Beyond the ‘no’ in a sexual engagement is the ‘no’ for just life things of your choice. Both matter
Picture this. There’s a joint family, where the idea of individual needs or gains is a taboo. Then there is the eldest child in this joint family, the girl child, who has to be the epitome of selflessness, just like the eldest boy of the family carried the burden of setting an example for the rest of the children. In the name of values are “put others’ needs before yours”, “be giving, be kind”. And boom, you’re suddenly an adult with a bothersome belief system that says your needs have no value, and neither does your consent.
Sounds familiar? The story of your life? Mine too. From home to college and then MBA, this ‘quality’ of selflessness got me many compliments, and often gave me the label of a ‘kind/giving’ person, even with my streak of rebellion and my inability to fit in conventionally anywhere else. It felt familiar, until a few years back, when I finally realised my body and mental health had been paying the price of this ‘giving’, and I had no idea how I got here. I was just trying to be a good person, and I was always someone who valued other people’s consent and boundaries. But now it was time to ask myself about my boundaries. How often did I value my own boundaries? How often have I violated my own consent?”. And hell, the answers weren’t pleasant. They were disturbing at the least, and life-altering at the minimum.
More often than not, when we have conversations about consent and boundaries, it stays within the parameters of sex, and is often coloured by gender ideas that are installed in us. The real conversation that we almost refuse to acknowledge is this — what about consent beyond sex? Pink sure showed us that no means no when it’s about sex, but no is also a sentence outside of sexual boundaries and in life, right? Where’s the film to establish that?
But hey, I’m here to take accountability for not doing my bit as well. I have been guilty of flouting this boundary too, before my own journey with consent. The thing is, I am a hugger, and I have an instant reaction of hugging someone I am fond of or really love, or even giving them pecks. The gender here becomes inconsequential. A lot of my male friends were initially not very comfortable when I would launch into a hug as soon as I saw them. I took pride in the idea that I would hug friends and if they were uncomfortable, I thought of it as a barrier I am breaking. I thought of it as “them” not being able to accept love, all of this stemming from the jaadu ki jhappi syndrome. But did I ask? And not that it absolves me in any way, but did they communicate that they don’t like it? What it also led to was when people hugged me, and I wasn’t comfortable, I let it slide because I was a “hugger”. I was so happy that I could hug them when no one else could, or that they would hug me and no one else. It never even crossed my mind that it could be beyond just them being shy or rigid. Food for thought, I know.
In fact, during a conversation about consent with a friend, they mentioned the reason they don’t hug, and it threw me off. As an early experience, this friend had teachers who flouted their boundaries because they were a ‘cute’ child. It also then urged me to investigate my own relationship with hugging, and that I also don’t like hugs from just anyone, I wouldn’t like it in a professional setting in a group, even if they are my friend outside of it.
We tend to make our comfort of one thing almost like a blanket approval, without acknowledging that boundaries and consent can differ in different contexts too. Person, place, environment, and sensory experiences can all impact your consent for every little thing, touch or no touch.
As an intimacy coach, I try to inculcate this understanding. There is a game that I often start with, where we all get into a circle and we are to point at anyone in the circle and take their name, and the person who we point to can say yes or no. If they say yes, you take their place and if they say no, you ask someone else. Very rarely do we get a no in the beginning, because people don’t want to “offend” anyone. In fact, when I was a part of this game recently, my body had started moving even before I had said a yes or no, because instinctively, if I don’t have a reason to reject, then it should be approved. As the game progresses, you start to notice that those hearing a ‘no’ are uncomfortable. They feel a sense of rejection. The next level of this game is when someone says no, they add the line “but thank you for asking.” This then becomes easier for those saying no, and hearing a no. After these games, I ask participants if there is a reason they said yes, it’s always because someone had been said no to just before them, or that they didn’t realise they had said yes (like me), or sometimes because they felt bad. The reasons for the no can be as simple as ‘the spot I was asked to move to was colder’, or ‘I just didn’t feel like it’, or ‘I didn’t want to walk that distance’.
These are all valid, but their mind has coloured the no as a rejection, so they don’t want to inflict it on anyone, or more importantly, they “should not”. We are so married to the idea of delivering to societal and moral obligations that we have forgotten the responsibility that we have to ourselves. We have lost the ability to acknowledge that we are often the most aggressive violators of our own consent.
So, the next time you catch yourself using words like I should, I have to, I need to, take a little pause, and ask yourself, “Really? Do I?”. Trust me, if you have to take a moment to ask yourself if you are okay with it, take it. Treat yourself the way you would treat the person you most love. If you’re neurodivergent like me, a better relationship with your body can create a leeway for better mental health.
I advocate for better communication and understanding of the body, beyond physique and fitness and external stimulus, as an important life lesson. Engaging with your body as a vessel that holds space for you can create empowerment and the ability to be vulnerable.
And don’t we all need that?