Oh, Yes! Sex and Consent
I am, by most measures, a “strong woman.” I speak my mind; I don’t like to let conventional social mores dictate where I go, who I talk to, how I explore the world. And yet, when I look back at the sexual experiences I’ve had prior to my current long-term relationship, I realize that most have been non-consensual.
What do I mean by this? Simply that consent—asking for or giving permission—was never part of my sexual encounters. They never asked me if I wanted to get intimate or have sex, and I never explicitly said ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ One time I said ‘no,’ but maybe it wasn’t strong enough, and we had sex anyway.
I—a self-described feminist and confident young woman—didn’t know how to respect the boundaries of my own body and didn’t know how to get others to respect them. On some level, I didn’t think that I could set limits and still be a sexy, attractive woman. I could speak passionately about the need for women to respect and exercise control over their bodies—but I didn’t really know how to translate this into action.
Too often, the idea of sexual consent is made out to be only about the ability to say, and hear, ‘no.’ But it’s more complicated than that: when I found myself in a considerate and loving relationship with someone who helped me respect my body and get in touch with my desires, I found it equally hard to embrace saying “yes” as an important part of an empowered, fulfilling sexual relationship.
Consent Is Sexy
In the brilliant piece “Sex and Consent” in Open magazine, Devika Bakshi reflects on the fact that, growing up, she knew far more about sexual violence than she did about an empowered approach to sex:
…for me, [consent] 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.
Bakshi goes on to offer a great definition of consent:
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.
In other words, consent is not simply about the lack of a ‘no’—it is an approach to sex that is about active agreement, about saying “Yes!”, rather than the banter and foreplay that too often passes as implicit consent.
“Consent is sexy,” Bakshi is told at the freshman orientation for her American college, and I wholeheartedly agree. Our sexual relationships, whether for a night or for a decade, need to be founded on the basis of respect and clear communication. We need to practice saying and hearing ‘yes’ and ‘no.’
We need to push our comfort limits by articulating our desires rather than being coy, by shrugging at the awkwardness of rejection and moving on.
Culture of Consent
I love this phrase, “a culture of consent.”
Firstly, it’s catchy. Secondly, it suggests that when we work to create sexual relationships based on consent, we are working on something that is bigger than ourselves and our isolated relationships. We are transforming our larger culture so that consent is the norm rather than the exception.
But creating such a culture is daunting when women’s bodies are so often treated as objects or property, when our parents and those who raise us can barely fathom talking about sex, the “facts of life,” let alone what it means to be respectful of and responsible towards your own body and to the bodies of others.
So, how do we start? In our own lives, of course.
Start paying attention to your personal patterns of communication—when and how do you say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘maybe’ in daily life? Do you agree to do things because you’re worried someone won’t like you if you say ‘no’? Do you shy away from opportunities to articulate what you want by saying, “I don’t care…”? Don’t judge—just notice.
Consent is about knowing what we do—and don’t—want. It’s about respecting the people we interact with by ensuring that we understand how they feel. It’s about better relationships, both sexual and absolutely platonic. A culture of consent is about better sex.
Stay tuned for more ideas about how you can create a culture of consent in your relationships, families, and beyond.*
* Most of the resources on consent and a “culture of consent” out there on the great world of the internet are American. Are there organizations working on culture of consent in Mumbai or in India? Are initiatives around this being taken on Mumbai’s college campuses? If you know of any such resources, please share — I’d love to hear from you!