A few days ago, I stumbled across a quote by the American suffragist Susan B. Anthony which said, “No man is good enough to govern any woman without her consent.” The discussion on affirmative consent has been going around for a while. Especially since the #MeToo movement. After all, when was our society’s lack of understanding of consent more evident, than the time when women started coming out with their experiences of sexual harassment?
But the question is, from then to now in 2020, have these discussions bore any fruitful result? Are men in our society even aware of what affirmative consent means? Given that we live in a country where marital rape is yet to be considered a criminal offence, these questions are neither misplaced nor unfounded. So why are we as a society still struggling to grapple the concept of consent?
Affirmative Consent and Where We Went Wrong
Generations of Indians have grown up watching a certain Rahul declare on-screen “tu haan kar, yan aa kar… tu hai meri Kiran” (Whether you say yes, or no, you’re still mine, Kiran). Which is wrong on so many levels. Consent is the one necessary thing that has to be the cornerstone of all interactions, sexual or otherwise. The portrayal of the idea that a woman’s consent makes no difference is dangerous. The concept that a woman’s ‘no’ could also mean ‘yes’ is toxic, and only adds more fuel to India’s notorious rape culture. And that is what popular media has been doing for a while. What it, and the society, in turn, fails to understand is that it has to always be a willing, enthusiastic ‘yes’ on the woman’s part. And no, there cannot be any in-betweens when it comes to consent.
So, let’s address the elephant in the room. What is affirmative consent? It’s a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. It can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the activity. Any form of sexual encounter that’s not voluntary is sexual abuse. And its high time that we as a society start viewing it as such.
Coerced consent is no consent at all
The first thing that needs to be understood is that coerced consent is no consent at all. By coercion I don’t mean just the use of physical force; coercion can be on an emotional/mental level as well. It’s the things women go along with, out of politeness, pity or embarrassment, or because they were taught that they “mustn’t make a man feel bad about anything”. There are practices prevalent in every patriarchal culture that coerces women into engaging in acts they don’t want to. Women who say ‘no’ are labelled as “hard to get” or “uptight”. No wonder then that women often feel cornered: where saying ‘yes’ means engaging in activities they don’t actively want to, and saying ‘no’ means being labelled for the rest of their life.
Nobody would pressurize a person to forcefully drink tea, would they? If this sounds simple, then so should the issue of consent to sex.
Other thing about affirmative consent is that it can be revoked. There’s no harm in having second thoughts about something. And the moment a ‘yes’ stops being a willing and enthusiastic ‘yes’, the line needs to be drawn. You wouldn’t force or pressure someone into having a cup of tea, and you can also tell easily whether someone wants to have tea or not. If someone says they want a cup of tea one minute, they can change their mind the next. Nobody would pressurize that person to forcefully drink the tea, would they? If this sounds simple, then so should the issue of consent to sex.
Honestly, there cannot be a cheat code for understanding consent. Although it does make me wonder when is the right time to start teaching somebody about it. Is a healthy sex-education the way to go? I’m sure it’ll definitely make a difference, but to what extent? Susan B. Anthony was advocating for women’s right to consent in the 19th century. Two centuries later, it seems like mankind is still where Anthony left it, struggling to understand why consent is even necessary. Isn’t it high time already that we finally stop viewing women as objects, and start seeing them as human beings who can decide for themselves?
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.