Scroll Top

Why We Don’t Get Consent

Illustration of a woman dressed in black, holding her hand up in a gesture of protest

By Paromita Vohra:

Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about the stories emerging from the bhadralok #MeToo moment of the last two weeks is that not a single story about men I’ve actually known or met surprised me. It’s not because I had identical experiences with them (though I occasionally had) but because I had glimpsed something far more telling about consent in their eyes. As a smart and funny woman, who is a conventionally non-hot type, I have seen the barely disguised glazed look of feigned cocktail party interest in the eyes of many a male filmmaker-writer-musician type while I was talking about cinema, law, culture or any other area of mutual interest.

I have understood, at first with anger, then with amusement, that men are not interested in what women have to say. For men, smart women are, at best, trophy listeners, a high-level audience to endorse their interesting image. With hot girls, they just pretend harder. And this is the simple truth. A man who does not see women when he is not interested in sex with them (or in commandeering their abilities to write his script, review his book, comfort him with cooking) is not going to see women when he wants to have sex with them either.

And that is what the stories of sexual harassment, abusive relationships, tone deaf “overtures” (if dropping your pants can be called that), on dates and hangouts, have revealed at their core. In the last few years since the Tehelka case, when accounts of sexual assault, harassment and casual abusiveness by acquaintances and intimates, are slowly becoming more detailed, every story one reads always features the internal moment of assault, what I’ve begun to call the moment of rape: the moment when the woman realises that this man does not see me as a person.

When the person who has seemed to be interested in your conversation, banter or fun, suddenly, abruptly drops his pants or puts his fingers somewhere in your body, as if to say, enough about you, let’s talk about me. It is the bewilderment of feeling summarily erased when you expected the most the sweet moment of seeing and being seen intimately (not to be confused with exposing yourself, gentslog). This is why in each of those narratives you see women have not just frozen, they have felt fragmented, doubted themselves. The honour of what is unspoken is casually betrayed. This is when the equality of pleasure—in flirting, kissing, making out—is suddenly perverted into power.

Two years ago I made a music video about consent with two famous lavani artists, Shakuntala Nagarkar and Megha Ghadge. At a women’s summit where it was to be shown, they asked me for a synopsis. I sent, “a music video which explores the intricacies of the yes, no and maybe of consent.” I received a peremptory response: there’s no maybe. Consent can only be yes or no. Is that true? Consent is not a tangible object. It is an intangible response that formulates itself, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Between these forbidding monoliths of Yes and No, is the real valley of consent, where you have the time to exist in a Maybe. A time of making a choice, whether to walk together a while, to have sex, to be in love or not, to simply enjoy the erotic charge between you and others — whatever it is you desire. Sexual interaction is a spectrum of shifting desires that crystallise from mmm, maybe to yes, absolutely, or no, not now, or not ever at a different pace, in a different way for everyone. Respecting that choice, expecting that choice is consent.

And for that what we really need is to accept and respect the variegated world of desire and being able to see intimacy as play, as regarding each other, as warmth — not just a series of goalposts or bases. It means seeing sex as an experience, and not just an outcome. For that we have to talk about sex, really really talk about sex, not just the abstract, sexuality. When I began to do research for Agents of Ishq, a website on sex, love and desire I founded three years ago, workshop upon workshop, conversation upon conversation revealed a surprising and saddening truth: while most young urban people were speaking a language of sexual coolness, what lay beneath was tremendous confusion, ignorance about sexual safety and the nature of actual sex. Also, most women revealed a deep hurt and humiliation at how men were behaving with them, as well as an inability to negotiate things like condom use.

What emerged was the sense that old norms of respectability have been overlain by new norms of consumable liberation, but the terms of that liberation are not being set mutually. Women were being locked into a sexual conformity in a sly way. If they had a strong feminist articulation it was supposed to come bundled with a very specific idea of sexual liberation — a masculine, porn-educated one, in which sex is “meaningless” rather than its meaning being mutually decided. To want something else, or to want to have sex differently, was to be seen as behenji, prude, convent-educated or somehow not attractive enough, because “what ya, I thought you were a feminist and all”. Men who have finally helped turn the term “woke” into a pejorative were, meanwhile, taking on a public articulation about feminism, but changing very little in private.

A New Meaning of Love

But here is the thing. In heterosexual relationships, how are women and men going to learn to see women’s desires if the world does not see them? If the world is shaped to conform to a certain type of man’s desires only? Where is consent without a diversity of desires and a galaxy of desirability? When magazine covers, film festivals, comedy programmes — the whole culture — is telling us to adore men or, rather, one type of man, to laugh at their bad jokes, to celebrate the boyish charm for never growing up (which is why their girlfriends keep getting younger, I presume), to venerate their maverick eccentricities because they wear rubber chappals to weddings, how on earth are we going to learn how to love women? What else will we get then except a world that swallows the professional, sexual and conversational mediocrity of men when it should be spitting #BoreMatKarYaar? In a world colonised by this mindset, how are we going to liberate ourselves into a new meaning of love, sex and desire predicated on choice and consent? We will have no consent till we also have a culture which loves women, which teaches us to love women, to really, really see them — not as examples of their gender, as victims or supergirls, but as selfcontained beings of brightness and power, unpredictable charm, complex inner lives and fascinating opinions. That’s the one thing there is no maybe about.

The article was originally published in the Economic Times.

Leave a comment