November 05, 2012

A Short Enraged Note on Consent and Coercion

“And so we decided not to go to CASH since we’d all been drinking”, the 23 year old concluded her story about why she and some friends were not taking a case of sexual harassment by a classmate to her University’s Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH).

Thank you Government of Maharashtra! This is what happens when you raise the legal age to purchase, possess and consume alcohol from 21 to 25. You create a situation in which young adults find themselves in exploitative situations that they are unable to seek justice for because the law doesn’t allow them to drink until they are 25. I understand that any line is arbitrary but 25 by any standards is laughable when at 18 young people may vote and 18 and 21 women and men respectively are allowed to marry.

This is far from the only law that criminalizes young people’s capacity to give consent. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2012 raised the age of consent from 16 to 18. So now young people under the age of 18 who choose to act on their sexual desires do so under the additional pressure of illegality placing them in an ever more precarious situation as Flavia Agnes suggests.

Of course many states would rather not even think of sex at all, especially for young people. The Adolescent Education Programme (AEP) focussing on life skills education including comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) was started in 2005 but in 2007 it was suspended in several states because teachers, parents and policy-makers raised objections especially with regard to the need for CSE in India. As of November 2010, the AEP remains suspended in 5 states including Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra & Karnataka. Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kerala suspended the program in 2007 but have recently started their own versions of AEP.

All of this suggests that our increasingly nanny state wants to control young people now more than ever. And sadly many parents seem to be in agreement with the state that information corrupts young people, that they are unable to make choices and where possible should be controlled.

Young people make all manner of contextual choices based on a variety of reasons. As parents, educators and the state our role is our role to facilitate the making of these choices in the best possible environment or to set up roadblocks that ensure that young people are making choices in the most constrained circumstances?

Can we think about consent as the value to promote rather than abstinence whether in relation to sex or alcohol? Can we reflect on how these choices can be made in the most informed and responsible manner possible?

In the final analysis is it acceptable for a group of young people (all of whom were over 21) to feel afraid to seek justice because they were drinking alcohol? Is it even defensible to withhold information on sexuality from young people? When misplaced moral concerns replace a reasoned understanding of what is best for “our children” we place them in more danger than ever.

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About: Shilpa Phadke

Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist. She is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has been educated at St. Xavier’s College, SNDT University, TISS in Mumbai and the University of Cambridge, UK. She is co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Her doctoral research focused on questions of heterosexuality in the new spaces of consumption in Mumbai. She has published both in academic journals and anthologies and in the popular media. Her areas of concern include gender and the politics of space, the middle classes, sexuality and the body, feminist politics among young women, reproductive subjectivities, feminist parenting, and pedagogic practices. She loves the chaotic city of Mumbai and fantasizes that it will one day have a very large park. Shilpa is part of the editorial team of Ultra Violet and takes care of the sections on Society and Relationships.

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