The Calcutta High Court has ignited a vital conversation about adolescent sexuality, consent, and gender equality.
The court's stance underscores the significance of teaching both boys and girls to respect each other and to be aware of the nuances of good and bad touch. However, a particular statement in the ruling that asserts that "adolescent girls must control sexual urges" has raised questions about societal expectations and gender stereotypes.
It shines a light on the persistent double standards that continue to pervade discussions of sexual desires, suggesting that it's time to challenge these ingrained biases and foster a more equitable understanding of adolescent sexuality.
A recent case involving a man accused of sexually assaulting a minor girl led to a significant court verdict. In September 2022, a sessions court in South 24 Parganas convicted the man under sections of the Indian Penal Code related to kidnapping and under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
The girl in question informed the court that she had engaged in physical relations with the man willingly and subsequently married him. Both the girl and the man came from a rural background and were unaware that their relationship and marriage could constitute an offense.
In India, the legal age of consent for sexual activity is 18, meaning that sexual intercourse with individuals below this age is considered rape.
Calcutta High Court's Ruling and Guidance
The Calcutta High Court, in overturning the sessions court's verdict, emphasised that this case revolved around a "non-exploitative consensual sexual relationship" between two consenting adolescents. However, the court noted the need for guidance on matters related to sexuality for young individuals.
The court underlined the importance of safeguarding young girls' rights to the integrity of their bodies, dignity, and self-worth. It noted that in the eyes of society, girls are unfairly labeled as "losers" if they partake in what the court described as "the sexual pleasure of hardly two minutes."
In a parallel vein, the court underscored the responsibility of male adolescents to respect the rights of young girls and women. It encouraged the training of young minds to honour a woman's self-worth, dignity, privacy, and autonomy over her body.
Additionally, the court suggested that parents play a vital role in educating their daughters to recognise "bad touch, bad signs, bad advances, and bad company." Simultaneously, it called upon parents to teach their sons the importance of respecting women's dignity and how to form friendships with women without allowing sexual urges to cloud their judgment until they are capable of maintaining a family.
A Call for Legal Amendment
The Calcutta High Court has called for a legal amendment to decriminalise consensual sexual acts involving adolescents above 16 years of age. The judges, however, emphasised that the law must ensure that all children under 18 years of age are protected from sexual offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
The court has not proposed lowering the age of consent but has instead suggested that cases involving the criminalization of romantic relationships between adolescents should be entrusted to the wisdom of the judiciary.
A Question of Double Standards
This verdict carries a significant message of gender equality and respect for women's rights. The court's emphasis on teaching adolescent boys to respect women and educating them on recognising "bad touch" is a vital step towards creating a more egalitarian society.
However, the statement regarding adolescent girls controlling their sexual urges raises an essential question. It underscores the existence of double standards when it comes to societal expectations around sexual desires.
The court's assertion highlights the policing of female desire in society. It reflects deep-rooted gender stereotypes that affect both men and women. Men often grapple with the pressure to conform to rigid ideas of masculinity, which discourage them from expressing vulnerability or emotions. This perpetuates the harmful belief that men's sexual urges are uncontrollable and beyond reproach. In contrast, women face unrealistic and oppressive expectations, leading to shame when expressing their desires.
The Calcutta High Court's ruling sparks an essential conversation about adolescent sexuality and consent. While the court's emphasis on teaching boys respect and recognising "bad touch" is commendable, the statement regarding girls controlling their sexual urges highlights the urgent need for progressive sexual education that challenges existing societal norms and double standards.
This ruling offers an opportunity to challenge these norms, promote open and inclusive discussions about sexuality, and move away from antiquated beliefs that suppress women's desires while perpetuating unequal expectations regarding sexual urges. By engaging in open and honest discussions about sexuality and consent, we can work towards a more equitable and respectful society that values the needs and desires of all individuals, regardless of their gender.
Views expressed by the author are their own