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MANILA, Philippines – “Kapag may alak, may balak” is a thing we’ve heard at every college party or inuman, often followed by laughter and more vaguely sexual jokes. As a phrase it seems pretty harmless, but it’s just one of many myths that cloud the concept of consent for many Filipinos.
As much as consent is talked about these days, it’s still a confusing topic for a lot of people – especially in the Philippines, where any mention of the word “sex” still draws giggles or raises eyebrows.
What is consent?
For something that creates a lot of confusion, the definition of consent is pretty straightforward.
“Simply put, consent is giving permission, and/or agreeing to something,” Amina Swanepoel told Rappler. Amina is the founding executive director of Roots of Health, an organization that advocates for reproductive health education in the Philippines.
“When it comes to sexual activities, it is incredibly important to practice consent for a safer, pleasurable, and fulfilling sexual life,” she said.
She turned to the FRIES acronym to explain consent further. Basically, consent is:
- Freely given: Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Reversible: Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
- Informed: You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
- Enthusiastic: When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
- Specific: Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).
With this in mind, it’s easy to picture what consent looks like – a loud “yes” or any other word that expresses excitement. But there’s even such a thing as non-verbal consent, according to Amina.
“Someone can give non-verbal consent by happily, and enthusiastically participating in whatever is happening,” she said, while adding that it makes more sense for couples who have known each other for a long time and can pick up non-verbal cues.
“When people don’t know each other that well or don’t have strong communication with one another, it is always going to be safest to explicitly ask for verbal consent to make sure that everyone involved is in agreement with what is happening,” she said.
The flipside of that is that people can also not consent in a non-verbal way “by showing in their face or their body language how uncomfortable or unhappy they are with what is happening,” she said.
‘Kapag may alak may balak’
What isn’t consent? The answer to this question is murkier than it should be.
Forcing, pressuring, or manipulating someone to do something they don’t want to do; guilting someone into doing something; assuming someone wants to do something without asking – these are not consent.
Everyday situations such as agreeing to go for drinks or a person dressing in revealing clothes do not equal consent either, even if they are all too often misconstrued as consent.
“A lot of the young people we work with think, ‘Kapag may alak may balak,’ (When there’s alcohol, there’s intent) and that if a girl drinks with a guy that she is giving consent. This is not consent. Getting drunk does not give consent,” she said.
Knowing what consent looks like and what it doesn’t look like is all well and good – but how do we talk about and uphold consent in a culture that doesn’t value it?
“Ours is a patriarchal society, with a lot of gender-based double standards. Women are supposed to be chaste, while men are encouraged to be ‘macho’ and have lots of different partners. There is a lot that needs to change so we can move to healthier sexuality,” she said.
Amina shared that in her work, she’s spoken to many young women and girls whose first time to have sex turned out to be rape.
“They don’t call it rape, but they clearly did not give their partners consent, yet they had sex anyway,” she said.
‘Boys will be boys’
Putting an end to rape culture means boys and men have to be taught to ask for consent and respect boundaries. While some people still dismiss rape behavior with the age-old excuse, “Boys will be boys,” Amina pointed out that the statement is actually an insult to men and boys everywhere.
“It’s important to note that nobody is born a rapist or a harasser. And it is insulting to boys and men to assume that forcing their desires on others is their default state. And that they can’t do anything about stopping that kind of behavior because ’that’s just how men and boys are,’” Amina explained.
“That kind of thinking is harmful. We should highlight the fact that boys and men also have agency and control over their actions, and that they can control their desires,” she said.
But women play a part, too.
“We have to end rape culture, and of course, the main part of that is teaching boys and men not to rape. But this will be easier to do if women and girls are also more vocal about what they want and do not want. About what their boundaries are, and what they feel comfortable with. Sex is not something that should just happen to someone. Women should not just be passive participants, without expressing what they want and need,” she said.
“The more open and honest both men and women are about what they want and don’t want, the healthier their relationships will be. And that benefits everyone!” she added.
Ultimately, people should learn that every person has autonomy over their own bodies, and this autonomy needs to be respected.
“While it is most common to hear about men and boys raping women and girls, we must remember that men and boys are also raped and sexually assaulted. It’s important for everyone to understand that each of us has bodily autonomy and that no one has a right to violate that, and to force us to do something we don’t want to do,” Amina said.
‘Hug your titos and titas’ and ‘Pakipot’
Teaching consent has no age requirement either. As Amina said, it should be taught early on, and children should be given agency over their own bodies from a young age.
“We shouldn’t force kids to do things they aren’t comfortable with doing, like hugging or kissing relatives and family friends. Bodily autonomy and knowing how to say when we aren’t comfortable with something are things we should teach and encourage in kids from a young age,” she said.
Another thing that needs to change? Girls and women (and everyone really) should stop being pakipot and be more upfront about what they want.
“When we tell girls that they should play hard to get or be ‘pakipot’ even when they’re interested, we’re also sending both boys and girls the message that a ‘no’ doesn’t always mean a no; it just means try harder,” Amina said.
“This is not healthy and does not contribute to open and honest communications. It also complicates consent,” she explained.
Why is consent such a big deal anyway?
While society and mainstream media might have us believe that consent is a nice-to-have but not a non-negotiable, Amina stresses its importance for the physical and mental health of both parties.
When it comes to physical health, consent plays a big part in avoiding unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. As for mental health, consent helps sidestep the damage and trauma that comes with being violated.
“It is incredibly harmful for someone to be forced to do something against their will, and when people feel violated, it is much more than just a physical thing. Practicing consent demonstrates that you respect your partner’s humanity and bodily autonomy, whether it’s a long-term relationship or a casual hookup,” Amina said.
If you find that your partner doesn’t value your consent, it’s a huge red flag and a good reason to walk away.
“Consent isn’t just about sex, it’s about respecting boundaries. So if a person does things that disrespects your boundaries, such as snooping on your phone, showing up unannounced, texting and calling non-stop even when you’re clearly busy or not interested, those are signs they don’t respect your boundaries and that you should walk away,” she said.
The Philippines clearly has a way to go when it comes to creating a culture where consent is given priority. Even the most progressive people have to unlearn things that have been deeply ingrained in them.
The good news is, consent is hinged on open and honest communication, something everyone is capable of. If you want something, don’t like something, or aren’t sure if your partner is enjoying themselves, all you need to do is ask. – Rappler.com