According to the Madhya Pradesh High Court (Indore Bench, presided by Justice Subodh Abhyankar), “India are a conservative society, it has not yet reached such level (advance or lower) of civilization where unmarried girls, regardless of their religion, indulge in carnal activities with boys just for the fun of it (sic)”. The case that was brought before the court concerned a woman who attempted suicide after her consensual partner told her that he was marrying someone else, then lodged a case of rape against him. Instead of just dealing with the particular intricacies of the case, the bench felt it fit to opine on Indian women’s desires and personalities at large. While it’s possible that the prosecutor here feels she has gained justice, court rulings create precedents which can affect the outcomes of future cases. That’s where some of the trouble here lies.

Firstly, it’s a technical quibble, but all girls should be unmarried because child marriage is morally wrong and legally a crime. The official court order quotes the judge as also having used the archaic word “lass”. As in: “… a boy who is entering a physical relationship with a lass must realize that his actions have consequences…”. The “boy” in question here is an adult. Infantilization in descriptions of people above the age of 18 is telling.

Secondly, to misquote Cyndi Lauper, “girls” do just want to have carnal activities for fun. That’s not a newsflash.

There’s another layer to this case, even as the red flag of the lack of acknowledgement of the sexual autonomy of adults is noted. The judge stated that someone who found herself in the situation that the prosecutor did should not have to resort to suicide. Fair. But neither should she have to resort to lodging a case of rape, walking back her own choices and thereby diluting what it means to have the right to say Yes as much as the right to say No. Perhaps there are no or few legal avenues available to resolve feelings of betrayal and despair, and such experiences cannot really come within the purview of the law. This is where more thoughtful, ethical and equal social mores would make a difference. Where respect for adults’ choices about sex and relationships prevails, the likelihood of someone having to give up their own power in order to heal will be far lower.

According to the report of the case in question, the woman’s parents had opposed her inter-faith relationship before her partner decided or was made to get engaged to someone else. A couple of weeks ago, this column covered a Chennai woman who roped the police in against her parents for trying to force her to wed. As far as redressal goes, how one frames one’s experience – who gets cast as villain, even if one feels victimized either way – matters.

Between the assumption that women in India have no sexual selves beyond the contract of marriage, and how retroactive legal revocations of consent have implications on society’s ability to adopt healthy sex-positivity, there’s serious regression happening here. That should clear the judge’s doubts about what stage of civilization we’re at.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.