Growing up in a joint family, I’ve been surrounded by people all my life. While it helped me develop my social skills, it also conditioned me as a person who couldn’t set boundaries. Because let’s face it, living in a joint family in India, or even in a nuclear family, you are not really taught the importance of personal space.
I remember an event from my childhood when some relatives visited us, my parents would ask me to properly greet them, and like I was taught, I bent down to touch their feet. But instead, my aunt and uncle pulled me into a hug. Being a reserved kid, I instantly felt uncomfortable and pushed them away, taking a step back. My parents ended up scolding me for being rude because the relatives were just trying to show me their affection. And while I knew that, I still wasn’t familiar enough with them to accept their expression of affection. But this incident taught me that even if I’m uncomfortable, it’s rude to say no.
For years to come, I’d be hesitant to say no to anyone for anything. My parents’ intentions weren’t wrong but the lesson ended up being a harmful one. Soon after that, in my teenage years, I had my first relationship with a boy in school. I liked him, so when he asked me to kiss him, I couldn’t say no. Not because I wanted it but because I didn’t want to upset him with my rudeness. I hesitated but couldn’t say no, and he kissed me anyway. I would regret not saying no for years to come because after that one time, he never asked for my permission again, and I kept feeling uncomfortable. This is the problem with not learning the importance of consent when you’re growing up. We don’t really understand the choices we are making. We don’t know how to prioritize our comfort over someone else’s. And the worst part is that the adults around us don’t really bother to teach us. Even in school, sex education involved just mugging up the reproductive system and writing it as it is in the exam. There were no discussions about safe sex or consent or pleasure.
So, let’s see what is , why it is important and how do we not make mistakes surrounding it?
Consent is when one person gives permission to another person for something. Sexual consent is when the permission is related to sexual activity between two sound adults. Simple, isn’t it? Unfortunately, people make it complicated, finding loopholes and different ways to skip consent. And that is why we should know the importance of consent.
Why is consent important?
Consent is important because it eliminates the entitlement that one might feel over you. Neither your body nor your sexuality belongs to someone else. So sexual activity without consent, becomes a sexual violation. We all own our bodies, and when someone tries to touch it without our permission and act like it’s theirs, it’s a clear violation of our bodily autonomy. While that is the basic reason for why consent is important, it should also be established that consent makes sexual relationships between partners better. Communication, respect, and safety is what ultimately matters in a relationship, and consent ensures those things.
Basic points about consent
Now that we know what consent is and how it is important, let us know about some basic points about consent:
“No” means “no”: the first and easiest way to understand consent is when a person says no. “No” does not mean “maybe” or “try harder to convince me”. It just means no, they are not comfortable with it.
Hesitation means “no”: some people don’t know how to say no because they were never taught that. So, if it’s clear in the way they interact that they’re uncomfortable or hesitant, it means no. If someone keeps persuading a hesitant person until they agree, that’s not consent either, it’s coercion.
“Yes” under intoxication means “no”: if someone is under intoxication, they are not in the right state of mind to make decisions. If you go ahead with touching them when they are under the influence, that can be considered sexual violation.
“Yes” from a minor means “no”: the legal age for sexual consent in India is 18. If a person younger than 18 says yes to an adult, that is still a no. They are not yet eligible for giving consent regarding sexual activity. The adult must be the one to take responsibility for not initiating anything.
Once a “yes” does not mean “yes” indefinitely: it is important to note that consent must be clear every time you initiate sexual activity. Your partner might say yes once but might not want to pursue anything the next time. Or they might say yes before but change their mind in the middle. It’s upon them to decide what they want, when they want, and who they want. Your responsibility is to accept their no whenever it comes.
Commitment does not mean “yes”: some people are under the impression that just because they are in a relationship with someone, they are entitled to touch their partner’s body, even if the partner says no sometimes. Marital rape is not even considered a crime in India. A commitment does not mean your partner cannot change their mind about sex at any given moment.
Deception does not mean “yes”: If you lie or manipulate someone into sexual activity, it is considered sexual assault. The intentions and boundaries should be clear before anything happens between two people. Same goes for sharing important information, for example: if someone has an STD, their partner should know about it beforehand.
“Yes” to sex does not mean “yes” to everything: People assume that just because their partners are consensual to having sex, they will be comfortable with everything that it involves. Each individual has different boundaries when it comes to sexual activity. It’s important to have a safe space in the relationship to talk about these boundaries.
There are other discussions which are important when it comes to sexual consent, like which mode of contraception are you both comfortable using? Sometimes, men convince their partners to not use condoms, use the “pull-out” method, and take emergency contraceptives afterwards. This is another form of manipulation into sexual activity, not to mention extremely harmful for women.
There can also be instances where a partner tries to own your body by telling you what to wear and what not to wear. They also might tell you what to do with your body in situations related to your weight, preferences in sexual activity etc. If at any point of time, you feel that you are being forced or pushed into doing something with your body you’re uncomfortable with, you can say no. What they are trying is not only non-consensual, but a sign of abuse. At the end of the day, remember that you own your body.
Good touch, bad touch and understanding consent
Our society treats sex as a taboo topic, which closes the opportunity for healthy discussions regarding consent, bad touch – good touch, safe sex, and boundaries. Many women have had experiences of sexual violation and abuse and were not even aware of the same until they grew up. Not just focusing on women, if we talk about men, they are often portrayed as the gender that loves sex at anytime with anyone. This stereotype is so dangerous because it undermines their consent and invalidates their experience of sexual assault. Men need to give consent too, they need to set boundaries too. They are not always comfortable with sexual activity. They can withdraw their consent at any time too.
Apart from sexual touch, there can be other types of touches that might make you feel uncomfortable. Or maybe, you don’t exactly understand boundaries related to certain situations. Let us take a doctor’s visit for example. Your doctor might need to examine certain body parts of yours, which includes touching them. While it can be awkward, it is also important. Usually, a physician’s touch should be gentle and soothing, not uncomfortable or aggressive. You will feel the difference and know if it’s a good touch or a bad touch. Sometimes you might not be able to understand the difference but what you need to remember is — whatever the situation or examination demands, you are the one who still has complete autonomy over your body, and if at any given moment, you feel uncomfortable, you can speak up and make that known.
Another example can be if you are in a fire and a fireman has to save you or carry you out of danger. Their job is to bring you to safety, which will include carrying you, holding you close and doing anything necessary to protect you from harm. However, that does not include uncomfortable touch, and again, you have total autonomy over your body. The bottom line in any situation regarding touch is — if it makes you uneasy, you can say no and it must not be done to you.
Proper sex education might help solve sexual assault crimes, push our legal system to criminalize crimes like marital rape. And because change starts with one person, the next time you see any foul play around consent, call it out and educate them. It will make a huge difference. Not just others, call yourself out too if you find yourself not respecting your own consent due to poor boundaries. Listen to that voice in your head and speak the truth about what your body wants. It is, after all, yours.