Photo Story | Sex, Dating, and Learning About Consent From Cats
Artist indu harikumar pens down her journey of learning, unlearning and exercising consent.
When I started feeding the cats in my neighbourhood, I realised that while they may be as cute as a button, they only let you pet them or play with them if they choose to.
After several hisses, growls, warning swats and scratches, I am slowly learning to pay attention to what the cat is saying, and how they indicate whether they consent to my presence or not.
“Purr, do more of that.”
“Stop, don’t you dare come close to me.”
“I am done now, leave me alone.”
Cats stake their personal space and mark fierce boundaries.
“Yeah, you feed me, doesn't mean you get to touch me!”
“I let you pet me yesterday; doesn’t mean I may be up for it today.”
“Another cat let you pet them; doesn’t mean I want it too”.
Cats own consent like bosses. In a country where the film industry gives us blockbuster hits like Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh who threaten a woman for not agreeing to be intimate with them; women are considered property and sex objects in popular media; where a High Court holds that sexual intercourse between husband with a legally wedded wife, even with force, is not rape; I turn to my cats.
My cats embody consent and assert that their body is their own and they have a say in what happens to it.
Power to Say No, but Do We Always Exercise It?
Are we like cats?
We like being touched and done things to, and when we don’t want it, or are not in the mood, we resist. But, do we always have the power to say no, even in our intimate relationships?
This intricate knot of consent and power is what one of the stories I recently illustrated for the consent campaign with Tinder highlights.
The writer says, “Things we ask for, the space we occupy, how loudly we ask for has so much to do with self-worth, power and also gender performativity.”
There is so much learning and unlearning to do if we want to be cats.
"Whether it is texting someone on Instagram who you just matched with on a dating app, to picking a restaurant, how you split the bill, sharing nudes or initiating any level of sexual intimacy with your date, consent is essential."
Safety and respect are important and should be non-negotiable in any relationship.
Full of resentment, I would often tell myself that there was no shame in stating what I am looking for, how much of my body I am okay engaging, and what I won’t tolerate.
But, I didn’t know how to start.
Having made up my mind to be more open, I matched with someone. When things got steamy, we moved to WhatsApp. I still didn’t know how to have the conversation, nor did I care too much for it.
I thought, what if it ruins what we have right now. But somehow my Tinder match had received my memo and said we need to have this important conversation about how we communicate.
It felt a bit technical and strange initially as we laid out the rules about how much we text, who initiates, do we send memes, if we would close conversations, not leave each other at 'seen', what would the reply times be, etc.
Was it a mood-killer? Maybe yes, but what I didn't know was how seen this would make me feel.
It paved a safe space for us to have difficult conversations about and during sex about preferences, emotions, things that tick, things that hurt, without worrying that it would drive the other person away.
Can the consent lessons from cats be replicated into modern relationships?
As someone whose work is so much about stories of body, desire, love and belonging, every time I am in a new city, I always look at how people in different cities present themselves on dating apps.
"In Delhi, I’d see a lot of profiles of women, which say no “cheap talks”, “No ONS” and also see how they are made fun of on social media. But that’s a boundary that someone is placing (something I have struggled with and something I am learning) and that boundary should be respected."
Just like me, 50 percent of young folks who took Tinder India’s Instagram poll said they feel awkward talking about consent with their partner.
Having spent more than 25 years online, almost everyone I have dated has come from the online space but being a people-pleaser, I didn’t quite know how to set boundaries or talk about what I was okay with or not.
These nagging fears about what if they reject me; what if I come across as too interested; what if they lose interest in me; were all constantly playing on my mind while I tried to negotiate my space in relationships.
Move on Patriarchy, Let’s Talk Consent
While collating stories for the Consent Campaign project, someone said something very powerful to me.
They said (I am paraphrasing) that we are social beings; we don’t exist in a vacuum. When they respect and stick with their boundaries and tell their friends you must ask me before you hug me, they are hoping the person will think before they hug another friend without their consent.
They said, “Perhaps, how I let him treat me is how he will treat other people or women too? And in a way I set the ball rolling to talk about consent!”
"I am learning and unlearning every day how to navigate this tricky terrain and how to build healthy, comfortable, and safe relationships. I learn from others."
My collaboration with Tinder India on #LetsTalkConsent is about people’s lived experiences capturing unique manifestations of seeking/giving/receiving consent in intimate relationships.
I learn from resource centers like LetsTalkConsent.com. We need a culture of consent where we can flourish as joyful, pleasure-seeking beings we are. While I am not the one to give gyaan or tips, all I can say is that dating works differently for different people, and for me, to admit to myself what I was looking for was a start.
That start meant that I found a cat who taught me how to embody what I wanted and have a say in what happened to me. And like my cat friends, someday, I too shall own consent like a boss.
(Indu is an artist and storyteller. She tells stories of body, desire, love, and belonging. Her art has been exhibited globally at Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany, The Biennial of Illustrations, Bratislava 2013-14, and the Kochi Muziris Biennial 2015. You can find more of her artwork at @induviduality.)
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