By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Discussions on sex are not something many Sri Lankans can recall having with parents, guardians, or teachers. Parents tend to ignore the topic entirely, while teachers often take a more clinical approach, explaining the biological aspects to sex. Considering this, it comes as no surprise that the topic of consent is one we are rarely, if at all, taught about, at home or in school.
Most of us learn about consent when we engage in acts of intimacy, at the time or later on realising that we were not entirely comfortable with certain things our partner did or said. This can lead to confusion, anger, fear, humiliation, and so many other feelings, especially during those initial instances.
Discourse on consent was sparked by the recent arrest of Sri Lankan cricketer Danushka Gunathilaka in Australia, after a Sydney woman accused him of sexual assault. While the case is still underway, The Morning Brunch reached out to various Sri Lankans to gain a better understanding of consent, the importance given to it in intimate settings, and its role in sex education.
Is consent given importance?
When asked if Sri Lankans pay much attention to consent or give it any importance, Muds explained that she cannot generalise, but based on her personal experience, could say they don’t. “Most men think that coercion is the way to handle things when we say no. Even with my husband, this used to be the case.”
Muds went on to say that she doesn’t think that it even occurs to most men that the woman should be comfortable with an act, adding: “I have been subject to so many incidents that I have realised in hindsight qualify as rape. The whole condom thing for instance is so common.”
Details about the allegations against Danushka Gunathilaka revealed that despite the victim insisting on the use of a condom and the cricketer agreeing to it, she later found it on the floor to the side of the bed and was in shock, as she did not consent to any sexual activity without a condom. Australian Police claim the woman had again asked Gunathilaka to use a condom, but he allegedly refused and forcefully engaged in sexual activity.
Achini shared similar views as Muds about consent, saying: “The whole concept may not have even been discussed widely if not for the recent incident! As a whole, the concept of individual choice and agency is undermined in Sri Lankan culture.”
She went on to say that from early childhood, we are expected to behave according to adults’ needs and wants, and later, in social relationships, we hardly ever say “no”, and we never turn down an invitation, thus openly expressing that not wanting to oblige with a request is in itself difficult.
“On the other hand, we may not clearly express it when we do want something. During the recent discourse about consent, I saw arguments that women might actually say no out of fear of being judged, even though they actually mean to go ahead. This actually may be true in some instances, but it’s an unhealthy approach to any sort of intimate relationship (and a potential excuse for sexual assault),” Achini shared.
She went on to say that the first step would be to learn to respect “yes” or “no”, whichever the answer may be. “Then people will learn to freely express both their willingness to do something and their reluctance to oblige.”
Sharing their views on the topic, H said we do not give consent the importance it should be given. “An example is the famous tea and consent video that is going around on our social media platforms. When visitors come to our homes, we force-feed them on most occasions. We have yet to have a basic understanding of consent since we were children. Our parents did a lot without our consent, and it’s no wonder how young people behave now,” H said.
They shared that due to this, as an asexual person, they refuse to date anyone. “The whole idea of any sexual activity, including kissing, does not interest me, but, in Sri Lanka, it is a norm where no one asks permission when they want to do anything. It’s best to keep myself safe by avoiding it together.”
Should consent be taught in school?
As discussed above, our dismissal of consent even in non-intimate settings can lead to problematic and abusive behaviours in intimate settings. This raises a question about incorporating consent into sex education in school, which in itself is in need of improvement.
Pyromella shared that they have not ever heard of consent outside the internet, adding: “Sex education is highly supremely important and should be taught in schools when kids turn 12, because then they’ll avoid getting into messy situations like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unplanned pregnancy, or worse, rape.”
Kaushalya also believes that consent should be taught in school, adding that he was not taught about consent, especially in intimate settings, by parents or teachers.
Mohamed said: “I do think consent is something that ought to be taught in schools, especially as early as possible, but I also think parents ought to be taught about consent too, especially when it comes to new parents who’ve just had their first child.”
He explained that as instrumental as school is in socialising children, the bootstrapping for all of that happens in their early years at home, and a lot of children in kindergarten reflect the kind of environment they’re brought up in – for instance, intrusive, invasive parents with no sense of boundaries or privacy.
“Even something as important as knocking on the door before entering whichever room your child is in teaches a lot about intruding into spaces, or for example, if they need help with changing, ask them before helping them undress or dress. Little things like this build up the idea that the norm is to ask and ascertain levels of comfort before engaging.”
Mohamed said that he wasn’t necessarily taught consent within the context of sex, but was taught to always ask people and check with them before establishing any kind of social interaction.
“As far as sex and sexual consent go, I sort of discovered it on my own when I was six from an encyclopaedia set and my parents just figured it out from an offhand conversation that I knew about sex, and where babies came from, and we sort of left it there.”
He went on to say: “But I assume I’m an outlier, given that I’m autistic and I had to be socialised through different behavioural norms by my parents in terms of being taught certain rules for behaviour, because a lot wasn’t intuitive to me as a child.”
Conversations with parents
Nishamani shared that when she was a teenager, she was taught about consent by her mother, but that it was never part of a direct conversation with teachers. However, she added that it is high time that schools taught about consensual intimate behaviour to both girls and boys.
Dash wasn’t taught about it in school either, but said her parents explained it to her when she was around 15 years old. “They didn’t go into detail, being Sri Lankan parents, but made sure to help me understand when something would feel wrong. I learned far more on the internet than I did at home, and that was after the age of 18.”
Dash went on to say: “I definitely think this should be taught in school and from the age that children are able to understand when something is wrong, since most kids are being abused at a very young age.”
She explained that it can start with touch and be more and more explicitly explained the older the kids get. “If they take five to 10 years to teach them the ins and outs of photosynthesis, they can teach them about the ins and outs of consent.”
In Nikky’s case, her parents and teachers never taught her about consent, but she said her grandmother taught her about good touch and bad touch. “The rest I learned on my own. I am very protective of my personal space so it helped in a way, I think.”
She also agreed that it should be taught in schools, especially because some parents seem to shy away from teaching their children these important life lessons and facts. “It should be added to the curriculum and should be openly discussed in a non-judgemental and safe environment. Children should be allowed to voice their thoughts and ask questions, and teachers should be equipped with the knowledge to guide them.”
A non-mechanical approach
While saying that sex and consent should be taught in school, Sulakna said that a different approach should be taken. “The approach taken by western countries isn’t very effective – they make it a very mechanical thing. The lesson boys and girls need to learn is that people can get freaked out when having sex, especially the receptive partner, and that they might want to back out, and that is their right. Yes, it sucks when you’re horny and someone who seemed into it until a second ago backs out, but it happens; it’s normal. It’s their body and their choice.”