Let’s Talk About the Language of Consent

Trigger warning: This article contains instances of sexual violence. 

That the stakes for women in the game of “hook ups” are much higher should be a universally recognised truth by now. This belief is firmly rooted in a few personal experiences – the anomaly being that even though these experiences shaped my beliefs, I still struggle to find the right words to describe them.

The first thing I remember about casual encounters is the joy of feeling desired without having to go through the motions of love. I never thought critically about my own actions – casual sex was the norm and I was trying to learn what sex meant to me. However, two instances forced me out of my habits.

In the first instance, I remember a night where I did not want to be underneath this man, the co-founder of a very successful travel hostel chain, even though what we were doing had by then become a ritual. I remember a complete absence of foreplay, a very visibly painful penetration that caused him to whisper a feeble “sorry” without stopping even once, him grinding into me without looking at me and then finally rolling over and falling asleep. I never screamed “no”, and yet the aftermath of this activity made me search for my underwear in a panicked state because I did not want to be bare-bottomed around him. I didn’t get much sleep, and I remained in a state of melancholy for a few days afterwards until I finally broke down in front of a friend.

The second instance was a few months later, when in a slightly inebriated state, I broke down in front of a man I was going to spend the night with. He was a lawyer, and I went on to describe the first instance to him, hoping to get some legal answers about it. He heard me out, told me how people only care about consent when willingness matters just as much in deciding whether physical violations have occurred, and then he went on to do some of the most painful stuff I have ever endured in bed.

Also read: The Wrong Reasons

He was extremely harsh, jamming his fingers into me roughly, and biting me with what seemed to be the intent of drawing blood. I pushed his hand away and pulled away many times, but that didn’t stop him or make his actions any less violent. I remember telling myself to endure it – that maybe this was what “rough sex” felt like. Moreover, I had just gone out drinking with this man and was now over at his place. So what if I had just narrated a painful incident to him? We both knew it would end in sex.

Had I not consented to this, just as I had consented in the first instance too?

For the longest time, I could not find the words to understand, let alone describe, what had happened. I was caught up in technicalities – technically, consent was there. What right did I have to feel violated retrospectively? And yet, I could not escape the feeling of shame and violation.

It was only much later that I realised what had happened. Like a lot of women, I had been failed by the language of sex and consent.

Sex is an intricate human experience. What may be broken down into a chain of biological acts operates on a lot more than mere biology – desire, pleasure and power dynamics keep it tethered to the structural arrangements of culture and society. An exploratory trial-and-error methodology is required to really know what works for each individual, and yet this experience is highly gendered.

The performance of sex in a patriarchal heteronormative society is a one-man show, with a lot going on backstage to make it so. The normalisation of female passivity during sex is such that it is near impossible to imagine sex, and particularly penetration, in a way that doesn’t objectify women. Laurie Penny succinctly summarised the same in her essay when she said “Men fuck women; women allow themselves to be fucked.”

This social construction results in two things. Firstly, the human experience of exploring sex becomes unfairly skewed against women. While the cultural acceptance of casual sex in the form of a “hook-ups” may allow women to explore sex freely, it also cements the possibility of violence against women as the sexual act in itself is still constructed in a way that puts women in a precarious position of possible violations. Sex unravels as an unequal exercise in power, and will continue to do so as long as female passivity is the rule of the game.

Secondly, by making women the object being acted upon, the onus for drawing boundaries and then simultaneously grappling with the consequences of a boundary violation both becomes a female experience. And since a patriarchal society is replete with instances of gory sexual violence against women, such a mechanical and patriarchal understanding of sex necessitates the creation of a language of consent as well. This mechanical language of consent is formed so that violence can be legally acknowledged and then punitively handled – something that is necessary.

Also read: Stealthing: The Reprehensible Practice of Tossing Consent out of the Window

However, what is forgotten is that violation of consent too is a spectrum, and whatever does not fit the box of “I clearly said no” becomes lost in a thick grey fog. There is no scope for conversation, as a lack of a working language may create a real-time delay in discussing what went down. A society that views a delay in acknowledgement of violence as a justification to dismiss trauma will always penalise its women for their own lived experiences. Any conversation that still occurs despite these issues will rarely ever create space for healing. A man will most likely immediately deal with such an “allegation” by looking for evidence – instances that indicated consent – and a woman will have absolutely no emotional and mental resources to bank upon since as a society, we never talked about creating them.

Where do we go, when our violations occur in a legally and culturally grey area?

If sex is to truly become an equal exercise, the construction of female passivity as desirable must be discarded in totality. Given how incentives for adhering to this construction are intricately woven into a patriarchy, and how inescapable socialisation can truly be, such a change might take decades – but if we truly care for our women, we must not let their trauma accumulate.

For this, consent needs to become a continuous process, and this can only happen through a more feminist language that acknowledges the ambiguity of the sexual act and does not only depend upon a checklist to determine if sex was safe. Conversations about what happens in bed need to be allowed to go beyond the bedroom. As a society, discussing what a sexual exercise felt like once it has happened needs to be normalised. Such conversations have to become an indispensable part of the sexual act if we are to create a culture that allows women to heal from big and small violations.

Otherwise, we are simply asking them to endure.

Aparna Joshi is a Political Science graduate from Lady Shri Ram College for Women.

Featured image credit: Annaliseart/Pixabay