Sexual consent is easier to explain. Simply put, it means that only an enthusiastic and explicit ‘yes’ would mean yes. A no is a no and a maybe is also a no. You cannot convince a person to have sex with you. I want to talk about something else here – consent in a relationship. Say between friends. Or between couples who are dating. Or couples who are exploring a relationship. Of course, I am restricting myself to heteronormative relationships here.
What happens when one person invites the other, say for a film or for a lunch, and is refused? Is it okay to persist and persuade? What is the right way to react? Does worrying about consent kill relationships? Is pressurizing the only way to carry a relationship forward? What makes one assume that the other person wants to carry the relationship forward? Such ideas are reinforced by the patriarchal notions of a woman not being open about her wants and desires.
Often a woman cannot express her interest in a man. She has to wait for the man to express interest. And when he does so, she has to demur, deny and then reluctantly give in. Also, a woman who is forthright in accepting a proposal is seen as too forward and hence an easy lay. A friend told me about a dialogue in the film ‘Madras.’ The heroine apparently tells the hero, “What if I said no. As a girl, I will only say no. You should have persisted.” It is this, that perpetuates the culture of some boys not taking no for an answer and going on to display a wrong sense of entitlement.
There is something else we have repeatedly heard from teachers and counselors when we visit schools to conduct our Gender Awareness sessions: “It is not true. These days’ girls are fast. Even if the boys are quietly going about their ways, the girls pick on them.” What exactly did they mean by that? I probed a bit more and found that it is the patriarchal mindset of not being able to accept that women could be forthright in their desires too. The teachers like most people in our society have this inexplicable fear about the youngsters being attracted to each other. In advanced societies this is seen as a normal part of growing up. Here we make it a taboo and imbue so much negativity around it.
Teachers demur about giving sex education to the students. Ideally, children should be able to approach a teacher or a counselor in their school and discuss their budding feelings and confusion. A forthright woman is not tolerated and is often perceived by the society as being unacceptably, way too forward. Of course, I also agree that consent should be taught to everyone. Everyone should be taught to respect the personal boundaries of others and not take anyone for granted.
Being aware of how Consent operates and feeling confident to take a stand would help in sustaining healthy relationships. I recollect some of the reactions I have faced when I said a simple ‘no’ and my responses to those reactions.
I am disappointed.
I understand that you might be disappointed. But don’t expect me to change my stand. And when the person persists: Well, so what, if you are disappointed. Tough luck! That statement aims to make me feel guilty and burdens me with the responsibility of your feelings.
You came last month. Why not now?
I consented to go out with you once. Period. That does not mean I have consented to go out with you always. There can be no demand citing that one occasion.
You went with others. Why not with me?
Isn’t that my decision? You are trying to pressurize me and why do you think you are entitled for an explanation about my behavior.
You want to come. Why are you hesitating?
How do you know? Don’t assume that you know my feelings more than me.
The sense of entitlement of some men and their reluctance to take no for an answer would be hilarious if only it weren’t scary. Instead of emphasizing the importance of consent, in popular culture / stories /media, the opposite is depicted. Stalking and harassment is glorified and romanticized. Pursuing a reluctant girl is portrayed as a virtue and sickeningly the movie ends with the girl ultimately falling in love with the stalker.
In our last gender awareness session, I noticed the children being surprised that consent operates even in positive situations when you want to give something to someone. When what is offered by you is refused, it is better to back out gracefully. I have heard an acquaintance once say that if a man takes the first no as the final answer he will never get anywhere in a relationship. He said that patriarchy has enforced such rules and that one has to play by it. Well, when you face a no, the decent thing to do is to withdraw and not crowd the other person.
By saying that you are playing by the rules of patriarchy, you are assuming that the girl is interested and yet is saying no. You have no reason to presume that. You are not entitled to anything. The point is that you have no option other than to take the ‘no’ gracefully. Ultimately you have to respect the sovereignty of another person to his or her body. Understanding the foundations of consent would help in sustaining a relationship at the humanistic level. It is time we spoke openly about the concept of consent to our children at school and create conversations around it.