The law may be flat-out on what constitutes sexual consent, but a mental health lens offers a different perspective on the issue. Psychologist Pompi Banerjee explains

In the May 2017 issue of Varta, we published an article Clear Your Head on Sexual Consent by advocate Kaushik Gupta. This was in response to a reader query on an incident involving a sexual consent dispute, and the article explained the legal perspective around sexual consent. The reader query is provided below, followed by Pompi Banerjee’s take on the matter.

I’m writing in about something that happened between two of my friends. Recently, after a party and some drinks, my best pal became intimate with his girl friend, who is also a friend of mine. But a day after the party my friend told me that his girl friend was upset and angry, and saying that what happened between them should not have happened. My friend said whatever happened on the party day was something his girl friend had consented to. He was at a loss about what wrong had he done to her, and so am I. Please advise.

I hope you understand that I can’t share their names, but in terms of age we are all adults.
Hari, Kolkata

Dear Hari

Thanks for writing in. As I see it, the incident you’ve described has a legal aspect as well as an aspect of relationship dynamics and boundaries.

Now, the law is clear on what constitutes consent, and legally this is an instance of sexual consent violation. So if your friend’s girl friend takes recourse to the law, the judiciary will proceed accordingly.

However, I’d like to look at this incident from a point of view of a mental health professional who has often worked with couples on negotiation of consent. When people are in long-term, intimate relationships, they often start believing that they can ‘tell’ when they have their partner’s consent even if it’s not verbalized. Throw alcohol into the mix, and there you have a recipe for ‘consent accidents’ as well as consent violations to take place.

Consent accidents are different from consent violations in the sense that they result from insufficient communication – consent of a partner being taken for granted is one such example. They may also be an error in judgment because of not having enough or relevant information. But consent violations result from one person ignoring or disregarding another person’s stated boundaries. The law does not really make this distinction though and sees both consent accidents and consent violations as the same.

Quote: Consent accidents are different from consent violations in the sense that they result from insufficient communication – consent of a partner being taken for granted is one such example. They may also be an error in judgment because of not having enough or relevant information. But consent violations result from one person ignoring or disregarding another person's stated boundaries.Now, consent accidents, when they happen, does not mean that the hurt is any less – whether your friend intentionally or unintentionally transgressed his girl friend’s boundaries, it still was painful for her, and it was also painful for him to deal with.

The next part is relevant if your friends still want to work together to get through this experience. What is then crucial is for them to find a way to deal with the pain and figure out their way forward. While there is never one single formula to do this, as a psychologist I recommend that they see a counsellor either together or separately.

The idea is for your friends to find a safe space to talk with each other about what happened and how they were left feeling, and to process all of that. Such an approach is important especially when consent accidents take place within intimate relationships – they can leave both partners with immense trauma that is difficult to handle and heal from. This is true not just for the person who feels violated. Even for the person accused of having violated consent, however unintentionally, there can be a huge sense of confusion, shame, guilt and self-loathing.

In the course of your friends talking, it’s likely that resentments will come up, and it’s important to listen to each other and accept that that’s how the other person feels. This is where a counsellor’s role and skills become important to facilitate such a dialogue.

If your friends wish to, they can help each other heal and recover from the trauma. If this incident is a standalone experience and they have not experienced consent violation within their relationship before, it’s likely they will be able to navigate through this. However, repeated experiences of this kind are a red flag! They will indicate boundaries definitely being violated again and again – clearly a matter of consent violation.

I don’t mean that your friends must necessarily go through the process I have suggested to save their relationship. Whether they will still want to be together or part ways is up to them to decide. For many people it’s too painful to continue a relationship in which they’ve felt their consent being violated. Others choose to stay together because they want to continue their relationship.

What is important is for your friends to recover from the trauma and be able to feel well and this goes for both persons involved.

Main graphic credit: Pawan Dhall (a mix of Word Art and Clip Art by Microsoft Office).