An open letter to the men who feel ‘under siege’ – (Re) defining ‘Consent’

This is a guest post by Saurabh Sinha. This piece addresses the ongoing debate on men facing undue harassment owing to the new rape laws. It is argued that such an approach is not only flawed but is also the way in which male allies are unable to grasp the complications on the issue.

What has been repeatedly doing the rounds in the national print, television and online media is the reaction in society following what happened with Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal in the case of sexual assault with a young colleague in Goa. While the ‘progressive sections’ were skeptical of where to place this entire issue, some truly believe that it was blown out of proportions – that it was not really a big deal after all. Everyone came to the ‘rescue of women in society’, including miscreants like BJP Delhi chief, Vijay Jolly who harassed another woman for no particular reason but to express his outrage at the incident. Everyone, including the BJP leadership dismissed his act as unacceptable and he had to extend an apology. (Read here)

Another debate, meanwhile, was struck up by writer and journalist Palash Mehrotra in his article on the new rape laws, linking to how the male population, even those sympathetic to the cause of women and rape, are now feeling ‘under siege’. He went to debate the issue on national television, although unconvincingly. The one important point he raised was the increasing discomfort several men are having with the definition of ‘consent’ and where to draw the line between actual consent and the misuse of the ‘draconian law’.

Feminist groups have dismissed or engaged with this as a patriarchal reaction to the legal recognition of rape and the extension of the definition of rape, the need for which has been highlighted for several years, and which was put in place after the December 16 incident of gang-rape in Delhi, now popularly and loosely called the ‘Nirbhaya’ or the ‘Damini’ case. As long as there has been engagement, it has also largely remained superficial and somewhere the concerns raised to not address these are also correct. But again, does the prerogative to start a dialogue to address this discomfort, or organize meetings amongst such groups, discussing the law and the society – and the larger question of equal rights and equality lie only with the feminist groups? I think not.

For decades at end, several groups of feminists and women rights groups have advocated the need to have a stringent law in place which addresses the issue of sexual violence and rape. If at the end of a bright day, some men ‘feel’ that it is maybe too much – that it is a tool for torture of poor innocent husbands and boyfriends, and employers and bosses, it is the responsibility of these men to figure what is to be done; and not sit and criticize the woman.

Consent has always been debated as a thin line – to be considered with the absolute choice of freedom. But while individual freedom is restricted to the environment one lives and works, there probably is a limit to what is consent and what not, and that needs to come from the woman. Is ‘consensual’ sexual activity between a boss and an employee much lower in the social-economic ladder truly consensual then? Is sleeping with your domestic help, even if she ‘agrees’ to it truly a free choice for her? But hey! Of course you are not at fault; because you asked and she agreed. How can that be used against you when you did not ‘abuse her’?

It must be realized that it is not about criminalizing the bedroom, contrary to what it has been claimed. In a reply to this ongoing debate, it has been pointed out well enough –

“..If the bedroom is an area of drunk and possibly unwilling sexual partners or one in which women are forcibly disrobed, then it was arguably a place bordering on the criminal even without the updated legal definition of rape”

Consent has for long been understood as without context. While critics working with this idea of discrimination by women largely ignore that the new law includes acid attacks, sexual harassment, attempts to disrobe a woman, voyeurism and stalking as crimes recorded under the Indian Penal Code inviting stricter punishments, it has largely revolved on how the law is now going out of the way to penalize men who are innocent.

For decades the groups in power have hid under the canopy self-victimization whenever progressive and radical process has sought equality and voice. It happened in the past with the Mandal Commission, which was aggressively fuelled by political parties playing on the hapless victim card to garner support of the upper caste groups to no end. The better and the sad part for the women’s movement in India is that while all political parties claim to work towards the cause of women, issues of safety and security of women has largely remained as pep-talk in the electoral agendas in the absence of identification of women as a strong vote-bank. The better part is that apart from parochial attitudes like ‘saving the woman’ and ‘protecting the culture through the woman’, the Indian political class has largely left the women’s movement to fend for itself.

But with a large association of men as allies in the movement, it is also time now for these men, and others to take cognizance of what is transpiring as recognition of crimes against millions of women in the past which were never addressed. It is now for us to sit up and also demand for the inclusion of marital rape, amending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) to remove the statutory sanction to prosecute the rape accused and all other efforts in the country and worldwide which addresses the issues of violence against women.

Violence in any form and against anyone is a crime against humanity at large – and the question which should be asked repeatedly should rather shake such foundational beliefs, and not reinforce them.

About the author – The author works at Society for Rural Urban and Tribal Initiative (SRUTI) and is based in New Delhi.


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