Parents, worried about the public safety of their daughters, have been getting their knickers in a twist about the reinstatement of 16 as the legal age of consent under the new Sexual Assault Bill. It’s easy to dismiss their anxieties, especially for those who don’t have kids. But there are a lot of things parents have to worry about. On the one hand, unprotected sex, sexual ignorance, teen pregnancies and abortions, overuse of the overnight pill.
On the other, how to provide their children with whatever emotional and cultural understanding they can, to protect them from the increasingly numerical, objectified approach to sex around us. What sort of grounding could help them have a happy intimate life and deal better with the intense competitiveness and cruel judgements, the pressures of body image that are a part of contemporary youth culture?
Without acknowledging the idea of sexual autonomy parents aren’t going to be able to take the conversation to a discussion of sexual freedom. Unfortunately we’re seeing little of that in what’s being said. Some parents are freaking out, saying, childhood is an age for sports and studies, why burden kids with breakups and sex? Such parents are just being deliberately obtuse about their children’s reality and not a little ignorant about what laws mean.
Lowering the age of consent simply acknowledges that 16-year-olds today, are both capable of, and likely to have, consensual sex. To term it statutory rape would be an injustice. The law acknowledges a principle. It’s hardly an invitation to anorgy.
Other parents attempt to sound rational through analogy andask in letters to editors: so kids can’t vote at 16 but they can have sex? Well, yes. To vote, you have to learn about a lot of things. To have sex, you only need to understand your own body and mind really. And the truth is, knowing your body and mind is not something our society or families easily encourage.
Consider the persisting use of the term pre-marital sex. It sees marriage as the ‘normal’ place for sex, and assumes everyone is going to get married, that too by a certain age. Even the proposed alternative, non-marital sex, doesn’t really challenge this thinking (even if some contend that the term covers about 80 per cent of the sex that’s actually happening in the world).
Any woman who has been for a gynaecological scan will be familiar with the question “patient is married?” Radiology departments are rife with the cultural assumption that only a married woman can have a vaginal ultrasound, while everyone else has a hymen they’re holding on to. They are unable to ask even the question, “Is the patient sexually active?” Ironic in a place that deals with the body. I’ve always wondered if male patients confront this question. Underlying this is the assumption that sex is actually never a matter of consent. It takes place only because it must — in marriage — or can’t be avoided — in rape.
This message is further twisted by the emphasis parents continue to put on their children’s appearance — more on the girls. Parents who insist that their daughters be thin, fair, long-haired winners of beauty contests and catchers of grooms. So they must be sexually attractive but not sexually active? For why?
The vast spectrum of pleasure and erotic activity that lies between the poles of marriage and rape, exists mostly at the far edges of our public discussion, like a guilty string of sequins. So, if knowing your mind and body is key to consent, then parents are right, it should not be 16. It should be at least 40.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.