Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Opinion | #MeToo and the line of consent

He had just asked her out on a date. If she wanted to say no, she could have. He had asked her multiple times, she had ample chances. And then she went ahead and filed a sexual harassment charge.

How many of these indignant narratives have you read in the last few days as India’s #MeToo movement spawned a predictable backlash from outraged men? Even as women are finally sharing vivid instances of sexual harassment that they have faced, there’s a vocal minority of male indignation. It’s just harmless flirting they say; boys will be boys; she should have just said no.

I work with companies, from small startups to large corporates, to build safe and inclusive workplaces. When training people and conducting inquiries into harassment cases, from verbal harassment to rape, I hear questions, scepticism and outrage. While there are many nuances to this topic, the one that generates the most discussion is the issue of consent. From dates gone wrong to stalking on Facebook to chatting on WhatsApp— the line is absurdly thin, never black and white.

Maybe doesn’t mean yes: In my conversations with women (and men) who have faced harassment, I have found that saying no is an incredibly difficult thing to do. When asked out on a date, many women make excuses or agree to ‘one harmless coffee’ just to avoid the awkwardness with a colleague. Sometimes they do it out of fear of retaliation; harassment is at its core a power game. But in all these instances, at no point of time does the women actually say “Yes, I want to go on a date with you."

Why is it so hard? Perhaps our culture bears some blame. From childhood, we are taught to be agreeable; saying no outright is considered rude. Experts who work on child sexual abuse point out that a child’s ability to contradict with an independent mind is hindered constantly when we urge them to do something they are clearly unwilling to—recite a poem; give uncle a hug.

This attitude follows us to adulthood. Women from very early on are taught to take pride in their resilience. But with that bravery comes the burden of acceptance, often acceptance of uncomfortable, unwelcome overtures. On the way to college, when we are groped in local trains, simple solutions are found—travel with a companion, carry a backpack in front. Anything to avoid confrontation.

The trickiest part of understanding consent is that it can be withdrawn at any point-

Statistically, most rapes in India and around the world occur at home. And contrary to media-hyped beliefs, most women and children are raped by acquaintances, family members, partners and spouses. So, a proportion of those rapes are not accompanied by other forms of physical assault—they are conducted with deliberate manipulation, coercion and cold planning. When is the opportunity to say no in that vulnerable position?

It’s the same in the workplace; people rarely speak up when they face harassment. Research shows that less than 40% of people intervene when they observe harassment taking place. Psychologists argue that our sense of intervention and indignation is artificially inflated in pre-emption. Most people think they will do the right thing, but at the moment they don’t. More often, they laugh off a sexist joke, smile and walk away when profanities are used.

When no is not enough: Now, coming to the other side—the men who claim to not interpret body language or misread the non-verbal cues. Given that our adolescence is often shaped by cultural and pop cultural environments where men are supposed to chasse and women blush, there is perhaps room to misinterpret. But what if there is a clear refusal? Unfortunately, even a clear no is often not enough.

A paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that very often, men confuse interest from a woman they are pursuing with consent to sexual activity. More alarming was the conclusion that if those men had a sexual history with someone, they were even bolder. The woman’s verbal refusal was not enough to change their belief that she had given consent to intimacy.

Taking back consent: The definition of consent is “a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity." The trickiest part of understanding consent is that it can be withdrawn by either party at any point.

A recent analysis showed that 99% of harassment cases go unreported , most often due to fear of retaliation or societal taboo. Victim shaming is rampant—’her skirt was too short, she should have known better not to stay out so late’—is always the well-meaning societies’ answer. Gaslighting, which means to manipulate someone into doubting their own sanity, is a common tactic used by lawyers to make the complainant doubt their own accounts.

But there is another reason, and undoubtedly the saddest one—self doubt—and it’s often regarding consent not taken back on time. Even when a rape has occurred on a date, we hear “But I should have stopped at the first kiss."

If there is anything to learn from these brave women who are, at the cost of immense mental strain, striving to make the next generation safer, it is this. There is always a line, that line is crossed the moment she makes an excuse, and the moment she says, “It hurts". Forget no means no; in the absence of no, only yes means yes.

Ishani Roy is the founder of Serein Inc.

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