Understanding Consensual Sex

A girl's face blurred in the background with her hand in the foreground, stretched out to indicate 'Stop' or 'No'. It indicates setting of boundaries and lack of consent.

We discussed the critical concepts of consent and boundaries in our previous article. As in other areas of life, consent is of highest importance when it comes to sex as well.

The aim of sex should be pleasure. We must be careful as both givers and receivers of pleasure, to ensure that all participants involved are willing.

Sexual intimacy is an extremely personal and individual experience. And unpleasant sexual experiences can really scar people for life.

In the absence of consent, sex is equivalent to rape or sexual assault.

We aim to clarify what consensual sex is for our readers so that they are aware of both their rights and responsibilities.

Simply put, consensual sex is consent to engage in sexual activity. When adults willingly and mutually agree to engage in any form of sexual activity with one another, it is consensual sex.

Note that we used the word ‘adults’ because anyone below the legal age of that country cannot provide consent.

Simple as this definition is, the statistics related to rape and sexual assault across the world suggest that people have failed to understand the simple and basic principle of consent.

There are two aspects to this:

  • while some people are aware that they are violating and intentionally assaulting the other person,
  • there are others who do not realize and are ignorant that their actions are violations or sexual assault.

Many people thing that a firm verbal ‘no’ or physical resistance are the only indicators for consent. This sort of incorrect understanding was exposed during the recent #MeToo movement in India as well.

MeToo - handwritten graffiti sprayed on the wall - allegation on sexual abuse, harassment, assault, incident, unwanted and nonconsensual rape and sex, physical violence
MeToo - handwritten graffiti sprayed on the wall - allegation on sexual abuse, harassment, assault, incident, unwanted and nonconsensual rape and sex, physical violence
The lack of understanding and respecting the notion of consent has caused a lot of damage to people mentally and emotionally

It’s important to remember that in sexual situations, people may not be able to assert themselves as comfortably as in regular situations. Especially if there is a power dynamic involved, the ability to say a clear ‘no’ gets further compromised. The person may freeze or say a ‘no’ that is barely audible, which is then wrongly taken to be an ‘okay’.

It is wrong to expect a violent and loud refusal and to only consider that to be a ‘no’. A ‘no’ can come in various forms. And we really need to pay attention to this aspect.

Ideally, both/all parties involved are responsible to ensure that sex is consensual.

  • as givers we must ask for consent if the person receiving is comfortable with our actions, and
  • as receivers, we must communicate any discomfort we feel and express ourselves if want the other person to stop

The above describes the ideal scenario as far as the receiver’s role is concerned. It is hence important to ask for verbal consent.

Love heart and handshake - Consent, deal and treaty between partner, significant other and lover - consensual sex agreement.
Love heart and handshake - Consent, deal and treaty between partner, significant other and lover - consensual sex agreement.
Mutual willingness and excitement are key characteristics of consent

Besides verbal consent, one can also look for visual cues in the other person’s body language (are they smiling, seeming happy and confident?) and level of involvement (are they reciprocating and engaged in the process, or is it just you who is engaged and eager?).

Consensual sex is when both parties agree and are excited to engage in sexual activity with one another.

Further, when we seek verbal consent, remember that the ‘yes’ should be a clear, confident, and happy one. At times fear and shyness can also result in the person saying ‘yes’. In such cases the ‘yes’ will be a small and soft one.

The onus of ensuring that you aren’t violating someone, going against their true wishes, and creating an unpleasant, potentially painful or traumatic memory for them is on you.

Consensual sex is critical because it has a legal aspect to it as well.

Besides gaining verbal or non-verbal consent, sex is legally consensual only if:

  • the participant involved is of legal age (18 years in India),
  • the participant is awake and is completely conscious and alert

It is not legally consensual sex if:

  • the participant is a minor,
  • the participant is forced to participate,
  • the participant is under the influence of any substance (alcohol, drugs, etc.),
  • there is uninformed removal of the condom during sex,
  • the participant is intimidated, pressured, or threatened in any way

It is also crucial to remember that in some countries (even in India), the law still doesn’t recognize marital rape. This means that if a person is married but doesn’t want to have sex with their spouse, that is very much still non-consensual sex. (The legal systems of several countries recognize marital rape as a crime. Subsequently, there is considerable pressure on the government to make this a punishable offence in India as well.)

Image of a floral printed thong and a hashtag that says: #thisisnotconsent above it. The image tries to clarify that what a person wears doesn't mean an invitation to have sex.
Image of a floral printed thong and a hashtag that says: #thisisnotconsent above it. The image tries to clarify that what a person wears doesn't mean an invitation to have sex.
People have the right to wear whatever they like; the type of clothing doesn’t indicate consent to sexual advances

The reason why consent is an issue is the way a society functions. All the biases, stereotypes, and power dynamics of a society play a role here. It’s an important battle to fight, and it begins with unlearning a lot that we see and hear around us.

Here are some pointers that are a good starting point to undo the socialization around consent or the lack of it.

  1. The clothes of an individual DO NOT indicate they are willing to do certain things. That’s like assuming someone wants to go horse-riding because there’s a horse drawn on their T-shirt. Maybe they want to, maybe not; ask!
  2. Age DOES NOT allow anyone to take a decision for someone else. A lower age doesn’t translate into an inability to choose.
  3. Just because someone is family, DOES NOT mean they have a right to another person’s body. One needs to seek consent irrespective of the relationship.
  4. Consent is REVERSIBLE. People can change their minds if they feel like it. Consent once given, can be taken back, even in the middle of the activity.
  5. Marriage is NOT a license to sex. The relationship status of individuals does not determine consent.
  6. Paying for someone’s drinks or dinner on a date does not mean they owe sex in return.
  7. Boundaries are NOT sex-specific or gender-specific. One cannot assume boys or non-binary people are always ready for sex.
  8. Every individual is different. Their response to particular stimuli, their likes and dislikes, their preferences and their willingness vary. Categorizing them into gender, age, orientation and then assuming their behaviour may not be the best way to move forward.
Image of a standee that is a public service announcement on consent. It says: 'Always ask. Consent is sexy'. It promotes consensual sex.
Image of a standee that is a public service announcement on consent. It says: 'Always ask. Consent is sexy'. It promotes consensual sex.
Consent is not just sexy, it is mandatory

Sexual activities are extremely personal and intimate. Hence, it’s necessary to remember that when we act against the wishes of another person, it could actually create trauma for them.

It is important to remember both for ourselves and for others, that saying ‘no’ is absolutely fine. It is our right that we can exercise at any point in time.

The clearer the ‘no’ is, the better it is. However, the onus on listening to that ‘no’ is also on the other party. And if the activity is happening under pressure, force or other influence, it even more critical to recognize the difficulty in saying ‘no’.

Ensuring safety and respecting each other is what makes any relationship or interaction healthy. And relationships built on honesty, openness, and trust create a happier and healthier society with a lower crime rate.

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