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What We Learned From Honest Conversations With Youth About Sex, Desire And Consent

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By Prashastika Sharma and Gaurika Sood

Building A Culture Of Consent

The youth engagement in colleges and community centres over the last few months have thrown up insights into diverse experiences of navigating consent and the ways people grapple with rejection in the contexts of friendships and sexual interest and how it sometimes overlaps with harassment. These discussions also raised issues of definitions – what do we know consent to be? Is it always pleasing, respectful and validating? And how do we receive rejection? Is it always hurtful and shameful, how must one deal with it?

This article sets out observations from workshops conducted as part of PLD’s (Partners for Law in Development) preventive work with students in higher education and in community collectives across 6 cities, between the ages of 15 and 25. PLD’s videos served to open up conversations, often resonating very closely with experiences that were shared. Most participants identified as cis-gendered persons, limiting the insights shared to a gender binary.

Why Is Talking About Consent Important?

Sexual consent has received wider public attention with the #MeToo movement, highlighted among other things, the unspoken and unresolved issues of sexual transgression and hurt in interpersonal relationships. It also brought into focus the experiences of students in academia and universities with hierarchies and power imbalances, when these assume sexual overtones.

PLD’s sexual harassment training, over the last five years, threw up the many fault lines of consent in the context of friendships, attraction and desire. It is these cases on which PLD’s video series on consent and rejection are based, as are its initiatives towards developing consent cultures among youth. We believe that having consent defined in law does not translate into the practice of consent in our personal and public lives, in the sexual and other areas. Hence, there is a need to unpack what consent means, across contexts, and to recognise that beyond binaries of black and white, lie the many experiences of greys.

The accounts in the workshops are rarely framed as “Yes is Yes and No means No” but are instead, messy accounts of difficult to decipher feelings, or retrospective clarity or at times as clear as “wanting to only kiss you on the cheeks today”. For any change to seep in, it is crucial to talk of consent, not only in its violation but as an everyday practice within and outside the sexual realm.

Linking Gender, Sexuality And Consent

Our identities are ridden with gender, religion, caste and class positions and embedded into relative hierarchical locations determining how we negotiate with power and agency, and to what extent our choices and preferences matter, in interactions with one another, both sexual and otherwise.

One’s gender plays a role in prescribed sexual norms and attributes; for example, a lot of you may have noticed that as soon as young girls hit puberty, their introduction to sexuality and agency is through fear-inducing phrases like ‘Ladkon ka kuchh nahi bigadta, ladki ki zindagi kharab ho jati hai'(It doesn’t affect a boy’s life, it only damages the lives of girls). These values end up normalising impunity, stigmatising consensual relationships and reiterating the belief that girls are not smart enough to decide for themselves and cannot be trusted.

Conversations About Girls

In the words of one of our participants, “Girls get into relationships for love and romance and boys want sex”. Also, “Girls give a lot of mixed signals keeping us confused”! The boys in the room seemed to concur. To this, a girl responded, “We are judged by the same lot if we say yes to sex in the initial stages or get into a relationship for the sake of it”, exemplifying the complicated and contradictory ways in which social privilege and power operate in our society.

A few girls also pointed to the shaming they go through if they are actively seeking boyfriends, and consenting to sex, putting them in the conundrum of facing shame while navigating their desires. A few men pointed out that since adolescence; cinematic representations and other popular stereotypes led them to believe that women are by nature ‘bewafa’ (unfaithful), uncertain and emotional. This stigmatises women who initiate break up.  A deeper dig led to a conclusion that girls who break up or enter into another relationship right after a breakup are not ‘good women’. In addition, these stereotypes help some men to externalise their heartbreak by blaming the ex.

Not Enough Space For Women To Say ‘Yes’

Another key point was the fact that there is not enough space for women to say ‘yes’ and explore. The restrained femininity which was the ideal for far too long is still admired and ‘honour’ killings are still a reality. How do women negotiate their consent in a sexual relationship which has to be hidden and has its own gendered dynamics? As a few girls said, in situations where the parents are stricter in terms of moral policing their behaviour, negotiating choices within a relationship becomes even trickier and sometimes leaves them at the mercy of their boyfriends. This is due to the fear of backlash and violence at the hands of their family and relatives. Increased acceptance of mistakes made and a sense of responsibility might be the way forward, but it hinges on a much greater critical reflection about gender roles, sexuality and desire. We don’t yet have the interventions or support services to respond to these.

Conversations About Boys

How men negotiate with consent and expressions of it was equally insightful. Participants claimed that boys are not well trained in handling rejection, often resulting in aggressive and violent reactions, including acid attacks, slut shaming, and voyeurism and stalking. A deeper dig into the problem explains the fact that gendered socialisation and norms of ideal romance revolve around monogamous and conventional understandings of masculinity and femininity which are often pitted in opposition to each other.

Crying, healing and expressions of vulnerability are not rewarding for men, pushing them towards being controlling, possessive and less respectful of the boundaries of their partners. “Handling breakups and emotional upheaval are the toughest for men”, a participant reiterated. It’s time we start talking about hurt of all kinds and encourage boys and men to understand and handle rejection. In order to do that, we will have to start accepting vulnerability, expressions of need and desires free of the confines of masculinity and femininity.

“If brotherhood has to be evoked, why can it not be evoked in vulnerabilities and dialogue?”, asked a woman participant, when we conversed about how and with who we should start talking about sexism and consent culture.

What Are The Youth’s Vital Concerns In Relation To Sexuality And Harassment? 

The limitations of educational institutions are that they neglect issues of sexuality, even while they minimally respond to harassment. Some of the vital concerns are summarised below:

  • Lack of awareness about Internal Complaint Committees: The minimum that educational institutions are required to do as mandated by UGC guidelines, 2016 is to set up an Internal Complaints Committee and organise awareness workshops on sexual harassment. However, some universities we visited, students were largely unaware of the existence of such committees, and how to approach them. Although the institutions are responsible for not publicising this enough, the students also need to initiate and assume leadership on issues that of sexuality and consent, holding programmes around these as a way forward.
  • Envisioning ‘preventive interventionprogrammes: The participants expressed the need for something beyond instituting mechanisms and awareness workshops on sexual harassment. There is a need to move beyond the information on existing laws and punishments to create spaces for listening to students, let them feel safe and allow them to express their experiences of grief and hurt. Preventive work is still nascent and hasn’t matured fully for such creative solutions to be instituted within universities.
  • Lack of faith in authorities: On the other hand, the experience with redressal of formal complaints in most educational institutions have created a lack of trust and confidence in the administration. The workshops brought our attention to various complaints that were registered and then subsequently ignored or not met with the seriousness they warranted, with close to no repercussions for the alleged respondents.
  • Repression of student mobilisation and unity: Several protests have broken out in response to instances of harassment in university spaces all across the country. The administration’s response to patriarchal cultures is to enforce stricter curfews, CCTV surveillance, suspension, restriction on outsiders’ entry and other such instruments of patriarchal control over women in the name of safety. Examples of moral policing, restrictions on women’s mobility and freedom are many, which only discourage students and make collectivising more contentious.
  • Incorporating social justice within academic disciplines: The long-standing stereotype about ‘technical disciplines’ is that they are relatively less aware and sensitive to social issues that plague the country. This may be due to the limited exposure they are provided in their academic material and heavy coursework. Students of social sciences, who one might assume have greater familiarity with issues of caste and gender, often are as unaware. This is a commentary on not just the state of academic curricula but also on the larger worldview of what is seen as ‘productive’ within the educational system.
  • Lack of therapeutic services: Most of the participants expressed the need for some sort of collective counselling on abusive and toxic relationships. Our families and communities fail to teach us how to identify, draw and express when to say yes or no,  how to draw boundaries with one another. There is a need for mental health counselling and safe spaces in educational setups.

The Way Forward

A good practice would be to have an approach which assesses the youth’s ability to navigate and understand consent as well as risk assessment, not just in the context of sexual and romantic relationships, but also with gender, its play and performance.

Hence, more conversations on the role of peer pressure, family, language, films, advertisements, dating rules and structures of power in educational institutions are important to reach the ultimate goal of sensitisation and change. These are the key structures of social relations that form our understanding, and punish us for transgressing; therefore these are the ones that most need to be restructured. It is no wonder, therefore, that plenty of the participants recalled being punished for consenting to something which did not adhere to conventional expectations.

Prashastika works with PLD, implementing its youth outreach in colleges and communities on consent; Gaurika is an intern with PLD.


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