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Sex, consent and the 50 shades of NO

A man who imposes sexual activity on a woman without any indication that she is attracted to him, in the face of blunt refusals or knowing that she definitely does not like him, is a rapist. But without this explicit clarity, there are a lot of grey areas where men and women can communicate very differently and a lack of consent is not very clear. It isn’t as simple as saying a no is a no.

While we are willing to accept a victim coming in with an accusation of rape much after an incident she reluctantly consented to in has happened, we are less tolerant about the ability of the man who must judge in the heat of the moment to determine whether the refusal is something that will resolve with persuasion or violate. And the sensitivity of men differs wildly, much of it determined by individual life experiences – we do little to help men learn.

It is an age old debate – how much no is no when it comes to sex. There is a side that thinks all “No” is a dead end. There is another that pretty much refuses to recognize any form of “No” as being an actual refusal. Neither are practical. As always, the more adamant force is applied to a process, the less there is sensitivity to nuance. It isn’t enough to simply dump responsibility for changing a status quo on one side of a difference. Particularly when that side is less vulnerable to the problem to begin with.

There are many shades of “No”. To me, for someone to be called a “rapist” an important condition is that the alleged rapist must know that the other person does not want them – particularly in cases where consent has been implied till that point.

Consent is a grey area traditionally

Asking for anything is culturally stigmatized. Someone asks you if you want tea, you are conditioned to refuse. This is a relatively minor thing. But you are taught that politeness means you don’t outright accept something you desire. The more intimate and high stakes your desire, the closer you play your cards to your chest.

For many “traditional” people, by the time a relationship is ready for sex, the moment for consent has long passed, because any physical touch already is consent in a society not given to casual physical touch between genders.

When a woman says No, she doesn’t always mean it

Now consider the conditioning women go through all their lives, where a woman who is eager for sex is seen as someone less respectable. There are few women or even men who would outright agree to sex, even while they are giving all kinds of green signals otherwise. Remaining available, participating in increasing contact, “accidental” contact, remaining accessible for sexual contact – and even pretending to be surprised if it happens, till the elephant of increasingly intimate contact cannot be looked around – are all normal happenings in courtship.

People pretend accidental contact that they can back off from if the other person doesn’t seem receptive rather than outright ask for sex. Rather than come across as forward or risk a refusal, they simply initiate and see where it goes. Because here is the thing, we also see asking for sex as inappropriate if it gets refused. Men become creeps, women become sluts.

And this is culturally accepted and immortalized. “Jaane do na. Paas aao na” is a sexy song that gave many men sleepless nights when the film Sagar released.

The whole duet is spent with Rishi Kapoor asking Dimple Kapadia to come closer and her refusing all the way. She refuses. Says don’t touch me. I can’t do these things, etc. It is actually a romantic song where both of them are attracted and in fact gave men an education on what an aroused woman looks like before the age of the internet! The film Sagar would be vastly different if Dimple Kapadia later realized Rishi Kapoor was a lousy lover and remembered that she’d been second thoughts all through and in fact, refusing. It would take an exceptionally sex-illiterate person to conclude a lack of consent from that song. And if Rishi Kapoor took those refusals at face value and didn’t proceed, that would be one hot, frustrated woman there and Kamal Haasan would be one happy man. Never really understood what she saw in Rishi Kapoor with super sexy Kamal Haasan there for her.

This song is actually quite realistic among the masses, where there is a lot of intimacy that goes on under the cover of normalcy or even expressed disinterest without actual prevention till the relationship reaches a point of inevitability. It is vulnerability in a judgmental world. It is hard to talk about budding feelings in the bright light of day. Not many can do it. I doubt if even among the feminists there would be very many who can claim to have explicitly spoken of attraction and a desire to initiate a sexual relationship before intimacy.

Is it wrong? Only if you think communication is strictly verbal. But there are fifty kinds of non-verbal signals that are freely given. Spending more time exclusively with someone, standing closer to them than others, casual affectionate physical touch not shared with others… it all communicates consent in a language beyond words and paves the way for more.

But there are far more mundane reasons for blurred consent. Refusals that have nothing to do with sexual willingness, but are related to other factors – for example, tired – which often change with seduction. Or a risk of discovery – which can change a refusal into flat out excitement for some, depending on how aroused they are. They can also be deeply distressing, even with a regular and beloved partner if a woman does not find the risk of discovery exciting.

Whether to persuade and get a phenomenally hot sexual experience or to respect an area of discomfort? This needs education on sensitivity and communication that cannot be plastered over with “no is no”.

Traditional and biological sexual factors add confusion

Then there is a further complication. Sexually, men often enjoy the “chase” and women often enjoy being overruled on consent – when they feel safe. That men enjoy the chase shouldn’t be that hard to infer from the very troublesome manifestation of sexual harassment. It is predatory behavior. The harassment is where women are clearly not on the same page – because women do require to establish trust and a catcall or grope isn’t exactly it. There are a few women who feel flattered by catcalls even if they would not admit it openly. The feeling of being publicly desirable. They often are also those who place high value on male approval overall. While they may not openly enjoy it, you can get that insight in indirect ways – for example when they speak of disparage women as someone who wouldn’t turn heads or wouldn’t be harassed or molested or raped because they aren’t attractive, etc. Where they clearly see unsolicited approaches as a mark of desirability, even though respectability demands that they cannot be known to enjoy it.

I once knew a girl nicknamed Sexy in our friends circle and while she acted all protesting about a nickname that sounded like a sleazy catcall, she would be the one to tell people who didn’t know what her nickname was!

There is also a fundamental difference in how men and women interpret intimate conversations that create misunderstandings. Men generally do not speak of intimate physical experiences with the ease women do. Just look at the number of open discussions about menstruation or female sexuality on social media and compare them with how many times you have seen men talk about their penises at all. Men reserve personal talk to extremely confidential relationships – if they talk about intimate issues at all. An intimate subject being discussed conveys extreme trust to men, while women happily talk about intimate subjects even on public forums.

Very often a woman’s candid talk can imply an intimacy she does not mean to men, particularly men who are not very familiar with casual interaction with women and don’t know that this is normal for women. Something I always advise inexperienced young women is to not share one on one conversations involving features of your/his body with men you aren’t interested in. It doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to you. Of course, there will be individual exceptions, but the norm is broad enough to be useful insight.

A verbal refusal or protest can come from anywhere from an actual refusal to hesitation to commit to stating desire. And there can often be contradictory messages in behavior, with the non-verbal message often being the more accurate of the two.

Some women fantasize about being overpowered

One of the strongest endorsements of consent comes from BDSM, which allows for a safe word to call a halt to the sexual activity – ironically, often criticized for “cruelty”. And the safe word actually can allow for erotic sexual play that involves refusing sex and the refusal being overruled if the safe word is not used. How could enslavement, pain being inflicted be desired? Obviously, the consent being explicitly moved to the safe word ensures that this isn’t rape, but it definitely is rape fantasy if the play explores areas of consent being overruled.

Increase of women viewers of porn and a lot of outspokenness about porn and terms like feminist porn coming up have not led to any discernable change in standard porn content. So the increased number of women appear to be fine watching erotic content that is criticized from a feminist perspective for being disrespectful about women? For objectifying them, for not holding consent in higher esteem? Women too watch that and get off on it?

Actual research done in this area (led by a woman) shows startling results: 52% of the women had fantasies about forced sex by a man: 32% had fantasies about being raped by a man: 28% – forced oral sex by a man: 16% – forced anal sex: 24% – incapacitated: 17% – forced sex by a woman: 9% – raped by a woman: 9% – forced oral sex by a woman. Overall, 62% reported having had at least one of these fantasies.

Does a woman’s response to a dominating man convey mixed messages? Is it possible that men either instinctively or from experience experiment with overruling consent as a part of sexual play? It certainly seems possible if one were to look at such data. There is plenty more research on rape fantasies, for the interested. No point derailing into all that. Particularly since fantasies are not consent for reality.

The man must be made aware of an unambiguous refusal

In my view, because of all these reasons, it is not enough to say “no” and pretend sexual interest did not happen, there is a need to ensure that the “No” is communicated. A man must be made aware of an unambiguous “no” and women must be educated about conveying it. Being willing to a point and then refusing, only to capitulate with some persuasion makes it very difficult to differentiate between a refusal that is momentary and overcome with persuasion and an actual refusal with further sex happening against the consent of the woman.

A common reason to capitulate is because the woman values the presence of the man in her life even though she doesn’t want sex. She doesn’t want him to turn to someone else. Sad though it may be, it is a hard choice, but a choice must be made with responsibility. Agreeing to sex but holding it against him is not ethical. It is also important to understand that once the genie of sex is out of the bottle, your relationship is not going to return to the comfort zone easily – if at all ever.

Not so hard to understand if men and women are BOTH people

Let us reverse the roles for a bit to make it easier to understand. If men seem more eager than women to seek sex, women can want sex for far longer than men, because biology. Women do pressurize no-longer-interested men into sex. Is a man who grumbles about it after being seduced into participating again a rape victim? Technically, yes. If we are talking of consent as a moment by moment thing where changing your mind on sexual interest is a right, a man who rolls over and falls asleep should be protected from the still horny woman.

In reality? It will be quite a few nights like this before a responsible lover learns to get his partner off first before racing for the finish line or the woman learns to insist on it. Without that pressure, he will never learn. In any case, a man can’t be raped as per Indian law. He is this mythical creature who always wants sex, so there is no question of lack of consent – and countless relatively inexperienced partners of sexually active women will attest to the fact that they do get pushed beyond their comfort zone. If a woman is under social pressure of the male gender, the man’s entire masculinity and existence as a man can be at stake in such moments. A man who can’t “perform” on demand is a most embarrassing thing in terms of social conditioning.

A rather headstrong teenager slapped her lover awake when he fell asleep after climaxing while she was still horny and frustrated. Embarrassed at having fallen asleep and intimidated by her fury, he fumbled his way through that night and broke off with her the next morning, by which time she was horrified and embarrassed by her own behavior. “You can’t force me” were his exact words, repeated over and over through the conversation.

She kept apologizing and begging him to forgive her. She had thought he had lost interest in her – as in he dumped her after sex. It was rape all the same – technically. A more humane term would be a learning experience for both of them. Neither of them were aware of crucial factors beyond their own experience. The girl didn’t have an idea that men can need temporary time out after a climax. The man was not aware that women climax at all.

If a horny and clueless teenager can do this, an adult experienced woman can definitely pressure a man into “performing” beyond his endurance with a lot more expertise and knowing exactly how to do it. Not all men have the sexual resilience or skill to ensure that a woman also finds each sexual encounter satisfying. Till they learn, it can be extremely high pressure to deliver sex long after they have maxed out or more often than they are sexually able. One day it will make them better lovers. Or it may simply lead to a horrible sexual relationship they hopefully escape some day.

If we insist on reluctant agreements under pressure being up for evaluation as rape in hindsight, then we have to begin with the ethical stand that men too can be raped in this manner – are we willing to do that? Is it ethical to consider consent under pressure as rape only for women? Also, is it correct to blame a man for rape if there is consent under pressure even, unless there is an explicit threat or unfair pressure knowingly applied by the man? Can a man know all the factors that will run through a woman’s mind before she agrees in order to know that the consent is not freely given?

There has to be some point where we have to take consent/participation at face value and it is the responsibility of each person in an adult interaction to make their peace with their choices. And to give consent with awareness of its implication and refuse it if not okay with it.

Saying NO and making it stick

Both men and women would be served better by widespread awareness of tools like safe words and emphatic “NOs” without mixed messages – where a refusal is a flat out refusal and no persuasion is welcome that leave absolutely no room for misinterpretation. This is important for both responsible adult communication as well as practical safety for women.

To say no, but continue other intimate touching, or remain accessible for further touch or escalate “I really like you, but…” type emotionally laden conversations, sends a mixed message that is very commonly interpreted as yes. If that is your intention, fantastic. I encourage you to attempt an eager “yes”, because any responsible lover will wait for you to get there. If you are undecided, it is better to voice that and explicitly state a temporarily refusal or “find out as we go along” type consent so that the man knows to check for your comfort, than give mixed messages that can take the situation outside your comfort zone rapidly or to blindside with a refusal. This is the honest communication – stating your status clearly. Of course, if you’ve been yes till something turns you off, blindsiding cannot be helped.

The most important thing to educate people on is that they are not responsible for disappointing those interested in them gently at the cost of their own well being. If they are not interested in being intimate with someone, it is best to do a flat out NO. Alternative intimacy will neither satisfy an interested wo/man, nor will it convey a refusal. It will convey that you are interested in them, not yet enough for sex, but you’re open to possibilities. Such possibilities will almost inevitably be explored, because such is the nature of horniness – it seeks a climax. Ironically, the chances of getting consensually laid in the future improve vastly in borderline situations if you can disengage and take care of your horny solo without imposing it on anyone before they are ready.

A person coerced into sex against his/her will has been wronged. But it does not follow that the wrong was deliberate unless that is also established. Sometimes bad judgment is just that. Sucks and wrong, but not a crime.

Nothing short of a climax satisfies a horny person. If that is not what you want, the best and kindest thing you can do for all concerned is to flat out refuse and stop all interaction. If you are not able to do this, you need to ask yourself what you are achieving by prolonging the risk…. and address it appropriately rather than slide into compliance. It is appropriate to be hostile instead of placatory when you want to push someone away. The fewer grey areas in such refusals, the fewer the mixed messages.

If there is structural or social power being exploited to take coerce someone, then the process of “NO” must also involve informing the structure of the exploitation of the power granted by it. Whether it is informing an organization about the inappropriate advance or a friend’s circle about the camaraderie of a trusted group being misused to prey on someone. This vastly reduces the pressure on the target. It also allows for protective actions by others, like ensuring that the two are not left alone.

This needs to be a part of sex education.

apologies for the long read – it is a rough chapter from a book I’m writing. Was not able to shorten it gracefully.

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