What Consent Culture Gets Wrong About Sex
In sex, we sometimes consent to the things we don’t want. When power dynamics precede us, what happens to desire?
The Bargain: How Yes Doesn’t Always Mean Yes
Sometimes in sex, the body is abandoned.
It happens after the words take flight: leaving your mind, then your body, and landing in another’s hands. They carry the meaning of your desires. What do they do with it?
Before you can proceed, the law enters the bedroom, an arbiter of action. The scales of justice arrive to weigh your words: on one side, the yes, on the other, the no. How many “nos” for one yes? They bargain.
Pat*, 25, had a friend who begged them to let him learn how to please women by trying on them. After they initially said no a few times, he wore them down, they said yes. The next day, he said they owed him pleasure in return, negotiated exactly how much. “I just wanted to get it over with. I think it was kind of power dynamics too, because I knew that he wouldn’t listen to my no, so I myself wanted to believe that I wanted to do it. I verbally expressed consent.”
In sex, we sometimes consent to the things we don’t want. The things we don’t desire.
The law dictates that consent for sex be encapsulated within two words: yes or no. And when they say consent, they implicate desire. If she said yes, she must have also wanted it – at least as far as the party taking consent, and the law, are concerned. Hence proved: no violence has taken place. Which is to say: desire may have been violated, but not consent.
One such story starts not in the beginning, but in the middle. Sneha, 28, checked into a hotel with someone she trusted. He knew of her history with sexual assault; she explained her triggers before things progressed. There were no condoms. She told him she didn’t want penetrative sex. He tried anyway. She didn’t say no again. In fact, not wanting to “feel like a victim,” she said yes.
There is no accused in a crime in which the casualty is unrecognizable.
India has always had a tenuous relationship with sex. The courts have repeatedly dictated in the past that the body tells the truth that the mind does not. It did so in 1974, when two police officers were acquitted of the charge of raping a 16 year-old girl, Mathura. The judge, noting that Mathura was “habituated” to intercourse, that her body was absent of injuries, felt that her consent was not violated – it did not matter that she said it had been.
In 2017, director M.F Farooqi was acquitted of rape, because the survivor’s “feeble no” was, supposedly, actually a yes.
The scholar Veena Das notes how the law tends to view women’s bodies as consenting even as their explicit speech says otherwise. When even verbal assertions of consent are disregarded in favor of placing the body alone under scrutiny, what hope is there for grappling with verbal consent sans desire?
This is the sex we’ve inherited, one where the law weighs in after a violation has taken place. Our idea of sex is thus inextricably tied to a definition of consent born out of the aftermath of violence. Put more simply: the history of consent is a history of rape. Every time we think and talk about it, every time we bring it into the bedroom, we grapple with rape as a possibility. Nothing less. Nothing else.
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The onus of consent being on women is a legal one that has found its way into the bedroom – to our detriment. It allows non-rape – any instance of violating boundaries within the grey areas of consent – to be dismissed by everyone, including the people it happened to. “We shouldn’t let the conversation be led by the law, [because] we are finding ourselves in a position that we need to constantly keep defining our experiences in legal terms. We shouldn’t have to make it legible to them,” says Saumya Saxena, a feminist legal historian.
Sex educators and influencers hold “yes means yes” and “no means no” as sacred mantras, putting the onus on individuals rather than engaging with the culture of sex we’ve inherited. Sex itself has become depoliticized. In other words, we’ve forgotten that sex is arguably the most ancient site of power. We’ve not addressed aggression or masculine entitlement – we have only asked women and feminized bodies to get better at saying yes to it.
In insisting that we must be free, sex positivity ends up implying that we already are – leading to far subtler, more insidious, and more systematic erasures of agency during sex. But because of the origins of consent lying in the law, this supposes that any form of harm in the greys of consent is brushed under the ambit of “bad sex.”
“The fact that [oversimplifying consent] is causing harm is not something you can contest; it’s causing tremendous harm. It’s, changing the way in which we view relationships, it’s defining how male aggression is being made acceptable in a relationship by simply calling it bad sex,” Saxena adds.
Supposedly “woke” men have begun to understand this.
“Since the word consent has entered our vocabulary, it’s being weaponized by woke men. When someone’s asking you in an intimate situation, it can be harder to say no,” says M*, 26.
Ruchika, 29, says that she realized in hindsight how the sex she had had with her ex mostly arose from emotional abuse, which fuelled a continuous cycle of coercion. “My ex was using the oversimplified language of consent to get away with violating my consent. He would constantly post ‘no means no’ on Twitter while he was violating my consent offline everyday,” says Ruchika. She finds the oversimplification of consent troubling on more than just a personal level. “As society we have a tendency to want to not accept how common violations of boundaries are when it comes to sexual intimacy… everyone I think, at some point, has had their boundaries violated.”
The onus of expressing consent thus falls overwhelmingly on women as consent-givers – leading sex to consent simply being the nervous foxtrot that partners have to navigate before getting to the sex. Because of how the law has framed the conversation, the following questions arise: if we mean no with our minds but cooperate with our bodies, is it really a no? If we say no with our mouths and take our bodies to the hotel room, back to the house, is it really a no?
D*, 29, told her date that she didn’t want to have sex before they went back to her place. But once they were at her place, she didn’t stop him. “I was too scared to correct him and I played along. [It was late at night and] I didn’t know what the consequences could be.”
Can sex be free from the threat of violence? Consent in intimacy was meant to be the designated armor for the consent-giver. It is worn, however, by the one taking consent.
The result is that desire is not equally experienced. Sometimes, women don’t just not consent — they give up on consent all together.
A*, 27, recalls an experience where she expressed pain during sex – which was her way of saying no. Her boyfriend at the time proceeded anyway. “[He] knew the language around consent, he knew the popular debates. But he said – and I will never forget this – ‘Kabhi kabhi iska sunna padta hai’ (Sometimes I have to listen to this),signaling to his penis.”
“There were times when we had sex, despite me repeatedly saying I’m not in the mood for anything except a little foreplay… And before you know it, things have escalated and he’s already inside and I’m just laying there like a dead vegetable,” says Sakshi, 24, about a former partner who was otherwise, she says, gentle and kind.
That so many people get to do this, and get away with it, has to do with the lexicon of the law guaranteeing them the safety of non-liability – as long as they’ve extracted the yes, supposedly implied or otherwise. It makes sex a good contained within people, unlocked by the magic yes that turns the experience into a safely ethical one.
The Baggage: How Sex Brings the Weight of Power
Right before the decision to say yes or no are structures that we have not said yes to. It is in the inability to leave even when you want to. It is in the acquiescence with an insistent partner whom you love. The script, more than most others, is paved with the violence of unequal power. College campus banter, workplace banter, bios on dating apps all point to a dehumanizing tendency of cis men slicing women’s bodies up into parts to rate, gaze at, touch, grab, slap, and penetrate.
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We live inside structures of power, but consent culture forges an individualism into sex that belies this. Inside them, is there such a thing as non coerced consent at all? Many have begun to argue, therefore, that consent is not enough. It never was.
Take A*, 23. “I was in a relationship where I felt like I had to do stuff to make the other person like me,” she said, noting that her refusal to send nudes and sext would result in her partner withholding affection.
This is the consent that isn’t. In sex, one may have consented, but may not have felt respected. They may have consented, but they may have felt used. They may have consented – but they may not have had consensual sex.
“[T]he absence of consent isn’t the only indicator of problematic sex … a practice which is consensual can also be systemically damaging,” feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan notes in The Right to Sex.
N*, 25, for instance, dipped her toes into sex very slowly, slower than her partner and, the broader culture around her liked. “I eventually had to give up and say yes… Because, he would say things like ‘We are young.’ ‘If not now, when?’”
Consent then becomes management, labor to coax the egos and expectations of male partners. There is a problem screaming to be acknowledged when it is easier to say yes to unwanted sex than it is to say no. The onus of saying no is often on the person least socialized to say it.
The language we use to verbalize consent is itself a seemingly commonsense binary – one that has frequently been used against women by the law. But philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò describes how commonsense logic is whatever the powerful say it is – others are bound by its invisible grip.
In consent, our words are supposed to communicate exactly what our bodies desire. This is not the experience of the less powerful. This is because the consent framework, like a contract, works only if it is transacted between equals.
Sex educators and influencers chart out the language of active and ongoing consent: how much? Is this okay? What would you like next? Can I do this? Can you do that? These questions still don’t address the problem of not being able to say no, of saying yes under pressure to perform. These are questions with affirmative answers built into them. And so even when these questions are asked, it is easiest to say yes, or say nothing at all – which is often taken for a yes.
J*, 22, describes how a person she was casually hooking up with did things to her during sex she consented to, without her permission – but the whole time, she only thought about how she had agreed to meet him in the hotel, how she had said yes. “[In hindsight] what I didn’t agree to was him being so rough on me and manhandling me. In a situation like that, you’re scared to say you want to go soft and slower, with how rough he was going I was a bit scared and I was in shock.”
She’d thought back then that this is how casual hooking up is supposed to work, and told herself to “buckle up and get through this.” She adds, “The root of this was me being very confused about where the consent lies.”
In an insidious turn of events, consent culture has led to a situation where women blame themselves for experiencing something unwanted. “The rhetoric of consent too often implies that desire is something that lies in wait, fully formed within us, ready for us to extract… ” says scholar Katherine Angel, in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again.
It is a symptom of a much deeper problem when the language of consent has more words for yes than it does for no and “I don’t know.” Every woman in this piece has shared their story as one where they experienced harm, but couldn’t articulate, at the time, what went wrong. They shared their stories as those of confused consent. Most of them said that their understanding of consent, as derived from pop culture and the internet, failed them. It often led them into hesitation, guilt, exhaustion, and pain.
Because when consent demands an answer at all costs, the yes, either through words or supposedly through actions, comes tumbling out first. And slowly, your personhood, your desire, is unglued from your body. Like a canary in the mine, it is the first to die, but the warning simply ricochets off the walls of the room, never reaching the body that is now on autopilot.
How Do We Love With Freedom?
In the postfeminist, sex positive age where desire is taken for granted, we’ve not stopped to ask how it is expressed, nor have we confronted what to do when harm inevitably takes place.
“… it’s very difficult to be able to actually speak of women’s consent as a direct, uncontroversial mode of communication,” says feminist scholar and activist Uma Chakravarti. “It’s tied up with all this mess – the validity, the legality, the non legitimacy, all of that stuff. I don’t think we talk about this too much.”
And in doing so, we have built a culture of consent upon a foundation of inequality. We give and take consent based on an outdated legal understanding, which in turn is based on an understanding that pits women’s minds against their bodies. Then we pretend that consent occurs between two equals all the time, allowing men to wield it however it suits them.
In the process, through consent, women’s desires are lost. Exploring becomes lost. You have to come to the table knowing what you want, or else knowing what you can tolerate. “The oversimplification of what counts as consent or not is also an oversimplification of what counts as pleasure or not,” says Ruchika, 29.
But decontextualized sex positivity makes sex about the sex itself, and not what comes before or after. We are socialized to fear it and be ashamed of it and yet suddenly, we’re thrown into a culture of embracing it without pausing to process what it would mean. As Srinivasan notes: “Feminists have long dreamed of sexual freedom. What they refuse to accept is its simulacrum: sex that is said to be free, not because it is equal, but because it is ubiquitous.”
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#MeToo started conversations about consent culture and power. “I think a big moment for Indian feminism and global feminism [with respect to] the conversation on consent was when women started talking about sex in experiential terms,” says Saxena. Until then, she says, everyone’s story had to follow a script; they had to all “have a similar narrative in order for something to be criminalized. Or in order for something to even be a problem.”
But just as the conversations began, they stopped. We’ve come as far as to acknowledge that consent is not only not enough: it was never an honest encapsulation of our desires. But what now?
“The consent discourse both acknowledges vulnerability and disavows it: you are vulnerable, therefore you must harden yourself; you are violable, therefore you must cast yourself as inviolable. You must become iron-clad, impenetrable,” writes Angel.
“You can’t have one approach to this situation. It’s actually because it’s in the highly emotional, highly personalized, highly intimate space of two people…” explains Chakravarti. “‘No means no’ is easier to determine. ‘Yes means yes, but’ is actually where the complication lies.”
We need to stop to recognize the problem. “The first step is acknowledging that your body belongs to you and to be in touch with what your body is feeling. If it is only pain that makes me stop, I’ve been completely detached from my own body. And then narratives of consent become far fetched,” says A*, 27.
All this to say: we should make sex political again, because the personal is political. We should advocate for sex outside Instagram, we should take to the streets demanding that our bodies and minds stop being cleaved from one another. We should go beyond consent – into respect, desire, dignity. We should talk more. We should address entitlement and power. And as Chakravarti observes, consent can never be one size fits all. One person’s consent is another person’s violence.
Consent, to put it simply, assumes the worst of heterosexual sex. We should be taking desire more seriously – most seriously of all – in order to be free.
*Names concealed to protect anonymity.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.