Dating 101: Why women's consent, sexual agency are critical for healthy relationships

YS Life dives deep into the parameters of healthy dating for women in India, and how they can navigate this space by exercising their consent and sexual agency.

Dating 101: Why women's consent, sexual agency are critical for healthy relationships

Saturday May 20, 2023,

6 min Read

In India, dating often ends up getting stereotyped like movies and TV shows where men serenade women with flowers, chocolates, wine et al. All that is now changing. 

Today, women demand to be equal partners in a relationship and are increasingly calling the shots by being vocal about what they need from their partners. While there is much talk about emotional and sexual needs, there’s a long way to go for consent and sexual agency to be normalised as part of a healthy relationship. 

But while consent has become a topic of endless arguments on social media, the internet often oversimplifies consent when it is much more than a simple yes or no, points out Sakshi Tickoo, an occupational therapist. Knowing when and where to draw the line is an essential part of any healthy relationship, including those that start online. 

“The first thing about understanding consent is that it is about acknowledging someone's boundaries and trying not to violate their rights. Sharing your boundaries with others is a great way for them to learn about you. This could be as simple as saying a yes/no to something or communicating how you aren't comfortable discussing something presently,” she tells YS Life

Being unsure is a boundary that commands respect, she adds. If there’s a lack of desire to participate in something, it should be treated as a personal choice and not a judgement of the other person.

Consent can be verbal and non-verbal, educates Tickoo. That’s exactly why partners should look out for non-verbal cues when verbal consent seems overwhelming. At the end of the day, everything boils down to communication and actively listening to each other. 

“By having open and honest conversations about boundaries and consent with your date, you can not only help prevent misunderstandings but also promote mutual respect,” she advises. 

Body image and intimacy 

There are several challenges in our quest for a healthy dating life. 

For instance, body image and intimacy are such real issues that have plagued women and gender-diverse folks for generations, and such discrimination on the basis of appearance is now being amplified on social media. 

“Many of us are first-generation daters and are exploring intimacy outside the context of marriage. This means that there’s a pressing need for us to become cognizant of the interplay between body image and dating,” tells Apurupa Vatsalya, a sexuality educator.

“How a woman feels about her body can influence how comfortable and confident she feels in romantic situations, what choices she makes around intimacy, and how much power she thinks she might have to set and negotiate boundaries. If she is experiencing negative feelings about her body, she may also struggle with intimacy,” she reveals. 

To address these issues, there is a need for media to be representative of different bodies and identities, alongside having access to public spaces and inclusive clothing sizes. 

“At an individual level, one can work with a therapist or counsellor who specialises in body image issues and understands the Indian context to address one’s distress. Practising self-care, challenging and unlearning internalised beauty standards, and moving towards body neutrality, if body positivity is a challenge can help,” advises Vatsalya. 

Pleasure as a measure of sexual agency 

Enjoying intimacy is also closely linked with having sexual agency. By definition, sexual agency is the ability to identify, communicate and negotiate one’s sexual needs. For the longest time, women’s pleasure was a neglected subject, often suppressed under the veil of secrecy. Much has changed today as pleasure-focused, inclusive sex educators get a bigger voice on social media.

Prioritising pleasure is also a form of self-care. But how does it fit in dating? 

Swati Jagdish, a sexuality health educator, is of the view that self-care is a larger concept that includes understanding and prioritising our needs and desires. In the realm of dating, it is also respecting those of our partners. 

“It not only helps set healthy boundaries but opens up the channel to communicate effectively and make choices that align with our values and goals. It also helps in recognising and addressing any negative self-talk or beliefs that may be withholding us from experiencing the kind of relationship we truly desire,” she explains. 

But for a healthy relationship, it is equally critical to have an open and honest conversation with your partner about sexual desires and needs. 

Jadgish offers some helpful tips. “Create a space for yourself and your partner to discuss your preferences in a non-judgmental manner. Let them know how you feel about them, and that they’re enough just the way they are. By helping your partner feel secure about you and your relationship, you pave the way for a free-flowing conversation about all the fun things you can do together.”

The advice also applies to those who aren’t in a relationship. It is important to be able to bring up these topics with your partner without any hesitation. While it is a good idea to be cognizant of another person’s feelings, it is also healthy to cultivate a meaningful exchange that prioritises your mutual intimacy needs, shares Jagdish. 

Sexual health: The missing piece in the puzzle 

Women’s pleasure is a pertinent subject but so is female sexuality and sexual health. There is a pleasure gap in cishet relationships where men experience more pleasure during intimacy, shares Vatsalya.

But there are a few ways to navigate this terrain. Vatsalya has shared her insights as part of Tinder’s (a leading dating app) dating wellness guide, Tinder Love and Care (TLC) developed in collaboration with That Sassy Thing (a female-founded new-age sexual wellness brand). The guide features advice and insights from female experts and queer voices in India, including Vatsalya, Jagdish and Tickoo. It covers a range of topics such as sexual health, intimacy, dating choices, body confidence, and fostering honest conversations with dates, all while prioritising self-care. 

Furthermore, Vatsalya encourages self-care and exploration for women. This helps them become more comfortable with discussing their needs with dates, potential partners, and even their healthcare providers, she notes.

Edited by Kanishk Singh