Understanding Consent: what is it and why is it important?

Graphic by Prajwal S D

Consent is one of those concepts that people, especially Indians are not very familiar with; a concept we do not consider important enough to put the effort to understand and implement in our lives. Our culture has never been very keen on the need for understanding what consent is or how it is important for all parties to be consensual in all kinds of personal and professional relationships, transactions, and activities. So most of the time, we don’t find the need to ask for consent from the other parties involved, especially in personal and informal relationships and activities. However, this mentality could not be further away from the truth. Having the consent of all the parties involved is very crucial in any activity and making someone engage in something without their consent is considered a crime. More than that, ensuring that you have their consent before you ask them to do anything is a basic courtesy and the minimum respect you can give to another person.

What is consent?

Oxford Dictionary defines consent as the “permission to do something, especially given by somebody in authority” and as an “agreement about something”. One common misconception that people have is that consent is relevant only in the context of sexual activity. Consent is very relevant in many fields like research, medicine, law, etc, and has its meanings in all those contexts. However, the basic meaning of consent does not change: it is the voluntary agreement to do, engage or participate in something. In the context of sexual activity, the meaning of the term consent becomes a bit more complicated and expanded. While engaging in sex, the consent given by the parties must be:

  1. Voluntary: Consent must be given on your own. You must not be coerced, pressured, or manipulated into giving consent and must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol while you consent to sex. You need to be awake and conscious to give consent.
  2. Informed: You should be informed about everything that is going to happen before you consent. If there is any change from what was initially agreed upon, then there isn’t full consent.
  3. Enthusiastic: You must do only what you want to do. Just because you started engaging in sex does not mean that you have to do something you don’t want to do. You must not be expected to do anything you don’t want to do.
  4. Reversible: This is one of the most important features of consent. Your consent can be reversed at any time irrespective of any factors. You can change your mind at any time you want; even if it’s during sex. People often have difficulty accepting this but it is important to understand that consent can be reversed at any stage or time and that it is totally up to them to decide that.
What is not consent?

It is important to remember that consent needs to be given every time you have sex by everyone involved in it. Having had sex before does not mean that you have the consent next time. You need to ask for consent every time even if you are in a relationship or even in a marriage. Unfortunately in India, the law states that a partner can always assume sexual consent from their partner once they are married. Marriage can justify an act that would be considered a crime in any other context. This is a clear violation of one’s bodily autonomy. India remains one of the few countries where marital rape is still legal.

Just like your prior interactions with someone don’t give you consent, their clothing or their past actions or their silence does not give you the consent to violate their body. What you think of them, cannot be used to assume their consent. And consent always has to be verbal. You have to ask for their consent before every step of the interaction. Their silence does not mean that you have their consent. Consent must be communicated very clearly and it is your responsibility to ask for their consent irrespective of your gender or sexual identity.

Why is consent important?

Consent exists so that your bodily autonomy is not violated. Asking for your partner’s consent respects their bodily autonomy. No one has the right to violate another person’s right over their body. Any kind of physical or sexual interaction without clear, verbal, and informed consent is sexual assault. Even inappropriate verbal behaviour is sexual harassment and a crime punishable for up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 lakh rupees.

The trauma that sexual assaults could cause can be very deep and could forever haunt the victim. It has the potential to push the victim into mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and trust issues. Sometimes people might just be scared to say no to you and if you take that silence as a yes and force them to engage in something they do not want to, it could cause very serious trauma. So always ask for consent, even when you feel like the consent is implied. However, all these things apply only to adults. Anyone below the age of 18 is considered legally incapable of giving consent and any kind of sexual interaction with them would be considered a crime.

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