Paradigms of Consent in the Global Desi Universe
We live in a universe where consent is not properly understood.
In a parallel universe, Aziz Ansari would have met a photographer at a party and talked about their shared interest in old cameras. He would have asked her out for dinner. He would have ordered the wine after asking her to choose, and spent the evening engaged in enjoyable conversation. Over the course of the evening, he would have worked up the courage to ask if she was comfortable with having sex with him. She might have said ‘yes’. If ‘yes’, they would have proceeded to his apartment, if not, he would have called a cab for her and both would have gone to their respective homes. Also in the same parallel universe, Mahmood Farooqui, co-director of Peepli Live, would have refrained from pinning down his former friend, a post-doctoral student from a prominent US university and from forcing himself on her, ignoring her protests. What is more, he would have faced public condemnation for his actions, not exoneration and support.
Clearly, we do not live in that universe, yet. We live in another universe in which consent is not properly understood. This article explores paradigms of consent. It addresses arguments made across popular and social media, private conversations, and even our judicial systems which have to do with consent. We study the cases of Ansari and Farooqui -not because of the instances of sexual violence in these cases but because of the discussion surrounding this violence. In Ansari’s case, there are several accounts that define his actions as “bad sex” but not “assault”. In Farooqui’s case, an authority no less than the Supreme Court of India has decided to uphold a judgement, acquitting him, because according to them, the complainant’s “no” was a “feeble no”. Clearly, our social discourse, our popular media and even our legal system is getting the idea of consent wrong. Therefore, this article will explore the paradigms of consent in the now, transnational and heavily globalized, South Asian community and what they get wrong.
The ‘Humiliation’ Paradigm
One common thread that seems to underlie several social media discussions is that the accusation of sexual assault was meant to ‘humiliate’ Aziz Ansari and ‘ruin his career’. Among these is Anousha Rizvi’s interview in the Quint where she critiques the limelight to cases where celebrities such as Farooqui and Ansari are accused of sexual violence. Claiming that these cases are relationships gone wrong or dates gone wrong, Rizvi argues that public discourse is doing little to stop “genuine” cases of sexual violence. Rizvi’s analysis and that of several others who have taken up this line of thinking is problematic on many accounts. First of all, they seem to refer to “genuine” cases as some sort of distant theoretical notion perpetrated by “other people”. Meanwhile, there is an outpouring of sympathy for Ansari and/or Farooqui with absolutely no sympathy for the complainant. It seems that there is one code of conduct for those convicted in the Nirbhaya case, but another code for the Aziz Ansari’s and Mahmoud Farooqui’s. This is a rollback from the #MeToo movement that even Ansari supports. The discussion of the “excesses” of the movement implies that sure, we should believe women but only if they accuse people who do not conform to progressive ideas in their public personas. No doubt, this approach is logically inconsistent and socially unjust.
The ‘Feeble No’ Paradigm
The ‘Feeble No’ Paradigm is best characterized by the Delhi High Court acquitting Mahmood Farooqui. According to the Court, the survivor of rape failed the test of whether her “no” was forceful enough. The Court willfully chose to ignore the fact that she was pinned down, her arms restrained and that she was afraid of further violence. Instead, it sought to police her behavior declaring that she should have been more forceful in her resistance if she wished to avoid giving the illusion of consent. It seems that even a ‘no’ is not enough to ensure women’s rights against sexual violence. Instead, women have to, at considerable danger to themselves, subject their bodies to an even more terrifying ordeal of violence -only then are they the “good” and “virtuous” survivors who will be believed by society. Once again, we have a rollback of the #MeToo movement where we must believe women but only if they are dramatic, forceful and obvious in their resistance, posing considerable danger to their own lives.
The ‘She Didn’t Say No’ Paradigm
The ‘She Didn’t Say No’ paradigm bears parallels to the ‘Feeble No’ paradigm in that it also seeks to police survivors’ behavior. It asks the question, why did the anonymous photographer not say ‘no’ to Ansari. How could she ‘expect’ him to read her ‘non-verbal cues’? This paradigm ignores the reality that even when women say no, they are not spared the trauma of public infamy and disbelief. It ignores that consent does not imply the “absence of a no.” Instead, it implies the “presence of a yes.” This fact has been compounded by an inability to understand consent in most discourse of sexual violence. Several protests have held up signs saying, “no means no” which is certainly true but that’s not all that consent is. Similarly, films like ‘Pink’ have highlighted the “no means no” rhetoric. However, in all of these narratives, survivors are expected to behave in a particular way. They are expected to be brave (again at times, at considerable danger to themselves) and they are expected to firmly (and not feebly) say no -as if sexual predators will automatically roll over and stop when hearing the magic word.
In Ansari’s case, this public attack on the complainant (which is what it is) is even more virulent. The argument is that she did not have a workplace relationship with Ansari and she was not physically restrained, therefore, she should have said no and walked away. However, this notion does not take into account the trauma of survivors of sexual assault. It makes no space for the “freeze” reaction that human beings tend to have when faced with a violent situation (having someone shove his fingers down your throat is violent). Moreover, it doesn’t take into account that every social norm that governs women’s bodies tells them to put the needs of others over their own. The question then becomes -what about agency? Is not the articulation of oppression and the filing of a complaint an exercise of agency? Why must the world force only one kind of agency on survivors of sexual violence? Already, as a society, we are a patriarchal society which has created structures of oppression that privilege men’s interests. Why must we exacerbate the situation by creating arbitrary and ignorant ideas of training women to exercise only one kind of agency? If we do so, we are making the world even more lopsided and even more unjust. Back to Ansari, what was he expected to do? First of all, Ansari should have asked the question as to whether the complainant wanted to have a sexual interaction. Only if she said yes, should he have pursued his interests.
The Sexual Liberation Paradigm
Finally, we have the sexual liberation paradigm. This paradigm exists in the millennial world post the communications revolution. It is a world of Tinder, Bumble and Grindr -a world where people date freely and openly with no strings attached unless those strings are agreed upon. It is also a world of “hook-ups” where chemistry and spontaneity is expected in sexual encounters. This paradigm has come to dominate mainstream culture in the USA and the culture of urban youth in the metropolitan cities in India. It is a feature of global cities where the urban youth are somewhat diverse and cosmopolitan and claim to be liberal and LGBTQ friendly. However, much like the sexual revolution in the USA in the 1960’s, there is a tendency to continue regarding women as objects of sexual advances rather than willing participants. Women are rarely expected to initiate sex. If they do so, they are seen as “thirsty.” Instead, they are expected to passively go along with the hook up. Otherwise, they are considered unattractive, pre-modern or traditional. Even the conditions of sexual liberation are set to privilege the desires and interests of cis-heterosexual men.
The Sexual Liberation Paradigm treats the issue of Ansari with concern. If one is supposed to wait for a yes, or ask before carrying out each sexual act, or wait for enthusiastic participation from a partner, what happens to sex? This paradigm tends to forget that just as it seeks a liberation from conservative norms regarding sexual behavior, it must also liberate itself from sexual entitlement.
When a person of color is added into this power dynamic, the equation becomes even more intricate. Brown men, especially of South Asian descent, do not fare well, in terms of stereotypes. They are seen as hypersexual and too ready to rush things towards sex Also in this stereotype, is the idea that ‘bedding’ a white woman has direct links to one’s masculinity. There are historical reasons for these stereotypes to emerge, almost like colonial artefacts. They reek of the European attitude to colonized men as crude and uncivilized, and of European bids to save colonized women from sati, child marriage and from bearing too many children. That these stereotypes circulate in the “hook-up” culture of today tells us something about colonial continuities into ‘our’ times.
What does this mean for the Aziz Ansaris of the World?
For South Asian men, Ansari was a figure to emulate -someone who has grown from nothing to an important figure in Hollywood. His show had moments of pure joy in its intersectional take on race and gender (especially in ‘Thanksgiving’). When Ansari told his parents, he ate pork and liked it, he encouraged several young South Asian men to engage with their parents and not have to lead dual lives. Perhaps, this painful backlash for Ansari will encourage men of South Asian descent to think about consent. Meanwhile, though Ansari has apologized, it remains to be seen if this is sufficient redress for the trauma that the anonymous photographer had been put through.
Is this a witch-hunt of Ansari? #TheList of some months back, which named prominent South Asian academics as sexual harassers, has not led to the atmosphere of ‘witch-hunt,’ that many predicted. No one has lost his job or his book contracts. Instead, complainants have been gaslighted for not being adequately ‘disciplined’. In a set-up which attempts to police complainants and sympathize with the accused, women and non-cisgendered communities are likely to become even more frustrated with institutional set-ups, proving detrimental to creating a world free of sexual violence.
What Does This Mean for Society?
It means generations of women growing up with fear and shame around their bodies. It means further silence on sexual abuse taking place within families, with terrible consequences for children (as seen in the recent rape case of a child that has ignited Pakistan). Sexual harassment, of any kind, leaves survivors, and their families, with experiences that are passed on as intergenerational trauma, and serious mental health issues. The urgent question that faces South Asian families is how to teach their children about consent?
This entails an immediate step: stop policing survivors of sexual violence. Complainants will not always behave in ways suitable to cultural norms -they will not always physically resist perpetrators, they will freeze when they are afraid or uncomfortable (it’s only human), they may find themselves unable to say no, especially when the perpetrator is stronger, and has the capacity to injure, even kill. We must stop seeking to “educate” complainants to make themselves believable. The onus is not on complainants of sexual violence. Instead, the onus is on society to give complainants, and not perpetrators, a chance. Finally, hook-up culture and sexual liberation is all very well but if it continues to prioritize the needs and desires of cis-heterosexual men with no discussion of consent, then it is only a return to the old patriarchal norms and ideals. Until consent becomes the new sexy, we have only an illusion, a parallel universe, of sexual liberation.
(Ruchira Sen is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, USA due to graduate in May. Aprajita Sarcar is a Doctoral Candidate at Queen’s University, Canada. Both are JNU alumni)