How do you discuss consent with girls, who, as a part of their ‘sex talk’, were instructed to allow their husbands to do whatever they wanted? How do you explain consent to men who have grown up believing that women are brought home (or not) for pleasure and convenience? Both the parties hardly see consent!
Silence is abetting the culture of sexual violence. Lack of conversations around sex is leaving behind indelible scars in us and in our social psyche. Over the years, I have realised that silence is the most prominent aspect of all sexual accidents in our society. Our parents or teachers don’t broach the topic and hence, we never fully understand sexuality. We never learn about contraception. We don’t become comfortable seeing ourselves as someone with sexual needs, that are only natural. This discomfort results in hiding feelings and incidents in closets. That’s how we start keeping secrets.
Our culture systematically represses our sexuality and as a natural consequence, every sexual crime, as a first reaction, is suppressed. This manifests in our attire, behaviour, perceptions, literature, scriptures, religion and gender roles. It is evident in our social ways of eve-teasing, restricted mobility of women, molestation and rape. Thinking about sexuality within these dimensions made me recall the ways in which I had internalised this repression, despite my liberal urban upbringing. As a girl, I was taught to “behave” on multiple instances, be it sitting with legs pressed together, or hiding my bra-strap/underwear. Our literature is replete with stories of virtuous women who obey their husbands and fathers.
We celebrate chastity in wives and purity in potential wives. Docility and domesticity are the highest ambitions that women are instructed to have.
Our honour is derived and protected by men in the form of brothers, fathers, husbands while a woman’s name is forgotten in her household as she becomes a wife and/or a mother.“Maa-behen” and such expletives are directed towards men who instantly get inflamed by these insults. Bare legs are so provocative that our morality is being decided by the length of our skirts.
Coming back to the silence around sexual violence, we at Waqt ki Awaaz, recently conducted focus group discussions separately with women and men in rural areas of Kanpur Dehat. The topic was marital rape and hence, our conversations revolved around sex and consent too. We later used these stories and conversations to make a radio series. Men in our team failed miserably in their attempt to stir this discussion with men, both because of their own inhibitions and that of their intended audience. A colleague, Radha ji and I formulated a strategy to start by talking to women about menopause. From there, we talked about biological changes in women and then safely diverted it to sex, consent and marital rape.
Sitting in a circle on the floor, the women were vivid as they talked. They recounted their memories expressively, recalled their first time remembering how terrified or violated they felt to be naked, touched by a strange man in his home. Some women still feel ashamed and humiliated in bed with their husbands. They questioned the need for sex among men in their mid-forties and asked when would it end, expecting an answer from me.
A common response was, “Main uski patni hu, mujh par toh hak banta hai unka (I’m his wife, he owns me).” It drove home the realisation that these women do not think of themselves as individuals. Their identities have always been and will be tied to that of their husbands and fathers. Strikingly, they never used the word “sex” or “sambhog” in the conversations. Instead, they would use phrases like “Apna kaam karke (After doing our job)”, “Unka ho jaane ke baad (After they were done)”.
Wedding as a social event automatically switches the consent setting to ‘yes’ as default for the rest of a woman’s life. Hence, ‘no’ is not a familiar word. Marriage, to them, means their body belongs to their husband, for life. No wonder, many of them described sex with their husbands as if they were recounting the details of living in hell. What else is it, if not hell, to be so helpless and to be subjected to touches that are dirty, wrong and immoral. Patriarchal ideology is reflected when they say, “Pati ki baat maanni chahiye (We should listen to our husbands)”, “Unhone zor zabardasti kar di toh kaun si badi baat hai, thoda toh chalta hai (If he forced himself, it’s not a big deal, this happens)”. They believed that it is their duty to be submissive towards their husbands and that sex can only be initiated by men. They would laugh out loud with a twinkle in their eyes if I provokingly asked, “Can’t women start?”
Silence from men is also illuminating because it impacts the way they interact with women. It creates a divide that gets harder to bridge. It stereotypes men as hyper-sexual lecherous devils who only use women to satiate their lust. They never achieve healthy relationships with their significant other, due to cultural norms.
While my own interactions were limited to women, I believe this is an important reason that they are unable to talk about consent and acknowledge sex as a natural desire for both men and women. As a society, we can unlearn the immorality that’s attached to sex and talk more on the subject.
Rashmi Singh, the author of this post, is an India Fellow of 2017 cohort. She is working with Waqt ki Awaaz in Kanpur Dehat, Uttar Pradesh, supporting the functioning of a community radio station, which helps bring the voice of local people and spread awareness in the community.