The #MeToo movement brought with it a long overdue conversation on the concept of consent and how we have been misreading people’s agency all the while. But despite so much discussion, most people are still to fully comprehend where a person’s consent lies on a spectrum which is larger than just sexual intercourse. To shed light on various aspects of consent and how we can raise awareness about it in children and adults alike, we reached out to Mini Saxena, who has started the Consent Project in India to do just that.

So, what is Consent Project? 

The Consent Project is an initiative that delivers interactive workshops to school- and university-age students on what consent means and the key statutory sexual offences. We answer students’ legal questions with accuracy and experience. Our aim is to break the silence around consent and reduce rates of sexual violence in the long-term. Ultimately, our initiative aims to empower participants to take informed decisions with respect to consent and to promote a culture wherein it is normal to give, withhold, check for and withdraw consent.

Consent is as straightforward a concept as ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yet there are so many complexities attached to it. Why do you think that is?

I think one of the major reasons why consent is perceived as complex, even though it isn’t actually complex, is because we really don’t talk about it. Consent is not just relevant in a sexual context; it’s also relevant in non-sexual contexts. And to some extent, we’re definitely more adept at picking up social cues and social signals in non-sexual contexts. We know when it would not be appropriate to, for example, give someone a hug, or take food from someone’s plate, or stand too close to someone. If we’re not sure, we usually just ask. But there is absolutely no conversation around consent or sex, especially in this country.

If we don’t talk about consent, we don’t understand the importance of consent, which is why a lot of us grow up with very warped ideas of consent.

The conversation around sex only starts around the time one enters university spaces, and this too only in relatively privileged circles. In a lot of places there is never any conversation around sex, or there is conversation, but it may be misinformed. Assuming that by the time we start talking about it we’re already in college, that’s 18 of your formative years where you’ve just not talked about it at all, despite, I am sure, having questions around it. We don’t talk about it with our friends, or with our family, or with teachers or doctors, perhaps you with a couple of people we trust, but that may also be misinformed. And so, of course, if you’ve spent your formative years not talking about it, certain habits get ingrained. If we don’t talk about consent, we don’t understand its importance, which is why a lot of us grow up with very warped ideas of consent.

There are countries in the world where even the parents ask their children if it’s okay to touch them or give them a hug in certain situations (except in situations where the child is in imminent danger or it is necessary to act etc.). That’s an education around boundaries, privacy and personal space from a very young age. We don’t have that. Especially in this country, privacy is a relatively new concept. It’s been adjudged as a fundamental right only very recently. And we’re not very good at respecting boundaries, the idea of personal space, individual autonomy, or individual agency, especially when these ideas are mixed in with pernicious gender roles.

The society says the only legitimate way for a woman to have sex is within the bounds of an existing marriage. Then, her consent doesn’t really matter because she is deemed to have given that consent when the marriage took place.

Violation of consent on a marital bed (marital rape) is still acceptable in our society. What must be done to change that outlook?

A woman’s agency doesn’t end just because there has been a marital ceremony. The idea behind marital rape being acceptable, or “rape” not existing within the bounds of marriage, comes from a place where not only is all marital sex legitimate, but also, any sex within marriage doesn’t require the woman’s consent, because the marital contract is the legitimisation of sex. Women having sex before marriage is not acceptable. Women having sex outside of marriage is not acceptable. Women who have been married, for example, divorced or widowed women, expressing sexual desire or talking about or owning their sexuality, is also not acceptable. Really, society says the only legitimate way for a woman to have sex is within the bounds of an existing marriage. Then, her consent doesn’t really matter because she is deemed to have given that consent when the marriage took place. Essentially the marital ceremony is a ceding of her autonomy and her consent for as long as the marriage lasts.

Women are not perceived as human beings on their own, they are just property passed from one hand to another, which is why when a husband dies or when divorce happens, the woman is suddenly no longer anyone’s property, and that’s “strange” for society to see.

We can go deeper: the reason why this ceding of autonomy is perceived is because women are seen as not really having any autonomy in the first place. Essentially, before marriage she is her father’s property, and after marriage she is her husband’s property (of course queer relationships don’t even exist in this paradigm). So she really has no right to either say yes or no. There is no conception of sex before marriage so her consent is meaningless; after marriage she is her husband’s property so her consent is meaningless.

Women are not perceived as human beings on their own, they are just property passed from one hand to another, which is why when a husband dies or when divorce happens, the woman is suddenly no longer anyone’s property, and that’s “strange” for society to see. It’s also why when women are approached by men, and if they don’t want to engage with the man or want to ward him off, they will say they are already married or in a relationships. That immediately works because the man then perceives her as someone else’s property and therefore he can’t touch her, but if she’s single she’s fair game and her own yes or no really doesn’t matter.

We cannot have a society built on disrespecting women and their autonomy and personhood.

A lot of people say that marital rape, if criminalised, will destabilise our society because marriages will fail. My response to that is if an institution that is supposedly the building block of our society is built on oppressing women and not respecting their consent then surely that needs to change. We cannot have a society built on disrespecting women and their autonomy and personhood.

Growing up, when did you realise that as a woman you had an agency over your body and sexuality? And that it is wrong to take anyone’s consent for granted.

That’s a great question, because it assumes that I’ve already learnt! I think we are all works in progress, and this realisation has to be a constant realisation. We learn the wrong ideas very early on – that as women we don’t have agency over our bodies and we don’t own our lives, and that certain people’s consent is less important than other people’s – whether that’s women or trans people or queer people or Dalits – anyone who falls outside the dominant paradigm. Patriarchy affects men’s consent also, as it assumes that men are always up for sex. So when you are growing up as teenagers, you’re bullied if you are a man and have said no to any sexual activity. It takes a lot of time to unlearn these ideas.

I also have to learn to listen to others’ ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and what they’re saying and take it seriously. And this is not just a technicality, I have to give them the space to be able to voice discomfort if they are uncomfortable, and to be able to say no if they want to.

As someone who identifies as a woman, I still find it difficult to say no sometimes, and the reason for that is because I have been told that I have to always be pleasant, always be likeable, because that is how women are: amiable, affable, not aggressive, not strong, never angry. I’m trying really hard to overcome those ideas, and I do think I have had some success. I think I would put that down to going to law school; law school encourages you to think rationally and also to question and to critically analyse a lot of the dominant narratives. I was lucky to have some really fantastic professors who inculcated that spirit of questioning. So within the classroom as well as outside it, in my own lived experiences, I’ve been trying to learn these ideas. This also applies to other people – I also have to learn to listen to others’ yes or no and what they’re saying and take it seriously. And this is not just a technicality; I have to give them the space to be able to voice discomfort if they are uncomfortable, and to be able to say no if they want to. Just as I find it difficult to say no, I have to be conscious that so might others (for whatever reason). So it’s really a paradigm shift in how we understand both sexual and non-sexual relations, and that takes time.

What actually inspired you to develop project consent?

I admit that there’s only so much opinion change that happens within a one-hour workshop but the idea was to get them to start talking about it and start having a dialogue around consent.

I have to admit that this is not originally my brainchild and I cannot take credit for it. I was working in London for close to three years at a law firm, and during that time I heard about a pro bono initiative started by a criminal barrister who sends legally qualified volunteers to schools to talk to 11-18 year olds about consent and the law around it. As this was close to my heart I immediately signed up to volunteer and spent about a year delivering workshops with them, doing at least one a month. Some of the questions we got from students were just really fun to engage with. I admit that there’s only so much opinion change that happens within a one-hour workshop but the idea was to get them to start talking about it and start having a dialogue around consent. And so when I decided to move back to India I spoke with the founder about starting something similar here. I moved back in April last year and within a few months, in September, I did my first workshop. I did several workshops for about six months or so to gauge demand and also to tweak the content of the workshops. Once it seemed like there was demand, I launched the website and started taking on more people for the Project.

Tell us a bit more about your workshops.

Our workshop aims to draw participants into debate and put the spotlight on their own opinions before addressing the legal framework. The content of each workshop varies slightly depending on age group and special educational needs. We use a PowerPoint presentation and a selection of exercises to bring the content to life. Each workshop has the following key learning points:

  • What is consent?
  • What are the legal consequences of a sexual offence?
  • How do we reduce the risk of sexual violence?
  • What are the steps to take should this happen to you (or someone you know).

Women often hesitate in voicing a loud and firm no, your thoughts on that.

I think that is definitely true. Voicing a loud and firm no in the context of either non-sexual or sexual contact for women, when someone is demanding something of them, is difficult, because it is essentially an act of disagreement and sometimes of confrontation, and as women we are told to not disagree or confront. As I was mentioning earlier, we grow up on a very strong foundation of having to be likeable and pleasant, and qualities like aggression and anger are not appreciated in women. We are very often told to do things for others, and this comes at the cost of oneself. I think especially in our culture, but also in cultures across the world, women live their lives for others.

Voicing a loud and firm no in the context of either non-sexual or sexual contact for women, when someone is demanding something of them, is difficult, because it is essentially an act of disagreement and sometimes of confrontation, and as women we are told to not disagree or confront.

This starts off at a very early age where you’re told to help in the kitchen to make food for the entire family, or to help serve the food, and to eat last. You’re told that your education comes after your brother’s education. So when you’re growing up you’re serving the family, when you get married you’re serving your husband (sexually and non-sexually), and once you have children you’re serving your children. So there’s very little idea of women doing anything for themselves. When you’re constantly told that your duty lies in helping others, you don’t listen to yourself very often. We’re not told to listen to our discomfort when someone asks us to do something, which is why we often don’t say no because we always look to please. This is also why, in our workshops with university students, we deal with a scenario wherein we talk about how consent is socially mediated and can be a result of social coercion.

Mini Saxena

Now of course this may seem counterintuitive because on one hand I’m saying you should listen to women when they say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and on the other hand I’m also saying that their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ may not actually be a yes or no. But it’s not actually counterintuitive. The thing to remember is that women’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should definitely be respected. But also as women we could perhaps look into why we’re saying ‘yes’ when we say ‘yes’, and knowing this, I think men should also give women the space to say ‘no’, or to voice discomfort if they are even slightly uncomfortable. In one of my recent workshops with adults, a man asked a question when I tried to explain this, saying maybe we should have workshops for women on how to say ‘no’. I don’t think that’s the point. As a man, wouldn’t it be nice if your sexual relations in general were more kind, more empathetic, and if you gave women the space to be able to voice their discomfort (even if it’s not an outright ‘no’)?

I think men should also give women the space to say ‘no’, or to voice discomfort if they are even slightly uncomfortable.

Another part of this question pertains to power relations: if the man is your superior, then of course your consent is mediated because that person is in a position of power over you, whether that’s formal (for example in a workplace) or informal power (for example familial – like a father or uncle). So consent is not a simple yes or no when a power relation is involved, whether that’s a formal or informal hierarchy.

In your experience what have been the primary roadblocks women themselves have in understanding consent and agency?

I would say that roadblocks come on account of how we are raised, which is very dependent on gender roles. The patriarchy is a worthy adversary and it gets entrenched in us from the moment we are born, and as I said, it takes years of unlearning, and affects all of us, irrespective of gender. It is not a battle of women against men; it’s not that all women understand consent and agency and no men do. I’ve seen women be extremely patriarchal and I’ve seen men be very good allies. So it’s not a women vs men war. It’s a war on ideas, on ideology. And the only way to resolve it is communication.

The only way that women’s challenges are unique is because of the gender roles we grow up with. It’s because, as I said, women grow up with this idea that they constantly have to live for others. And because of that it takes a long time for us to understand that we have agency over our bodies, our lives, our minds, our decisions, our boundaries. When you are always living your life for someone else you never think about what it is that you want, what it is that you’re comfortable with. And these gender roles perniciously play out from a very young age including all across our formative and teenage years.

But apart from that, consent is something people of all genders have to understand and unlearn and in that sense the challenge is definitely not unique at all and is something for all of us to consider.

How can we teach boys and young men the concept of consent in a patriarchal culture?

Consent can only be taught through communication and engagement (which necessarily will include disagreement and debate). One thing that I would say is particular to boys and young men is calling out. As a woman I of course cannot speak to their lived realities, but I am given to understand that it is a good strategy for other boys and young men to call it out. So if you’re in a group, whether it’s a WhatsApp group or just a group of friends that’s all male, and you see someone casually talking about sexual violence, call it out, identify it. You don’t have to do it aggressively or angrily, you can just ask a question and say, “why did you say that?” So call it out in your male friend groups, ask questions around it, encourage people to think more deeply around why they say what they say and what kind of culture lies behind what they say.

It doesn’t have to be sexual consent; we can start by talking about non-sexual boundaries and non-sexual settings (as we do with our younger kids) in respect of touching or sharing food etc. Once that idea of autonomy and private space is entrenched then hopefully that will extend to sexual relations as well. We need to change the way we interact with each other from a very young age because right now violation of boundaries is entrenched in our culture.

What are the everyday situations where we can discuss consent with children, boys and girls?

We can discuss it all the time. Consent is something that affects every human interchange we have. Before children become sexually active, we need to talk about consent in non-sexual settings. As I said there are styles of parenting wherein the children are always asked before they are hugged or touched. It’s easy to bring these things up in everyday conversation with your friends, family, and teachers. Does your mother ask your consent before she looks through your things? Does your teacher ask your consent before she announces your marks to the entire class?

Consent is something that affects every human interchange we have. Before children become sexually active, we need to talk about consent in non-sexual settings.

Once children start to become sexually active it’s important to talk about sexual consent, and also to treat sex as something that’s not shrouded in mystery but rather a part of life. When parents talk to their kids about sex (if they do), they should also talk about consent, about being respectful within sexual relations, giving respect to your partner to say no and also respecting yourself so that you say no if something makes you uncomfortable. I never had that conversation with my parents. Most children still don’t. But it is important to have that conversation because otherwise it makes for really unkind sexual experiences, and in the worst of situations, sexual assault or rape. I would really encourage people to bring it up, with their children, with their peers, in their workplaces, with their colleagues.

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