How to ask for consent in sexual interactions, and other FAQs

How do I know if someone has given their consent? Isn’t it true that people may sometimes say no but mean yes? – we cover these and other FAQs that will help you understand the concept of consent better.
Representative image of a couple
Representative image of a couple
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In a society where talking about sex openly is still considered to be a taboo, understanding consent can be a challenge. Growing up, many young people don’t have access to reliable information or opportunities to explore their sexuality in a safe way without being subjected to judgement and punishment. They may feel guilty about having sexual feelings or unsure about how to communicate their thoughts with someone they’re interested in.

Popular culture can set unrealistic standards and perpetuate incorrect ideas when it comes to romance and sex. In cinema, for instance, an aggressive man who pursues a woman even if she has rejected him is glorified as a committed lover. Forcibly kissing a woman, touching her without her consent, watching her undress without her knowledge – all these are commonly passed off as romance or comedy in mainstream films though some recent movies have done better.

Since sex education is still not normalised in our society, many young people end up getting their first ideas about sex from watching pornography. They many not understand that what they’re watching is a staged sexual act performed by actors to fulfil a particular fantasy – it need not reflect real life, or the expectations that another person who is engaging in a sexual act will have from them.

Here are some FAQs that will help you understand the concept of consent better.

What does consent mean?

‘Consent’ means permission or agreement. In a romantic or sexual context, it means someone has agreed to indulge in a romantic or sexual act with you. This can range from sexting to sexual intercourse. However, consenting to one act does not mean that the person has consented to everything else. For example, someone may be willing to indulge in phone sex but may refuse to send you explicit photographs of themselves. They may be willing to have sexual intercourse with you but not without using contraception. Just because they have a sexual interest in you does not mean that they’re required to indulge in all sexual activities with you.

From whom can I ask for consent?

You may be attracted to anyone from your friend, family, workplace or social circle. However, it is not only your feelings that matter. Before asking them for consent to indulge in a sexual act, you must have had some interaction with them that gives you an idea of whether they’re interested in you sexually or romantically. For example, if you are romantically interested in a friend, the first step is not to ask them if they’d like to sleep with you. You can perhaps ask them out on a date to see if they’re interested in you too.

This interaction should not have taken place under any pressure. For example, if you are a college professor who is attracted to a student on campus, the interaction is not free of the power dynamics at play. The student might be worried that you can adversely influence their academic performance. This will constitute sexual harassment.

If there is a good possibility that your question will make the other person uncomfortable – based on what you know of them – avoid going down that route. Get to know them better, wait till you feel they are comfortable with you.

Sex means different things to different people. One person may feel sex and romance are different from each other. Another may find it inconceivable to be in a sexual relationship without commitment. Yet another may want to be in a sexual relationship but may also want to conform to social norms. You cannot expect everyone to feel the same way as you do.

How do I ask someone for their consent?

The simplest way is to ask them directly if they’d like to participate in the specific sexual act with you. However, this does not mean that you walk up to a random stranger and ask them if they’d like to indulge in a sexual act with you. Such an act can be termed as sexual harassment.

It is important to first gauge the other person’s interest and comfort level with you before putting forth such a question. They may be attracted to you but may not be willing to indulge in a sexual act just yet. It is important to be sensitive to their needs. Don’t pressure them into doing something they don’t want to do.

How do I know if someone has given their consent?

Ideally, they should tell you verbally or through non-verbal gestures that they are consenting to the act. If you feel their signals are mixed or ambiguous, do not assume consent on their behalf. To be on the safer side, you can ask them before proceeding. This will also make them feel that they are with someone they can trust.

Should I always ask for consent?

Yes. Unless someone has voluntarily told you that they would like to indulge in a sexual act with you, don’t jump to conclusions. A classmate or colleague may be friendly with you or even flirt with you. But this doesn’t mean that you can cross your boundaries and make a sexual overture that makes them uncomfortable.

Doesn’t asking for consent spoil the spontaneity of the moment?

What seems exciting and romantic to one person can end up becoming a scarring experience for another if consent is misinterpreted. Giving and taking consent is a sign of trust. Why should that be seen as a mood-killer?

Isn’t it true that people may sometimes say no but mean yes?

People are complex and they may say one thing and mean another thing. But they have to decide that for themselves. You cannot assume that’s what they’re doing because you are not the best judge of that.

What if someone says no but I’m confident I can persuade them?

This is called coercion. Coercive behaviour includes indulging in emotional blackmail, persistently asking someone for their consent when they have refused, gaslighting them into thinking they led you on and therefore they owe it to you and so on. Threatening them with consequences is also a form of coercion. Consent obtained through coercion cannot be considered valid.

Someone consented to a sexual act with me once but they’re saying they’re no longer interested. Isn’t that unfair?

Absolutely not. A person can withdraw consent at any time, even in the middle of a sexual act. For example, someone might be willing to kiss you but they may object to taking their clothes off or indulging in oral sex. Their right to refuse consent has to be respected. If you don’t respect it and stop, it becomes sexual assault.

What should I do if someone says I violated their consent?

Listen to what they have to say. Go over your actions in your mind. Are you sure that they consented to what happened? Did they explicitly say they were comfortable with it? Did you ignore their non-verbal gestures of discomfort? Do not assume that they’re lying. If you feel you misread the situation, apologise and ask them if there’s anything you can do to help them find closure.

Cooperate with an investigation if there is one without maligning the person who has made the accusation. You have a right to defence but remember that the person’s past sexual history, ‘character’, etc. are not relevant to this case. Stick to the facts.

This is also why Internal Committees (ICs) in educational institutions and workplaces are so important. The IC will listen to both parties, examine the evidence, draw its conclusions and put forth its recommendations. Support the formation of an IC at your institution if it doesn’t exist already.

Are there any circumstances where I should never enter into a sexual relationship even if the other person gives me consent?

According to the law, consent can be given only by adults and not minors (anyone below 18). While it is natural for adolescents to experiment among themselves, an adult entering into such a relationship with a minor will be seen as a case of child sexual abuse.

Consent should not be given under any kind of pressure or threat. For example, asking a subordinate at work if they’d like to indulge in a sexual act with you places them in a difficult situation. They may not be in a position to say no because they feel there will be repercussions. Such an act constitutes workplace sexual harassment.

According to the law, obtaining consent under the false promise of marriage is considered rape. This is a grey area – adults who are in a consensual sexual relationship should be free to walk out of it. However, the law exists due to patriarchal social norms that frown upon premarital sex (especially for women) and place undue importance on a woman’s virginity before marriage. While the law may seem unfair and archaic, it has to be read in this context.

Read the other articles in this series by Sowmya Rajendran:

This article is published as a part of the Media Fellowship on Gender for Governance Innovation Labs.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

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