Sex and Consent

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Negotiating the minefield
‘Consent is sexy’. That was my introduction to the concept of consent. I was seventeen, and attending a mandatory seminar for incoming freshmen at an American university. The Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team—SWAT—wore black sweatshirts that said ‘Consent is Sexy’ in big red letters on the front and handed out buttons that said the same. I took one to demonstrate my support, but hesitated to pin it on my bag like others had done—perhaps because some part of me imagined it would be like putting an ‘Open’ sign in the window.

Yikes. Is that what I imagined? It seems, then, that I had an inkling of consent and the fact that it can be implied, even before I had a word for it. But what a difference a word makes, what a relief to learn there is a name for something obvious. Like ‘gravity’.

I don’t remember thinking of sex in terms of consent earlier than that. I was aware of violation. I was aware of rape. I was aware of sexual abuse. I was aware of unwelcome sexual attention. I knew violation was possible at the hands of strangers and familiars. I’d experienced ‘eve-teasing’ and felt absurdly shaken afterwards. I’d lost sleep over the opening chapters of A Time to Kill. I’d watched Monsoon Wedding with a thickening nausea. In a way, I had a clearer idea about sexual assault than I did of sex.

In sexual assault, the presence of violence was implicit. But there was also the sense of an absence of something. I can’t remember having a word for what that something was. It was clear that a sexual assault was not sex, though there was something of sex in it. Later, I realised there was also something of sex it lacked.

That something is consent. When I first paid attention to the word, it became the name for that absence. Consent, for me, came to mean everything that was missing in a sexual assault—respect for a person’s bodily autonomy, for one’s right to choose and to refuse; a desire for mutuality, for pleasure rather than power, for exchange rather than extraction; an ability to accept refusal, deferral, disappointment.

Consent is not simply acquiescence; it is agreement. It is a genuine consideration for mutuality, and a way to ensure it; a way to be clear that two people—or three—agree. It is a shared sense of endeavour rather than a permission slip—though permission is a start.

I could have used a Gangs of Wasseypur-style introduction to consent growing up. I laughed at the ‘permission scene’ like everyone else in the theatre, not just for its comedy, but also for its ease in bringing up consent in a scenario that generally relies on its being implicit.

Man and woman sit together making small talk. Noticing her hand beside him, the man seizes the rare opportunity for touch, reaching quietly down to put his hand over hers, yet staring straight ahead as though nothing at all had happened. This is a classic telling of a desirable progression in any courtship, and most films would just move on from two secret smiles. Instead, Mohsina turns to Faisal and chastises him for not asking first—“Permission lena chahiye, na?”

The genius of this scene is in the fact that Mohsina insists her consent be taken even though she is willing. Consent is usually only invoked in the context of refusal or violation—“I don’t consent to this marriage” or “I didn’t consent to the warrantless search of my house”—so to see it taken seriously even in the context of mutual enthusiasm was gratifying. The pleasure is not in seeing Faisal humiliated, but in seeing him sit back down to resume the handholding, minus subterfuge.

Trouble is, our sexual culture revolves around subterfuge, around guesswork and hint-dropping, liberty-taking and going-along. Consensual sex does happen. But consent is for the most part given and taken tacitly, through ‘signals’ or circumstances that may be interpreted as ‘preamble’, willingness or invitation. Many a slip is possible in such a situation: shyness may be taken as coyness, eye contact as flirtation, physical contact as enticement.

Great anguish is expressed over the ‘ambiguities’ inherent in sexual courtship, the difficulty of gauging interest, let alone determining consent. Short of turning to someone you fancy and asking them if they’d like to have sex with you—a directness to which many of us are not equal—some argue there is no real way to know for certain whether your overtures will be welcome or not.

It follows that, until we’re all ‘cool’ enough to talk freely about our intentions and desires with the people who are their object, we must navigate the minefield of implied consent. But I am sceptical that it is quite so hard to ascertain sexual interest and to obtain consent.

In a standard understanding of courtship, it is the man’s responsibility to express desire and make the overture, and the woman’s to accept or refuse it. But past the point of initial interest, consent is too often taken as granted.

If there is a thin line between yes and no, there is an equally thin one between our confusion over consent and our disregard of it. If we are going to take seriously the traversing of this minefield, we are going to have to tread lightly, and pay attention.

What is it that signals a person’s willingness or eagerness to engage in a sexual relationship with someone? Is it a laugh, a wink, a look in the eye, a thing we said or how we said it? Viewed in a certain light, every choice, every gesture, every behavioural nut and bolt may be taken to indicate sexual intent or openness. Are we sure of our own intentions each time we interact with another person? If not, how can we be sure of theirs?

What teaches us to interpret certain things as sexual cues? Pop culture, the first culprit for every malaise, plays its part. When almost every Hindi movie for several decades tells you hasi to phasi, uski naa mein haan hai, and an expression of anger or disgust means you should try harder until she sees your heart of gold, there is an impact, and this is how we’ve learnt it works:

Man pursues woman, woman demurs; man persists, woman softens; man indicates intent, woman indicates openness; man makes a move, woman expresses reluctance; man persuades woman through expert seduction or demonstrates worth through vows of exceptional love and fidelity, woman yields; happily ever after. (Of course there are no take-backs in this scenario—consent, like virginity, once surrendered can never be withdrawn.)

We have learnt resistance is par for the course. We have learnt not to take no for an answer. But let’s not hang Bollywood—yet again—for all our sins.

Let’s acknowledge the part we play in the confusion of consent. A person’s evaluation of a situation rests naturally on their sense of themselves in it. If we are predisposed to assuming consent, we will. If we are inclined to see reciprocity, we will. If we are convinced of our own desirability, we will assume not only that we are desired, but that we deserve to be.

Casting oneself as irresistible freezes the other as unable to resist, a passive vessel for our attentions, always willing. They may not be. In a saner world, this would be called wishful thinking. We hope for sexual welcome, we search for any sign of it, and, given a good stretch of the interpretive muscle, are able to find it.

So let’s also own up to how easy it is to manufacture consent and how often we do it, and guilelessly justify proceeding without it. Let’s admit that we routinely interpret certain thresholds of comfort as prelude, certain kinds of conversation as foreplay, certain situations as ‘atmosphere’ because it suits us.

And let’s surrender the absurd pretense of sexual clairvoyance—‘ I just knew’—because we are not Ram and Leela and this is not a movie. The interpretive games of sexual courtship are based on pop-wisdom and dubious intelligence. This is risky business. Reading ‘signals’ is a tack best left to bros on the internet dispensing advice on how to ‘get more girls’.

We may wish for a dictionary of sexual cues. But because we take consent as granted by default, we’d also need one to tell us what constitutes adequate refusal—what to do and say to leave no doubt that we are refusing consent. Then we’d have two dictionaries and a responsibility to police ourselves 24/7 lest we send out cues or let slip our ‘Go Away’ sign for even a second.

We are already in the habit of interpreting anything warmer than iciness as ‘loaded’, expert at isolating things that might amount to consent, compiling them and calling it ‘context’. ‘There was a context,’ we reason, in situations when consent has been misread, ‘a context that indicated consent’—there was a marriage, a date, a flirtation, a softness, a warmth, a friendliness, a not-quite professionalism—‘You weren’t an absolute ogre to me so I thought you wanted sex.’

But there is no relationship, no context where consent is certain. And the uncertainty is the point.

It is in the nature of consent to be uncertain because the whole point of it is that it can be granted, withheld, or revoked at any time, in any context. The whole point of consent is to provide a choice in any circumstance. We get to choose who to share our bodies with—and where, and when, and how. Consent is relevant in every context, and context can never be justification for disregarding it.

Our insistence on trying to pin consent down to certain actions and behaviours and relationships reveals an inability to make peace with its essential dynamism. Consent cannot be and is not meant to be static; it must be renegotiated, re-evaluated at every stage of intimacy—intimacy is not an exemption—in every relationship, with every individual. It may be implied, but is never guaranteed. That is the point.

It is troubling then that the uncertainty of consent motivates us not to take pause, but to charge forth anyway. Violations are absurdly commonplace, and by chalking them up to the notorious elusiveness of consent—‘ You can never be sure’, ‘mistakes are bound to happen’— and by letting them slide as ‘miscalculations’ and ‘lapses in judgment’, we only enable the unseriousness about consent that caused them in the first place, and ensure they will become commoner still.

The recent uproar over one such ‘routine’ violation may turn out to be a good thing for just this reason. We are almost eager to see Tarun Tejpal made an example of. ‘He ought to have known better’, we say, based on his public writings and his stated positions and assumed capacity for comprehending nuance. We are right to be angry. Even taken at face value, his account of the assault betrays a total inattention to the consent he is invoking, if not an outright disregard for it.

But there is something disingenuous in our eagerness to make him out to be a monster, to attempt to separate him from the rest of us, as if to deny that what he really is is an ordinary man whose garden-variety disregard for consent caused him to take a grave liberty and respond to an accusation of assault with predictable disbelief and defensiveness. This is what’s normal, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we are not subject to the same forces that shaped him—a sexual culture based on guesswork and the assumed faux-reluctance of the woman, who must be chased and pressed until she is persuaded.

This is not merely a gap of understanding between generations and genders. This is not only the problem of men, or of people who were born before 1980. There has certainly been an evolution of the way men and women interact socially in recent decades, or so my father tells me. Anybody who has their ears open has heard a ‘back in my day’ that illustrates how things have opened up, warmed between the sexes. But this cannot be used as an excuse—‘back in my day, that meant she was up for it’ is not good enough. Nor, for that matter, is being born after the 1980s—we cannot be complacent about having all the right attitudes because we were born in a certain decade.

Sexual responsibility requires active engagement with consent. When we want it, we should ask for it, and also insist, like Mohsina, that it be asked for. When we are refused, we ought to respect refusal, and also be able to take more than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer—to also accept ‘I don’t know’, ‘Not today’, ‘Not now’, ‘Not yet’, ‘Maybe later?’ And when we grant it, we might consider granting it explicitly. Because explicit, active consent is perhaps the best antidote to the received understanding that it can never be given freely, a solution to our sexual culture’s preference for a theatre of reluctance over openness and enthusiasm.

Ultimately, consent has as much to do with ‘liberty to do’ as ‘liberty to not’. If our understanding of the concept continues to be arranged lopsidedly around unwillingness, we might bring up a whole new generation who know more about sexual assault than sex, who understand willingness as a passively defined thing. And the mechanics of our sexual culture will continue to rely on resistance, on charging ahead until we encounter what is not okay rather than setting out to explore what is.

What seems to freak people out about consent is the vision of being in bed with someone and having to proceed as though with a checklist on a clipboard, sterilely checking off yes or no before moving on to the next step. This is why a discussion on consent seems to strike some as a threat to the la-la magic and mystery of sex. But no, boys and girls, consent will not destroy sex. There is no checklist, no clipboard. Bringing consent to the centre of our sexual culture means reorienting our approach to sexual encounters. It means learning to inquire ‘Do you want to?’ rather than ‘Will she allow it?’ ‘What do you want?’ instead of ‘How far can I go and get away with it?’