she/he doesn't listen to ‘no'!" weighed in a third.

Different people communicate differently, some people prefer to communicate using words while some like actions. Some may even use both. This can cause some confusion when it comes to consent.

Verbal cues are when the person uses words to express what they want or don’t want, while nonverbal cues are given using their body language or actions to express themselves.

Verbal cues are pretty self-explanatory. Yes, I want that, I like that, go ahead, don’t stop… all give consent. No, I’m not sure, I don’t like this, I want to stop… these don’t.

Non-verbal cues are slightly more tricky. Pushing someone away, pulling away yourself, not making eye contact, shaking your head no, silence, not responding physically — just lying there motionless, crying, looking scared or sad, not removing their own clothing are all non-verbal cues of being uncomfortable.

If you’re the person seeking consent, it’s a good idea to ask your partner if something feels amiss. If they may not be able to vocalise it, you can ask.

If you’re the person who wants the partner to stop, please don’t hesitate to say what you feel.

"I've been in a relationship for over 3 years now but we hadn't gone all the way, mostly because I wasn't ready yet. After the first couple of years however, I began to feel like I wasn't being fair to my partner. I know that physical intimacy is essential to relationships and I began to resent myself for not being ready. I was even afraid that he would want to leave me. This made me very anxious. Thankfully, the man I am in love with is absolutely wonderful. He saw what was happening and actually sat me down to have a conversation to reassure me that I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to. In that moment, I fell even more in love with him than I already was!" smiles Shivani*, a 23 year old marketing professional from Mumbai.

So what is the difference between sex and consensual sex?

There is none. All sex is consensual sex. If it is not, it is rape.

I apologise for being harsh here but it is about time that we, as a society, understand this.

In several criminal persecutions of rape, the defendant’s main argument is that the complainant had consented to the sexual intercourse.

The bone of contention usually is between consent and the accused’s belief that the complainant consented.

RAINN, the world’s largest anti-sexual assault organisation, helps us demystify this by listing some common questions asked by victims of rape.

"Is it rape if I didn’t resist physically?"

It still is rape. An assault is a trauma situation. People respond to it in different ways. Many victims make the judgement that physical resistance may make the attacker more violent. Lack of consent can be expressed verbally by saying no or it can be implied in situations such as the victim is a minor (not of consenting age) if they have a mental defect or are afraid to oppose because the assaulter is threatening them.

"Is it rape if I used to be in a relationship with the person who assaulted me?"

Yep, still rape.

Just because you're in a relationship with someone or for that matter, even married to them - they get no ownership over your body. This is called date rape or marital rape. It doesn't matter if the perpetrator is a boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend, a husband or a complete stranger. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a sexual relationship in the past. If you have not consented at that moment, it still qualifies as rape. Marital rape, however, is still unfortunately not considered a crime in India.

"Is it rape if I don’t remember the assault?"

Just because you don’t remember being assaulted doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen and that it wasn’t rape. Consumption of alcohol can cause memory loss. There exist rape drugs that are created for this very purpose. However, without clear memories or physical evidence, it may not be possible to pursue prosecution. If you’re in such a situation, you should reach out to experts for guidance as soon as possible. (talk to your local crisis centre or local police for guidance).

You can also talk to our counsellors at the AskSHEROES Helpline.

“Is it rape if I was asleep or unconscious when it happened?”

Like I mentioned before, a person who isn’t awake or unconscious under no circumstances wants tea. If you were asleep or unconscious, then you didn’t give consent. And if you didn’t give consent, then it is rape.

“Is it rape if I was drunk or they were drunk?”

The key question still remains the same - did you consent or not? Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse to justify a lack of consent. Regardless of whether you or both of you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape.

“I thought “no,” but didn’t say it. Is it still rape?”

This one is a little tricky. It depends on the situation. Under normal circumstances, it may be unfair to assume the partner to read your mind. The discussion then is about giving non-verbal cues.

However, if in an assault situation you didn’t say no because you were legitimately scared for your life or safety, then it would likely be considered rape. Sometimes, it isn’t safe to resist, physically or verbally — for example, when someone has a knife or gun to your head or threatens you or your family if you say anything.

For 27-year-old Anisha* who now lives in London, the problem was a little different.

"My journey of understanding consent was quite a rollercoaster. I am a freethinking woman who likes to meet new people and go out on dates. If I have gone out with a guy on a date a couple of times, flirted with him, maybe even kissed, I used to feel like I owed him more. It would seem like it was wrong at this point to say no. As if I had just been leading him on. I even met a guy who would guilt trip me or make me feel like something was wrong with me for refusing. It was much later that I identified this as gaslighting. Ladies, please know that you have every right to say no at any point. There is nothing wrong with that and if any guy makes you feel that way, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can."

It isn’t always easy. But it helps to remember that this is your body and you don’t owe anyone accesses to it.

So here was my little attempt to create a guide to consent. If you’d like to know more, please don't hesitate to reach out to an expert such as an NGO to be educated further. The first step to exercising your consent is knowing that you can.

Alternatively here are - 15 Women's Rights Under Indian Constitution (To Protect You!)

What are your thoughts on consent, ladies? Tell us in the comments.

Palak Kapadia

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