In ‘global’ India, women’s progress (in terms of poor sex ratio, health status, education, work participation and political participation, among other things) and harassment (domestic violence, humiliation, rape, molestation, torture) are unparalleled.
We find that harassment in many forms has been increasing over the years. Proof of this came as the Reuters report last year, naming India the most unsafe country for women. But is it only the backdrop of the stereotyped attitudes in our society that is at fault?
In my opinion, both the feminist movement and government policies and programmes fail to look at women’s equality and empowerment through a ‘sexuality lense’. Does women’s empowerment turn to sexual empowerment? Or does it become a means of sexual exploitation and harassment to women’s own selves?
Women’s Bodies As A Medium of Benefits
In our society, the social value of women is still determined in terms of them being sexual objects. Women’s bodies are abused as a medium of benefits. Women of varied age groups are using their bodies for gaining something for better living. This brings us to the concept of ‘Conditional Consent’.
Conditional consent, to sexual activity, is defined as “an act in which one person alters the normative relations in which others stand with respect to what they may do” (Kleinig 2001). It is a tool of gaining benefits or a method of sexual exploitation. An individual (usually a woman) permits sexual involvement (usually with a man) to meet certain needs that she has (for example, marriage). But, many times, women face exploitation after an act of sexual intercourse. What was previously promised is then denied to them.
The law and order authorities take it as granted that the male in this situation is the one who breaks the pledge, or promise, made between two people (male and female). So, one could deny the promises of provocation easily, and another one could make a false accusation. This is because of the absence of a third party witness during the granting of conditional consent for sexual relations. Are our laws and authorities gender-biased? This continues to be a gray area where consent is concerned.
The Flip Side of Conditional Consent
We observe that consent to sexual relations (either voluntarily or on the condition of marriage or transaction) is an act in which one person alters the normative relations in which the other stands with respect to what they may do. That is their rights, duties, obligations, privileges, and so on and so forth. It can transform their living patterns. It is sufficient to legitimize interactions for mutual benefits.
In theory, it is fair to say that a person could choose to interact with others in a way that benefits them, yet is to their own detriment, so long as the choice is clearly voluntary. But if people typically consent only to those interactions that would improve their expected welfare, or if people typically make fairly good judgments about such matters, then consensual interactions would leave both parties better off than they otherwise would be.
Voluntary cooperation might be explained in terms of the ethics of autonomy, which also has two dimensions – positive and negative. Sexual relations are legitimate if, say, a woman’s consent is to endorse the positive dimension of autonomy. It is the notion that people should be permitted to seek emotional intimacy and sexual fulfillment with a willing partner. So, why for some, should material gains or the promise to marry a woman be unethical?