The reason why I began this series was to address how we understand sex and sexuality and how that shapes our views on consent and sexual abuse.
Every few months in India, there is a horrific rape case that ‘shakes the nation’ and there are lengthy debates about consent and feminism. I began to wonder. If the phrase ‘No means No’ is practically hammered into our minds by the media, why is it that we keep getting it wrong? Why do we still need to talk about consent?
Our Upbringing, Our Education, Our Institutions
While researching sexual abuse statistics, it became clear that the way we approach consent is deeply flawed. It stems from our stereotypical understandings of gender and our skewed perception of sexuality.
I remember an incident from school. Our headteacher called an assembly for all the girls in 11th grade. We lined up in the auditorium, and she spoke from the stage, “I am ashamed to be speaking about this today.” She had received a complaint from a male tutor. During the mid-term examinations, he had seen a female student sitting inappropriately in the exam hall, that had exposed her underwear. He complained because he felt uncomfortable. She called the assembly to reprimand us for not wearing tights under our school uniform. For causing her ‘embarrassment’ because she had to listen to a 40-year old tutor complain about a 16-year-old student’s underwear. I clearly remember my thoughts at the moment…
“What kind of a girl wouldn’t wear tights under her uniform?”
My judgement came from never having questioned the double standards in my early years of growing up. Mothers asked their young daughters to put on longer pants before guests arrived. Fathers discussed dating and relationships with their nephews, but not with their daughters. Parents set different curfew timings for their daughters and sons. Women preach to their daughters and nieces to accommodate their future husband and in-laws wishes. The same people do not mention marriage to their sons until he turns 25.
And all this is accepted because ‘that’s how things have always been’.
When this kind of language and behaviour is tolerated at home and schools, it should not be surprising when our lawyers and Supreme Court judges use the same sexist opinions and derogatory comments in court.
Our Legal Definition of Sexual Abuse
Indian laws identify only men as perpetrators and only women as victims. This emphasizes our flawed understanding of not only gender but also of what constitutes as abuse. A woman holds the honour and dignity of a family and a community, while a man does not. The violation of that honour is a bigger crime than the violation of an individual’s sexual autonomy. This is why a lawyer’s biased opinion becomes the basis for a legal argument in court. This is why marital rape is not illegal. This is why a man’s rape is either unimportant or does not exist.
The traditional views of our judicial system exclude abuse within the LGBTQ+ community and completely isolates the discrimination and violence faced by sex workers.
All this combined, with the patriarchal mentality, is why gender neutrality in rape laws is questioned and debated against for years. There have been no official statistics for evidence of abuse against other genders or of women abusing others. The threat of counter-complaints by the perpetrator (a man) has been argued as another reason why India is ill-prepared for gender-neutral laws.
Under these deep-rooted issues and the many voices, the system becomes murky, and we lose the whole definition of abuse.
Why ‘No Means No’ Is Problematic
Since my personal experiences and encounters, I started to see how the phrase, ‘No means no’ can be problematic. In moments of panic or fear, some people tend to ‘flight’ or ‘fight’, while some ‘freeze’. Most people also do not always say ‘no’. Because, as statistics reveal, most victims knew their perpetrators. Be it a partner, a colleague, a relative, or a friend.
This does not mean the word has no significance. But it is important to consider the situation and the verbal and physical cues of a person that may suggest they are not interested. ‘I’m not too sure’, ‘Maybe some other time’, ‘I don’t feel like it’, or resisting touch by brushing off a hand or moving away.
Deconstructing Consent and Sexual Abuse
Sexual consent is consent to engage in agreed sexual activity. It can only be given by an individual who is capable of doing so (i.e. not drunk, not asleep, not a minor, not disabled, etc.), either verbally or as agreed by the involved adults. Consent can be refused for specific activities or withdrawn at any time.
No matter how it may seem (frustrating, annoying, or confusing), no one has the authority over anyone’s body.
Because control over one’s sexual autonomy is a fundamental human right. The violation of that right in any way, including by force, deception, manipulation, or coercion, by anyone, is sexual abuse.
It is NOT the violation of the honour of the person, of the family, of the community, or the nation, but the violation of human rights. And that cannot be denied because of a person’s clothing, profession, caste, relationship status, or gender.
What Can I Do?
Understand Your Own Biases
We are aware of what is right and wrong, but sometimes, we fail to notice it in our surroundings.
- A woman stalking a man is not ‘sweet’, it is just as creepy.
- A man being touched unwillingly is just as traumatizing.
- A woman being harassed by another woman is just as serious.
We have seen these things happen, but unconsciously, we pass off these subtle yet disturbing traits of bias or abuse. I am too guilty of letting go of such comments made by my relatives in the past. This is not to blame ourselves, but to understand where our biases come from, and how we can grow past them to cultivate a healthier environment.
Use Your Influence
This is not easy, but if you are position to make a change in educational or institutional reforms, do so. For example, if you own a business, it can be as simple as enforcing safe workplace regulations.
Raise a Better Generation
For all the parents reading.
When our kids grow up without biases and discrimination, they are building a free world that focuses on their mind and personality. When they grow up with values that allow them to express themselves without the conformities of gender rules, that is when and how the future can change.
To expect everyone to change their mind on age-old traditions and break the current societal rules of gender and sexuality is difficult. But, can we not try and bend them? If not in others, in ourselves and our families first? Because a gender-fluid and a sex-positive future generation is the only way ahead to a safer world.