The only sign of sexual consent, says Shaheen Hashmat, is a clear and enthusiastic “yes.”
I’ve been trying for a long time, a couple of months now in fact, to write a blog about sexuality and what it means to me as a Pakistani woman born and raised in the United Kingdom. The deadline I set for myself whizzed past weeks ago, as I’ve been having trouble with it. Probably because I’m having trouble with sex itself. You see, I haven’t actually had any for over two and a half years.
When my last relationship failed horribly, I vowed to myself that I would not sleep with another person until I felt completely comfortable, secure, and enthusiastic about having sex. It’s something I have never achieved, despite having over a dozen partners. I have now reached a point where all the self-induced orgasms in the world could not fully relieve this tension inside of me. I’m pretty sure that it’s also led, in part, to my depression. I cry often, because I am purposely denying myself a completely natural part of being human. So why do it?
I want to sleep with someone who respects me enough not to lie to me about what it is they want. I want to sleep with someone who isn’t cheating on someone else. I want to sleep with someone who doesn’t think I’m a slut because I want to talk about the type of sex I like, or who doesn’t have expectations about what I’ll be willing or unwilling to do based on that. I want to sleep with someone who will go on a journey with me, one based on honesty, experimentation, adventure, and love.
I no longer care whether that experience lasts one night, 10 years, or the rest of my life. But apparently, I’m dreaming. I’m told that I should just get out there; that good sex happens with time after a certain period of bad sex; that if I want emotional satisfaction, then I’m going to have to settle for mediocre love-making.
I guess in some ways the fact that I haven’t yet done this says I still have hope; I still believe I can meet someone who can help me take care of business in the bedroom, as well as someone with whom I can share a mutual respect based on honesty. But there is something darker holding me back, and it concerns what a lot of people consider a grey area when it comes to sexual consent.
Many years back, I took a three-month trip to the Canary Islands where I taught English and theater in schools. I was about 19 and restless in my relationship with a man 13 years my senior. I had gone with a friend and we both looked forward to partying and exploring the islands. One night we met a friendly barman who knew some guys from the UK and we all hit it off. They also had a car and knew all the best clubbing spots on the island.
We had an incredible night. We partied in an open club on the beach, in the car on the way to more places where the doormen knew them as VIPs, and they even took us to one club that had streams full of fish and flowers running through the actual building. I was comfortable, I was having fun, and these guys seemed like they were just up for making some new friends and getting drunk together. By sunrise, I was feeling great, and looked forward to getting home so I could sleep it off and start again.
When the guy who was driving me home took the wrong turn, I told him so, but he said there was another place he knew that we would love. I looked at my friend and we both thought, “What the hell, why not?” They took us to a stunning beach, completely deserted, with nothing but beautiful scenery all around and stars above. I wasn’t wildly in lust with the guy who had been paying attention to me for the whole night, but I wasn’t going to say no to a kiss or a fumble in this beautiful place either. My friend took a walk with everyone else leaving David and me on our own. I was drunk and laughing, and we started kissing.
Then he pulled my jeans down and I said no. He kissed me again as he undid his own trousers and I said again, “I don’t want to,” looking around to see how far away my friend was. Despite this, he maneuvered me on top of him and we had sex anyway. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t want it. And throughout, I seemed to travel to another place in my own mind.
Afterwards, I blamed myself. I made excuses. I said, “What are you gonna do? You had a great night, you saw some gorgeous places…so the guy was a little direct and not a great listener, what more is there to say?” Though I realize now, 10 years later, this was rape, at the time I didn’t know what to call it, but the experience stayed with me, and I knew that I would never want that to happen to me again.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about the so-called grey areas of consent, and here’s what it comes down to: If society at large can still blame a woman based on what she is wearing, how much she’s been drinking, and whether she chose to spend an evening with a man who just might attack her, what recourse do I have?
It also got me thinking about my mixed cultural upbringing. I was raised in a strict Pakistani household in the UK until the age of 12, when I was taken from the parental home with the aid of social services because of difficult circumstances. I used to have to wear clothes that covered me from neck to ankle and I was told that I wasn’t allowed to wear tampons, to protect my hymen and therefore my virginity. My own sexuality, which hadn’t even developed at that age, was forced upon me and twisted, groomed to be the object of some future husband’s desire.
But the worst thing is that it didn’t get any better when I left, when I supposedly became free to express myself in whatever way I wished. My happiness at now being able to wear jeans (they had been outlawed for being “too Western”) turned into glee at being able to wear short skirts, low-cut tops, whatever I wanted. But now, again, I was not allowed my own sexuality and instead, that of others was thrust upon me.
My own sexuality is whatever makes me feel aroused, and because I’m a unique individual, the things that turn me on won’t always turn the next woman on.
And what gets me going also changes as my tastes evolve. Conversely, it shouldn’t seem like an epiphany to realize that no one can tell just by looking at me whether I’m feeling aroused or whether I’m available or not. You can’t tell by the number of partners I’ve had either, or by my choice of route going home after a night out. The only way to find out what makes me want to have sex is to ASK me. Which is why, when it comes to discussing consent, a clear and enthusiastic “yes” is the only way to be sure I want to have sex with you.
It’s not the length of my skirt or tightness of my dress. I wear specific types of clothes for a whole host of reasons other than as an expression of arousal. I wear them to be rebellious; to celebrate freedom from the dictatorship of my childhood; to fit in with my friends; because I like the attention. The list goes on.
And even if my clothing did indicate some form of sexual availability, who is to say exactly what length of skirt says “yes”? Where do you draw the line?
You just can’t.
Shaheen Hashmat is a British Asian writer and activist who is currently working on her first novel about growing up in Scotland. Shaheen is also in the process of setting up a charity to help survivors of ‘honor’ violence and forced marriage rebuild their lives after escape. www.shaheenhashmat.com.