Sex, consent and the 50 shades of NO

Gender seggregation

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, we are less tolerant about the man who must judge in the heat of the moment to determine whether the reluctance is something that will resolve with persuasion or she is actually averse, as opposed to awkward. And the sensitivity of men differs wildly, much of it determined by individual life experiences – we do little to help men learn to distinguish.

It is an age old debate – how much no is no when it comes to sex. One side that thinks all “No” is a dead end – absolute refusal. There is another that pretty much refuses to recognize any form of “No” as being an actual refusal. Neither are practical. Life happens somewhere in the middle and they make neither guides nor stereotypes for that. 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. Women rarely have any good role models to understand consent or lack of it and if they went by everything society expected of good girls, they’d be celibate or in a marriage where they have no vote!

For many “traditional” people, by the time a relationship is ready for sex, the business of consent has long been answered, 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. Or from the perspective of men, the ideal woman who is somewhat silently eager for sex but one who makes her desire clear is the bad guy’s flunkie in films.

There are few women or even men who would outright agree to sex, even while they are giving all kinds of encouraging signals otherwise. Remaining available, allowing and participating in increasing contact, seeking and taking opportunities to be closer, “accidental” contact, remaining accessible for sexual contact – and even pretending to be surprised if it happens, till the elephant of increasingly intimate contact lands in a room and cannot be looked around – are all normal happenings in courtship.

For every man or woman who expresses sexual interest in someone and receives verbal consent BEFORE proceeding, there are tens of thousands who don’t. Including joyous, glorious experiences. Humans don’t talk like contracts.

People pretend accidental contact that they can back off from if the other person doesn’t reciprocate rather than outright ask for sex. They will sit closer, casually lean into each other or absently touch a shoulder. 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 trust me, you don’t want a world where men ask disinterested women if they want sex to their faces, because it is the first mandate from an inoffensive man. It is enough that offensive men do it. It reminds me of a Twitter conversation where a man claimed repeatedly asking a woman for sex wasn’t harassment as long as she was free to refuse and he respected her refusal. The line of women who’d beg to differ is longer than the line of women who’d find that reassuring to prevent the potential of rape.

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 while the oblivious teenage girls tried to get their hair to look like hers and a man like Kamal Haasan to fall for them (sorry, Rishi Kapoor). I recall a bewildering split vote as kids on whether Kamal Haasan was better or Rishi Kapoor where all the boys wanted to be Rishi Kapoor while the girls longed for Kamal Haasan. It was my ‘aha’ moment like understanding why boys liked action figures, when in reality it was about them liking girls. Talk of a mismatch of what people seek. Equally insightful is that it didn’t score Rishi Kapoor more points over his rival according to the girls who liked it, but were dazzled by the “o Maria” and “yuhi gaate raho” chemistry with Kamal Haasan (as an adult, it occurs to me that Dimple Kapadia has more power over the action in those two songs). Go figure.

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 and consenting woman looks like before the age of the internet, even if not on verbal consent! The film Sagar would be vastly different if Dimple Kapadia later remembered that she’d had second thoughts all through and was, in fact, refusing. Rishi Kapoor would be arrested for sexual harassment and Kamal Haasan would win. I can get behind that, but it would take an exceptionally sex-illiterate person to conclude a lack of consent from the lyrics alone. 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 anyway.

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 reluctance without actual aversion 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, eye contact, shared laughter… 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, if one of them does not find the risk of discovery exciting. For that matter, sex being the complex thing it is, you can enjoy it on one level and dislike it on another and hindsight can provide interpretations.

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”.

In fact, the inspiration for this article came along when a friend I was discussing consent with, casually commented “All this works in the West. In our culture, no one will want to marry a woman who replies yes to men who ask her if she wants sex. Even men who want to marry her will lose the wish. If she said yes to them, how many other men she must have said yes to.”

The lack of a frank dialogue on sex is an ongoing area of concern, even as media is increasingly sexualized, raising the aspirations and expectations of the masses to unreal levels.

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. To some extent, sex is often about one party initiating and the other going along till they a similar arousal. Simultaneous desire mostly happens in films without some circumstantial trigger. It is also the other way around, but that is not relevant to this article. Women who may actually coerce a man into sex have no legal consequences to worry about. Unfortunately, our society, including our feminists, are not yet evolved enough for that man to not face social ridicule in addition to lack of agency and perhaps an extra lecture on how regardless of his experience, the overwhelming norm is that women are the victims, which is fact that doesn’t help him.

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 often require 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.

It sounds outrageous, till you pause to imagine a film star surrounded by adoring fans. Drawing the admiration of people you don’t know is long understood to be popularity, and for those who measure popularity as attraction, desirability.

I once knew a girl nicknamed Sexy 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! Now that I think of it, I don’t know how it originated. I was told of it by her!

There is also a fundamental difference in how men and women interpret intimate conversations that create further 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 without being gay/queer. Men usually reserve personal talk to extremely confidential relationships – if they talk about intimate issues at all.

They may talk of the sexual attributes of others, never themselves. It is associated with vulnerability, which is also how sexualized trolling is such an instinct and the majority of such trolls are men. To that mindset, talk of an intimate nature in public is intimidating. Terrifying. An intimate subject being discussed candidly conveys trust to men, while women happily talk about intimate subjects even on public forums, as fact.

Very often a woman’s candid talk can convey an intimacy she does not mean to a man, 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. What one sees as a candid discussion, the other sees as a sign of visualizing with regard to or as viewed by the other. Of course, there will be individual exceptions, but the norm is broad enough to be useful as insight or caution.

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 can be 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 or fears the presence or power of the man in her life even though she doesn’t want sex. She ma not want him to turn to someone else. Sad though it may be, it is a hard choice, but a choice that must be made with responsibility. Agreeing to sex but holding it against him is not ethical. On the other hand, being intimidated into it is a crime. 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 as well as personal failure in pleasing someone you love in such a notably frustrating way.

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 could be claimed both ways, but would be legally recognized one way and ethically, the other. 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. If you are clear that you do not want sex with this man, it is time to let the relationship cool and recognize that his sexual interest means that you cannot assume a friendship will continue unaltered. One side of the relationship is not like the other. Apart from mixed messages, it would be an unnecessary and unkind encouragement to keep provoking his interest. It might be better to have a cooling off period and let him reconnect if he is able to remain friends later. 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 and while being kind to the man is important, it must not come at your own cost.

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 or ongoing or enhanced friendship 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 sex and 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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