In theory, consent can sound like the most basic idea in the world: the dictionary definition is simply, “to give permission for something to happen; agreement to do something.” But in practice, and particularly in the context of sexual interactions, it can be challenging to navigate.
Slogans intended to clarify the idea of consent for young people have ranged from “no means no”, to “only yes means yes”, and sex educators routinely pronounce that consent needs to be “enthusiastic”. But if we’re honest, while these are all well-meaning, the complex terrain of consent extends far beyond the purview of pithy one-line catchphrases.
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Can we always say what we mean?
“No means No” makes the assumption that people are unanimously able to turn down something they don’t want to do. But we know that that is not always the case. Unfortunately, it is too often neither easy, safe, or even possible to say no.
“Only yes means yes” tries to mitigate this issue by suggesting that when someone simply stays silent or seems reluctant but doesn’t explicitly say no, it is better to assume you do not have their consent than to assume that you do. But “only yes means yes” too eventually encounters the same pitfalls as the “no means no” model.
Certain circumstances may compel people to say yes even when they’d rather say no—so even a seemingly enthusiastic yes does not necessarily always imply a genuine willingness and eagerness to participate. I myself have definitely been in more than one situation where I “consented” to doing something only because it seemed like the easiest way to exit the interaction safely. It is absolutely no fun to think about, but here we are.
But on the flip side, I’ve also feigned reluctance to act on a desire even when in fact I would have been delighted to act on it, because I feared that if I gave in too quickly or too enthusiastically, they’d see me as “easy”—surely a common fear in a society that so relentlessly slut-shames women and conditions us to see ourselves as sexual gatekeepers. So how do we ensure that we can express ourselves both honestly and safely?
Making room for “Maybe”
Paromita Vohra, the founder of digital sex education project Agents of Ishq and one of my favorite thinkers on all things relationships, sexuality, and pleasure created a wonderful lavani, a traditional Maharashtrian dance performance, exploring consent where she raises perhaps the most important yet under addressed question of all: can we make room for what lies in between “yes” and “no” to also exist as we navigate consent? Shouldn’t we also be able to safely explore “maybe”?
How can we create an environment of unwavering compassion, respect, and honesty; where we are all not only able to, but encouraged to communicate whatever we feel in all its nuance: excitement, nervousness, hesitation, discomfort, fear, confusion—these are complex emotions that are often hard to immediately reduce to a definitive yes or no.
And instead of feeling anger, shame, or rejection when someone does not reciprocate our feelings or is unwilling to do something we want to, let’s learn to feel gratitude that they are honouring their own boundaries and taking care of themselves.
To achieve these goals, we’ve got to bear in mind that while consent during sex is certainly fundamental, the principles of consent extend to literally all aspects of life. Our consent should absolutely matter in non-sexual contexts as well.
Normalize consent in everyday life
Many of us grow up having experienced indifference towards, or worse still the ongoing and active dismissal of our own agency, autonomy, and consent, well into adulthood.
From seemingly small things like forcing us to eat something we don’t want to, or preventing us from wearing what we want to, to undeniably big things like forcing us to get married when we don’t want to, often to a person we didn’t choose, many of us are raised in an environment with little regard for our consent—whether from family members, teachers, religious figures, bosses, or other authority figures. On top of this, there is the staunch reluctance in a patriarchal, heteronormative, sex-negative world to talk openly about anything to do with sex.
Given the silence and stigma around sex in general, of course, many find it challenging to approach even actively, verbally the topic of consent. In fact, according to a recent social poll by popular dating app Tinder India, 50% of respondents said they “feel awkward” asking for consent. For this awkwardness to dissipate, we must collectively normalize talking about sex.
At a time when more people than ever before first “meet” their potential romantic partners by swiping right on their smartphones, it’s great that conversations around the importance of consent are gaining prominence online, such as with the emergence of valuable resource centers like Letstalkconsent.com. But we need to be able to talk about this stuff in our homes, schools, and bedrooms as well.
Consent matters, no matter your gender
When I speak about consent on my own digital platforms, a lot of disgruntled men leave snarky comments like, “consent seems so important to you, feminazis, soon men are going to have to bring a lawyer along to every date and draw up a contract before every hook up.”
The agency and autonomy of women and queer people is disproportionately policed and targeted in both sexual and non-sexual contexts globally, and we desperately need to do better. But you aren’t doing anyone some sort of big favor by simply being mindful of their consent. Seeking to understand and respect each other is the bare minimum of human decency—no matter our gender.
Currently, within the prevalent cis-hetero-patriarchal narrative, women are seen as necessary sexual gatekeepers and men are posited as necessary sexual predators. We’re told women should only reluctantly participate in sex, and ideally only after marriage; queer people and sexually confident women are seen as “deviant” and therefore “asking for it,” there’s the absurd linkage of “virginity” with “honor” —all of which are damaging and untrue. This same narrative also supposes that men ought to want sex all the time, that a “real man” would never turn down sex; those men, who don’t want sex are “losers”— which is also just as damaging and untrue.
Do you see how broken this current system is? A disregard for consent harms us all.
Consent is not a mere formality. It is not some silly checklist or the fine print on some sort of tedious contract. It is not a transaction. It is not something that is only “given” or only “received”. It is not a one-time action. Consent is an everyday practice. In order to get better at it, consent is something we all need to be mindful about in every single interaction we have. Creating a culture of consent will benefit everyone. It’s time for change.
Leeza Mangaldas is regarded among India’s foremost sex positive voices on the internet. She was named one of GQ’s 25 Most Influential Young Indians in 2021.