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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Talking About Consent with Young Boys

There are no greys in affirmative consent -- it is black and white.

Written by Shelja Sen | New Delhi |
May 17, 2020 7:30:38 am
Bois locker room, consent, rape culture, affirmative consent, active accountability, sexual harassment, parenting, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Activists hold a protest rally in New York in opposition to US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and in support of Christine Blasey Ford, the university professor who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. (Source: Reuters)

Dear Boys,

I am writing this letter to you without any agenda to blame and shame. If you have been following the social media stories and news recently on “rape culture”, then you know what I am talking about. To begin with, I do not agree with the term “rape culture” that is being loosely thrown around as it assigns a single identity to all of us. People are multistoried, as is our culture. A single story of “rape culture” removes possibilities of boys and men being compassionate beings, who can stand up for gender equality, respect and uphold consent. The other issue I have with it is that it ends up othering the problem as if it is out there and we do not have anything to do with it. There is no “us” and “them” here. Misogyny seeps in our lives, homes and workplaces without us even realising it.

Let me say it loud and clear — consent matters, whether you are married, in a long-term relationship, or just there for casual sex or a “hook up”. It matters across gender, age, sexual orientation, class, caste, religion, everything. It does not matter if she has said “yes” earlier, if you have done it before, or you have heard from somebody else that she is “easy.” And no, you cannot blame it on your raging hormones, your manliness, the fact that you were too intoxicated or that you misread the signals. There are no greys in affirmative consent — it is black and white. Consent could range from checking if she is okay about getting messages from you to holding her hand, kissing her or having sex. It might be awkward and might break the flow but do it. Do not keep pushing as you might have heard, “girls like to be chased.” No means no. Don’t make assumptions that suit you. There are four elements to transgressions — consent, power, age appropriateness and context. Suppose a Class X boy posts a picture of a Class VI girl in his private WhatsApp group, it is a transgression on four counts — no consent, no equality of power (he is a lot older and is a male), not age-appropriate, and, in the wrong context. That is why it is ridiculous to equate the girl’s Snapchat to the #boislockeroom on Instagram.

If, by chance, you are a bystander (online or otherwise), then rather than staying passive, take an active role. If you are a child, talk to an adult you trust who will be ready to take action. Reach out to the person who is being targetted in whatever way you can and show solidarity. It could be as simple as saying, “This is not okay, what can I do to help?” If possible, gather like-minded people and address the issue with the perpetrator. Every little step you take counts. If you stay passive, you continue supporting patriarchy.

We also need to go beyond all the mudslinging and talk about active accountability and what it means.

Awareness: There is no learning in public humiliation, expulsions and social-media shaming. It just leads to people not taking responsibility — “I am not sure if I even did anything wrong”, “Guess I will just have to be more cautious” — to gaslighting the victim with “it’s all in your head”. Altogether, no learning, justice or healing and maximum damage. We need to have conversations with our boys at home and in schools on sex, especially in terms of gender politics, consent, respect, empathy, transgressions. We need schools to step up and start a dedicated weekly classes on these and on diversity — on issues of gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, disability, body types, race, class, caste, justice, power, religion — not once in their school life but every week from Nursery to Class XII. That might be the most important lesson they will take with them as they step into the world.

Acknowledgement: The seeds of gender criminality has its roots in our language. Language is the thread that weaves the dominant beliefs regarding gender, where gender is seen in binaries — boys as smarter, tougher, braver, girls as weaker, prettier, nicer and any other gender as abnormal (I will leave the injustice of that for another column). No wonder when they grow up, men take charge and women are taken charge of. Their identities get restricted, where women need protection from men who are “tough” and “strong.” The “boy code” or “manning up” does not leave much scope for sensitivity and gentleness. Such are the warped and restricted dichotomies we set up for our children from a young age. But then there is another dangerous dichotomy — good girls and bad girls. Bad girls do not need protection, they are “free for all”. These are the girls who fall prey to the male gaze, who earn the label of “slut” in school, where all genders are united in saying, “she asked for it.” Media has to acknowledge the way it feeds into the dangerous discourse around gender and consent (Watch any Bollywood song to see how it plays out).

Active accountability: In a way, it was heartening to see that the recent social-media uproar was not shrugged off as “Boys will be boys,” or “Aisa toh hota rehta hai (These things keep happening)”. The biggest tragedy will be if we let it go and resume everyday life with another uproar in a few months’ time. Active accountability means that if there has been a wrongdoing, then there is an apology for the transgression and action — a statement of commitment, “I am sorry I messed up. I will do what it takes to repair the damage.” It could be in terms of writing an apology, accepting his role in it, meeting a therapist, doing community work, or even police action, depending on the situation. Simultaneously, the girls who have been at the end of the harm need healing, too, so that they can move towards their preferred future and reclaim their life. Schools and colleges need to have a clear protocol for restorative justice.

To all of you adults out there, this is not about the children, this is about us. To raise our children well, we have to raise ourselves first. We need to come together and take collective responsibility in making our world more equitable, free of gender violence and misogyny. Are you up for it?

(Dr Shelja Sen is therapist, writer and co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute. Write to

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