Saranya Chakrapani from the Times of India interviewed me for this piece titled ‘The New LOC: Line of Consent’ in the context of the #MeToo movement. I am glad that my #MardonWaaliBaat initiative was featured but disappointed that all my references to consent outside heteronormative spaces were removed from the final piece, citing space constraints. I do not blame the journalist. Even in the space of activism, people who fight patriarchy aren’t always committed to challenging heteronormativity or caste discrimination or Islamophobia. Intersectionality, for them, is a buzzword usually thrown around like loose change; not taken seriously as a practice.
I reproduce here the full text of my email interview with the journalist.
Saranya: Through the course of your work with men on sexuality and gender, what is the most challenging and skewed conditioning of consent that you have had to address? Where do you think such a conditioning comes from?
Chintan: I realized that a lot of heterosexual men are unaware of the difference between flirting and sexual harrassment. Their focus is on who they feel attracted to, unmindful of whether the attention they offer is welcome or not. Apparently, the idea that healthy flirting is meant to be enjoyable for both the people involved is something they find difficult to wrap their heads around. Their notions of how to indicate romantic or sexual interest in a woman usually come from Bollywood films, wherein a No is understood not as a refusal but as an invitation to pursue more ardently because women like to play hard to get.
I have come across heterosexual men who think that explicitly seeking consent would take away from the fun of romance. I think their real fear is tied up with letting women have agency over their bodies and their experience of pleasure. Patriarchal conditioning makes them worry about being thought of as ‘unmanly’ if they do not assert their dominance in the bedroom and in the process of lovemaking.
Saranya: How according to you is a man’s understanding of consent interrelated to his own upbringing, social conditioning, class and sexuality?
Chintan: From the interactions I have had with men over the years, in the course of my work and in informal spaces, I have noticed that most men in India have not had the opportunity to learn about consent either at home or at school. This is because parents are shy and squeamish, and so are teachers.
Men learn from their partners when boundaries are articulated, established and upheld. This can be a hugely transformative experience even if it is awkward at first. Men might feel resistant about seeking consent explicitly but that’s fine. They have to learn about bodily autonomy so that intimate relationships are built on respect. They should not feel entitled to sex, or even a hug for that matter. Power in relationships revolves not only around gender but also caste and class identities. Boys often learn from watching how their fathers and elder brothers treat their partners.
Consent is important not only in the heterosexual world but also for gay and bisexual men. Facilitators who work on consent need to frame discussions in a more inclusive manner, else we will end up constructing masculinity as a monolithic experience. Men who enjoy intimacy with other men grapple with many of the same issues that heterosexual partners deal with, for example the fear of being abandoned by a partner whose expectations one cannot fulfill or the fear of contracting a sexually transmitted infection from a partner who might have lied about being tested. In the case of gay and bisexual men, there is another fear — that of being ‘outed’ without their consent.
Saranya: What is the age-group of children you work with?
Chintan: I usually work with teenagers, eighth grade and above.
Saranya: How different is the understanding of consent and personal space among children from adults?
Chintan: I think that children have a remarkable ability to recognize what they enjoy, and what is unwelcome. They may not have the vocabulary to express it. That is what they need support with. Adults ought to do a better job of valuing children’s understanding of consent. Parents should not force children to hug or kiss uncles and aunties they are uncomfortable with. They may not have a driving license but that doesn’t mean they are emotionally incompetent. They want their feelings to be acknowledged, and rightly so. Adults must also pay attention to the pronouns children wish to use to identify themselves, and the clothes they want to wear to express themselves. Many people become aware of their sexual orientation and gender identity early in life, and adults can help by educating themselves.
Saranya: What are the tools and modus operandi you employ to address these mindsets and offer practical, implementable solutions?
Chintan: I design and facilitate workshops that are interactive. The idea is not to lecture participants but to create warm, safe and welcoming spaces where they can talk openly about their struggles and jointly work on ways to address them. I enable this through art-based activities, discussion prompts, group exercises, individual journaling and debriefs that follow film screenings. Solutions are context-specific, and need to be generated in collaboration with participants. Nobody is interested in a patronizing facilitator who thinks his job is to indoctrinate.
Saranya: Since the nationwide MeToo campaign, have you seen an increasing number of men expressing curiosity and keenness to understand consent and the laws pertaining to sexual harassment at the workplace?
Chintan: I think that it is helpful to approach conversations about consent and sexual harassment through a deeper intention to understand how patriarchy works. A visual communication house and content agency in Mumbai got in touch with me to work with them on addressing casual sexism at the workplace, and co-creating a healthier work environment. We worked mainly on reviewing and transforming communication styles that would be more respectful to women in the workplace, where their worth would be measured by the creative and intellectual contributions they make and not by how they dress. A group of stand-up comedians invited me to a meeting where they got together to discuss how they could form an association to address complaints related to sexual harassment and other challenges within their artistic community. However, they have a long-term plan of addressing misogyny and homophobia as well because laws alone will not change societal attitudes. An insurance company got me to work with employees across departments on exploring how patriarchy thrives in men and women. We talked about mansplaining, manterruption, lack of pay parity, and the bro-code that restricts leadership opportunities for women.