It’s no surprise that relationships are the cornerstone of society. Everywhere around us, at home, at work, our friends, colleagues, and family are part of our relationship circles. We have friends from the time we start kindergarten and school. Human beings are enmeshed in relationships with one another.
There are a lot of threads that tie relationships together and help us define them. Some of them include our values, our interests, or our geographical circumstances. And one important aspect of relationships that we seldom acknowledge is that of consent and boundaries.
Creating and maintaining boundaries is a very crucial and important part of healthy relationships. It is something we need to embrace and learn from a very early age as a core life skill.
Through this article we aim to clarify the very critical concept of consent and boundaries. Knowledge of this concept can help us be aware of our rights and responsibilities. It can help us navigate both our personal as well as professional lives with dignity and respect.
Boundaries and consent are an inherent part of our relationships
Defining boundaries for our relationships is a healthy way to indicate what we are comfortable and uncomfortable with.
Approaching boundaries with someone else requires consent and trust from all parties involved.
Breaching boundaries without appropriate consent can not only damage a relationship, but can also be illegal.
Our boundaries for our personal connections versus our professional relationships may be different. Our immediate family members may enjoy different boundaries compared to our distant relatives. You may want your boss to have different boundaries from your close colleagues as well.
Considering how important consent and boundaries are, we are never taught how to deal with them in our relationships.
Whether it is encroaching on someone else’s boundaries, or defining our own to protect our physical, mental, or emotional space, understanding these two concepts is imperative.
Why is understanding consent and boundaries so important?
“She was asking for it!”
“I mean, she didn’t exactly say it, but that kind of dressing was obviously for me.”
“We are married. Isn’t that consent enough?”
Have you come across such statements? They reflect a lack of respect for a very basic right; that of consent.
Discussions around boundaries and consent have only started gaining popularity only recently in India. This happened after several brutal cases of rape got highlighted in India in the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, Bollywood, and Indian universities. (These voices have been heard across the globe in dozens of other countries as well.)
So, what is ‘consent’?
Consent is the mutual agreement between participants to engage in an activity. In fact, the most critical element of a mutually satisfying relationship is consent.
Any action or activity that is without the consent of one of the parties is not just wrong or unethical, it can be illegal. Understanding the boundaries of all parties involved is mandatory. And this requires trust, openness, and honesty.
Consent applies not only to people in relationships. We also need to respect the boundaries of strangers and people we don’t know very well.
It basically means asking the person before we cross certain boundaries. These boundaries can be:
- physical boundaries related to personal space,
- intimate boundaries related to touch,
- information boundaries related to sharing someone’s data or sharing certain data with them, and
- linguistic boundaries related to the kind of language we use for or around the person.
It is important to obtain consent when engaging in an interaction on any or all of the four kinds of boundaries. Seeking consent should actually be second nature to us.
We can seek consent anywhere and in any form: in person, online, indoors, or on the street.
It’s important to also remember that consent can be verbal as well as non-verbal. While what constitutes non-verbal consent lies in the grey area, explicit verbal consent helps participants understand each other’s comfort levels and willingness.
What do they apply to?
The #MeToo movement has largely put consent around sex and harassment on the main stage. However, boundaries and consent applies to nearly everything in life and isn’t limited to sex alone.
One needs to take approval for things that an individual may be sensitive about. For example, one needs to seek permission before taking someone’s photographs.
Assuming that everyone is comfortable with what we are comfortable with, is the wrong starting point.
This applies to our virtual interactions as well. Sending people unwanted pictures of private parts is a common mistake many people make. Several online portals take actions against such offenders in order to make their platforms safe. Sharing someone’s information or contact details without checking, is another such mistake.
Forcing someone or pushing their boundaries within relationships need not only be physical. It can take various forms. If a partner verbally abuses another or emotionally blackmails the other into doing something they aren’t comfortable with (example- sending nudes), they are in what is called a toxic relationship.
The fundamental principle of consent is checking if the person involved is willing and comfortable with your action.
If one person doesn’t speak or is shy, the other can always ask and confirm their willingness.
As decent human beings, the onus of consent isn’t only on one person.
Why are these concepts so confusing for people?
Many people find the idea of consent absolutely clear and obvious. For many others, it’s still a grey area. The reason for this is how society largely functions.
For instance, in our personal spaces at home, age and status may play a significant role in terms of consent and boundaries. Growing up it has been a common experience for many of us to experience a power dynamic with adults. Most often a child has to seek permission from an adult for nearly everything. But an adult can even slap a kid because they assume it’s their right.
The concept of consent and boundaries is confusing because of how society functions in terms of hierarchy and the messages we get from popular culture.
However, this same logic may change if gender comes into play. A grandmother for example, may have to ask the father before spending money, but not vice versa. We grow up observing and internalizing these complex power dynamics which mostly privilege men’s desires over women’s in a patriarchal society.
This is not to say that women always respect boundaries. There are spaces and situations in which women have an upper hand. There are also situations in which women can get away with certain actions or behaviours that would not be okay for a man to do.
We witness some of this in popular culture or in interactions of celebrities, in which if a woman happens to touch a man’s arm or lifts his shirt to admire his abs, it isn’t considered objectionable. However boundaries and consent aren’t meant to operate for just one sex alone.
Popular culture further perpetuates misconceptions
Popular culture reinforces these biases further. We have seen heroes stalking heroines in Indian films. Even though she says ‘no’, the hero continues to pursue her, and is shown to win her heart in the end.
However, life isn’t really how it is in the movies. In reality, it may be extremely stressful for the girl being pursued against her wishes. It would actually qualify as a form of harassment.
To conclude, why is consent so important?
Ensuring safety and respecting each other is what makes a relationship healthy. A relationship built on honesty, openness, and trust leads to a society with a lower crime rate. Our kids need to taught not just how to pay attention to boundaries, but how to enforce their own boundaries and give consent themselves, followed by what to do if they need help.
Boundaries are to be respected in every environment from personal, to professional and social. One needs to ask for permission EVERY TIME.
One needs to not only be considerate about their own and their loved one’s boundaries but also that of strangers’.
While our family may be okay with hugs, it doesn’t hold true for everyone else.
Not very long ago, the tea analogy for consent went viral. The analogy explains the concept of consent in a really simple and effective manner: if you offered tea to someone, and they refused, would you force it down their throats?
If you wouldn’t, you understand the concept of consent. Below is a video that explains consent step-by-step.
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