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Voices: Many facets of consent

A picture of a room where a woman sits in the middle with a laptop and the rest of the people are seated at various distances away from her, listening to her speak.

Consent [1] has always been a loaded term and when we qualify it with ‘informed’, the realistic practical understanding of what it means ‘to consent’ is at the bare minimum challenging and many times, a conundrum. While the definition of consent has evolved in the area of violence and especially in the context of violence against women and more specifically sexual violence, one cannot say the same about other aspects of one’s life. What it means to say ‘no’ is an area that has been much debated and discussed over decades by activists, academics, lawyers, courts to name a few. In a society where historically, patriarchal structures have always resisted women exercising autonomy over their bodies, it has been very important to define and clearly understand what it means to say ‘no’ and that consensual sex cannot be assumed in every situation.

Consent, conceptual and otherwise is more tricky when we talk about it in more affirmative terms for women to assert their sexual rights. While the ‘no’ has garnered some merit over the years, the ‘yes’ is often tricky. . Sexuality; the complexities around the realities of experiencing sexualities in a patriarchal set up, show us that girl’s/women’s “yes” as significant  as the “no”. Pornography – women’s participation in its production and its consumption,  presents one of the most profound conundrums. In late January 2014, Point of View and CREA organised a one-day conversation ‘Tangled, Like Wool: Exploring the Links Between Pornography, Gender, Sexuality and Freedom of Speech’ to discuss some of these issues. One of the sites where the issue of consent perhaps manifests most starkly is in the domain of amateur pornography. This includes anything from self-shot videos of couples making out to footage shot through hidden cameras of couples who are oblivious to the fact that their intimate moment is being captured on camera. There are two different categories of footage; one where (at least one/all of) the parties are aware of the filming but, there is no way of knowing if they consented to distribution of the footage. The other, where they have neither consented to filming the footage nor the distribution of the same. There have been many cases and instances of using this footage to malign and defame women. The contextual notions of ‘honour’, ‘chastity’ and gender stereotypes of women’s behavior make these leaks highly maligning. The rhetoric immediate to the leak/distribution of such videos is around the sexual act and the woman exercising her autonomy to have sex and breakdown of the idea of the normative women, rather than the breach of privacy . One can wonder, if there was not such an outrage, stigma and shaming of the girls and women in such footages would their understanding and consequently what and how they give consent to be filmed be different? If consent were not specific not only to every individual who gives it but also to the societal structure, values and norms that govern our behavior, mindset and socialization, would we understand consent differently? At the  same time when the footage is shot with the knowledge and consent of parties involved and  the same video or footage is used/shared by either of the parties is it  then non-consensual? If yes, then what does define consent? Are we consenting to one particular momentary act and/or at times the other acts that accompany that act? Participation in pornography, its production and consumption  is integrally linked to an expression of sexuality and excavating the depths of untold desires. Even as it draws on reality it speaks to individuals’ fantasies. In repressed societies where there is no space to have conversations on sexuality, pornography provides the way to speak about an issue that is shrouded by silence, namely sexuality of both self-expression as well as a site where people obtain information. The high consumption of amateur pornography is not just because more professionally filmed porn is hard to access but because as one participant said,“the appeal of a grainy, badly-lit, jumpy, sloppy ‘amateur’ video outscores that of the mise en scène of a professionally shot pornographic movie because it is real, Indian, and dirt cheap.”[2] Also many people in the country are first exposed to pornography in the form of amateur porn. It is prolific, lucrative and in high demand. In such cases one wonders, where and to whom does one talk about consent? Where does it fit in? Do we, when we watch footages and videos, circulating around the internet always think about consent? And more importantly does it make a difference to us while viewing the same, does the experience change? If the issue is about a breach of privacy in such videos, then an analysis of the videos in the so called ‘sting’ operations might be useful or could guide us to arrive at a better understanding. Sting operations typically are without the consent of the person whose disclosure and acts are captured. They are always clandestinely shot and without consent. How does one (sting operation) become more acceptable than the other (ameteur porn)?  What is that one quality of one that makes it quite alright and also gives many people a sense of empowerment while watching it, whereas the other is always associated with an emotion akin to being shameful?  Is it that, one is  patently claiming to highlight a violation or ‘right a wrong’ while the other is an invasion,  is patently voyeristic and is not for a right or wrong?  It is also about a sexual act which automatically brings with it a fear and a discussion on sexuality threatening the traditional family and patriarchal structure. Then the larger question that we need to look at for ourselves is, does the ‘greater good’ supersede consent?

Cover Image: Namita Malhotra from the Alternate Law Forum making a presentation on porn through a freedom of speech and privacy laws lens at  #Eroticsdel organised by Point of View and CREA.

[1] Sincere thanks to Meenu and Rupsa for their inputs and comments
[2] Rohini Lakhsane; Peeping Tom and Privacy, at