Yes, You Can Say No – The Anatomy of Consent in Love and Marriage

Consent isn't just limited to new relationships or sex-education classes. It's a word we should use and demand even in marriage.

By Nidhi Chopra

I read a piece of news about a new product launched by an Argentinian company called the Consent Pack. My first thought was, “Consent in a pack? It should at least be a box, no?” Turns out, it was. A box, that is. It’s a condom box that needs four hands to open… which somehow proves that if both parties are consensually opening the pack together then the sex that follows is also consensual. Simplistic much?

As women, we know that a condom is the last thing that matters when our free will is taken away from us. If you look at most sexual-assault cases, one realises that it is simply an exercise of power or brute force over another human being. I’m not going to go here into cases of sexual assault to discuss sexual consent. We have heard and read enough about it to know that there is absolutely NO consent there.

What I’d like to explore are the grey scenarios that we may have come across in our lives, either directly or indirectly at some point.

Scenario 1.

Let’s suppose Rahul and Jia have been seeing each other for a while and the question of sex comes up. Now, Jia likes this guy but is not quite sure if she wants to take that leap yet. They’ve been crossing the first and second base regularly, so, in the heat of the moment, he says he is sick of waiting and that if they don’t have sex he will break up with her. Jia is afraid of losing him so she agrees to have sex with him. Would this be called consensual sex? Nope! Because she was made to agree to it under some form of duress.

Scenario 2.

Rana and Anita are colleagues who routinely meet at the bar after work. They enjoy having a drink together, flirting, kissing and generally messing around. One such evening he starts to touch Anita and has Tonight’s my lucky night playing in his head on a loop. Anita’s head is playing Marry me on a loop and she’s considering going all the way.

Once they get comfortable, they put their collective hands on the Consent Pack and open it. Suddenly, something stops Anita. Let’s say she remembers she hasn’t shaved her legs that evening! She begins turning away and giving off signals that say, “I’m not sure. I’m not ready.”

Rana, now condom-drawn, gets angry and calls her a tease and slut-shames her. Anita slowly begins to agree with him. She was ready a few minutes ago, she reasons. And they’ve been playing this cat-and -mouse game for quite a while now. So, she decides to have sex in spite of her misgivings just to cool him down. Is this consensual sex? Again, a resounding “NO”.

As women, we are so used to non-consensual sex that we don’t even consider any of these scenarios as mildly alarming.

It is not simply a question of “no means no”. Because even in places where we have the power to say no, we’re easily shamed, bullied, threatened or manipulated into not saying anything or simply going along.

Some would ask why we should make such a big deal about consent if there is no crime committed. They would be partially correct in viewing these scenarios as non-criminal but wrong in assuming they are okay. We need to be able to teach our teenagers that not only is it okay to say “No”, but it is also okay to hear it. It is important to accept that a “No” does not mean that you as a human being are being rejected or made to feel small. It is simply a non-acceptance of the situation at hand.

Talking about consent allows for related life skills like generosity, reciprocity, effective listening and empathy to develop.

It makes for better human beings who invest in building relationships, not power dynamics. It teaches us to assert desires and set limits.

Consent is much more than simply opening a box of condoms together. It involves discussions on what happens after the “Yes”. Consent is a living, breathing, evolving and ever-changing phenomenon in a relationship. It is not limited to a one-time “Yes” or “No”.

It is not a word that should only be used during a sex-ed class or while educating our children about the birds and the bees. It is a word we should be using and demanding not only in our romantic relationships but also in our marriages. Because far from consent coming in a packet, it will have to come in bite-sized life lessons that we gain through open and honest discussions with old people and young.

Nidhi Chopra is a psychologist who has worked in the fields of mental and public health. She is a Singapore-based freelance writer and mother of two. 

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