“An Abuser Can Even Be a Partner” — What Is Consent and Why It Is Necessary

ნატალია ავალიანი / მედია აპრილი

When we went to his place, I don’t know what happened, but my body got tense. It was a strange energy, like I felt something was wrong. He poured me wine. I couldn’t decide what I wanted, so I thought I wouldn’t drink anymore — if I had to go, I’d be relatively sober. As if he pointed out to me to drink it and I clearly remember how I got smaller. It was nothing, just one phrase, but it made me afraid and I drank the wine in one gulp. Perhaps I was looking for courage.

It took Thea (name is changed) a long time to accept that the specific sexual acts she was involved in without consent were sexual assault.

“I had known this person for many years and even had a certain type of relationship. This relationship was intermittent, not continuous, but I thought I knew him pretty well as a person — his values ​​and outlook. One evening I was with friends in a bar. We drank lightly and had fun. I saw him a few tables away. When he noticed me, he came towards me. I introduced him to my friends. He left a good impression on the ones who were there. He stayed at our table and engaged in communication. When everyone left, he invited me to his place. I knew where this invitation was going – to sex, which I did not refuse. At that moment, I thought I wanted it,” Thea tells us.

Thea connects this kind of numbing with her childhood trauma, which is related to sexual harassment by a close family member. She remembers that there were several cases when she was sexually harassed in her teenage years. The violence was done on the basis of instructions. A relative of the family would tell the girl what to do and the child never thought that it was wrong or that she should share it with someone because the elder explained otherwise. This kind of instruction turned out to be a kind of irritating factor during the violence in adulthood, which made the woman lose her ability to think rationally, and her body was completely filled with fear.

“He was talking to me about something, I can’t remember well. It was as if this conversation was different after the bar, I could no longer notice his fun, nothing that impressed my friends. It was like he was only interested in sex and I knew it. This conversation was just a necessary introduction.

At some point he approached me and kissed me. I didn’t refuse, but I didn’t kiss him back either. I remember being incredibly tense.

"When he touched my body, I jumped and he laughed. What happened, were you scared? – he asked" — Thea

Yes, I was scared. I was very scared and I didn’t know what was right – to tell him to stop what he was doing and risk that he would rape me, or to just go with what was going to happen because it would be easier that way,” Thea recalls.

According to Thea, she had to reassess many thoughts in order to say out loud to herself that what happened was violence. She recalls that she considers it correct to admit that what happened was not based on her consent as the first stage. This can be a kind of indicator to distinguish between what is violence and what is not.

“I won’t tell exactly what happened and why, but a lot of things happened that I didn’t agree with. I was afraid to say no, but at some point I told him to stop and ignore it. It didn’t come to penetration, but everything that happened was very unpleasant for me.

It wasn’t too late when I came home. My mother was awake. She asked me about what had happened when she saw me with a crazed face. I immediately ran into the bathroom. I thought I was the dirtiest person. For a very long time I tried to scrub and wash every part of my body. It is a strange and disgusting feeling. You know that you are clean physically, but something is bothering you inside, and you can’t do anything except to wash, but the scary thing is that even that doesn’t help,” recalls Thea.

Sapari’s executive director, Baia Pataraia, explains that trauma specialists report that in times of great stress, only a fraction of people are able to fight or flee, but more often they just freeze because they feel that death is approaching and are unable to move at all.

"This is true not only in humans, but also in animals. That is why it is unfair to ask a woman to kick a much stronger and more dangerous harasser than her," - Baia Pataraia

According to the statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men are also affected by sexual violence, although most cases are committed against women. In particular, if every 4th woman is raped or attempted, in the case of men this ratio is 1/26.

The fact that sexual violence is gender-sensitive is indicated by Baya Pataraia, and when talking about the problem, she emphasizes the signs that make women particularly vulnerable to violence.

“Women who have fewer resources are much more vulnerable. Resources include education, social class, and even a place to live. It is much easier for a woman living in the city to help herself. Age also matters — girls are more vulnerable than middle-aged women. When it comes to gender identity, it is clear that transgender women face many more challenges and problems than cisgender women. It can be said that transgender women are the most vulnerable in Georgia today, because they are often not supported by their own families, nor by the state, which does not even recognize their gender,” says Baia.

According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner or sexual violence from a non-partner. Violence is more common on the part of the partner. And according to the statistics of the United Nations Women’s Organization (UN Women), 26.2% of women aged 15-64 in Georgia have experienced at least one of the following: sexual violence from a non-partner, sexual violence in childhood and sexual harassment.

According to the official statistics of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, 15 cases of sexual violence against women were recorded in 9 months of 2023 (from January to September). The statistics of domestic violence and its types are calculated separately. In this case, in the same period, 26 cases of sexual violence against women were recorded. According to the statistics of domestic violence in 2022, 49 cases of sexual violence were recorded, in 2021 – 50, and in 2022 – 31.

It should be noted that the statistics that exist about sexual violence are linked to the initiation of the investigation, which means that many cases remain outside the statistics because some women do not address law enforcement agencies. The reason for this may be stigma, mistrust of the law enforcement system, taboos and stereotypes related to the topic, etc.

Natalia Avaliani / Aprili Media

What Is Consent?

Although the legal meanings of consent may vary depending on the laws and circumstances of specific countries, its general concept is always similar and unchanging. According to the “Rape, Violence and Incest National Network” (RAINN), an organization working against sexual violence, consent means actively consenting to sexual intercourse. Consent lets your sexual partner(s) know that sex or another type of related activity is desirable to you at this time. Any sexual activity without consent qualifies as rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment. Consent is an ongoing process of you and your partner(s) discussing the boundaries of what is comfortable for you and your partner(s).

"Consent must be genuine, expressing free will, and clear", - Baia Pataraia

We can also consider consent as a kind of agreement between the participants involved in sexual activity. It should be unambiguous and freely expressed. Verbal and affirmative expressions of consent will help both you and your partner(s) understand and respect each other’s boundaries.

“Sexual activity between people can be considered healthy only if there is mutual consent. This consent can be both verbal and behavioral. It is a myth that consent is non-sexual. On the contrary, when all parties are eager, the relationship brings happiness,” explains Baia.

What Is Not (!) Consent?

When speaking about consent, first of all, it is necessary to note that minors cannot give consent – children cannot make an informed decision, and their consent to engage in sexual relations is immature. Taking this into account, consent to engage in sexual activity during childhood cannot be considered consent, according to international recommendations.

Consent cannot be given by those who are incapacitated by drugs and/or alcohol. Also, it is impossible for a person to give consent while asleep or unconscious. Also, if a person consents to a particular activity under intimidation or threats and pressure, it is not considered consent, since it was not based on their wishes. For example, when there are such unequal power dynamics in relationships, such as the involvement of a student and a lecturer or teacher, or in a specific position and employees working subordinate to this position in a sexual relationship – in such a case, the risk that the relationship cannot be based on consent for a person working in a subordinate position is alarmingly high.

It is a myth that silence during sex is a sign of consent. Mere silence is not really a sign of consent, especially when the woman is depressed, frightened and terrorized by the rape. Some people think that you can’t rape a woman if she doesn’t want to. This is the biggest lie. In addition, the ” kidnapped” girl/woman does not have freedom of will while she is “kidnapped” and cannot freely express her will – her will is already suppressed by violence against her. The same applies to a beaten woman and a woman in a helpless situation, for example, if she is under the influence of alcohol,” says Baia Pataraia.

Photo: Nodar Ladaria

When talking about the existence of consent, it is important to take into account that it is necessary to recognize and act accordingly when we take “no” as an answer to a specific offer. However, consent obtained on the basis of coercion or continuous begging should not be considered as consent. In addition, we should not assume that because we once had consent to a particular activity from a particular person, it means that we can repeat the same activity with them in the future.

Begging and trying to change your partner’s mind by influencing their wishes means the absence of consent. This is what happened to another respondent of Aprili Media, Salome: she was in a relationship with her ex-partner for a year. This relationship was her first, which made it very difficult to identify violence and harassment from her partner. It should also be said that this component of consent is rarely talked about in society, and even a person with a lot of experience may not be able to qualify it as violence.

“I was 19 years old when I was in a relationship with my ex-partner. During this one year, almost every day when we were together, something like this happened, he begged me until I agreed. He was three years older than me and this relationship was not the first for him, although I do not know anything about whether he did the same in other relationships. I realized everything too late. For me, this was the first experience of a relationship, of being in love. I think that he didn’t fully understand what he was doing, and he didn’t do it on purpose,” recalls Salome.

Another reason that made it difficult for Salome to frame this experience as violence was the fact that the relationship was homosexual and homoromantic. In addition, it was difficult to understand that the abuser might even be a partner. The constant requests for sex left a severe trauma on Salome, which affected her sex life as well.

“When I told this story to someone else, it was then that I was surprised and thought that it was violence. I never talked about it before and when I shared my experience with someone else, they told me it was sexual abuse. I remember that I was very surprised at first. Then I thought about it, looked for different information about similar types of violence and realized that what was happening all year was not normal.

"I had not even thought about the fact that violence might even occur in a relationship with a partner" - Salome

Now I feel disgust when a person asks me for something. The therapist told me about this that this aversion comes from fear, and I probably think that every person who demands something from me will do the same. This moment sometimes occurs during sexual relationships too,” Salome tells us.

How Is Consent Given?

When engaging in various types of sexual activity, consent must be based on communication and clearly given each time for all types of activity. In particular, if you agreed to a specific activity with a specific person in the past, this does not mean that the same person has your consent to engage in the same activity at the current moment, because the wishes change – it is quite possible that this activity is beyond your interest.

However, consenting to one activity does not mean that you are allowing them to continue doing other activities based solely on consenting to that activity. In particular, if you agreed to kiss someone, this does not give them the right to undress you after/in parallel with the kiss.

Remember that having sex with someone in the past does not give them the right to have sex with you again in the future if you do not want them to. Some people may find this approach confusing and find it difficult to decide how far they can go with a particular person. The answer is simple — if the partner does not say “yes” to a specific activity, that is, you do not have his consent. Before engaging in any sexual behavior, it is important to discuss and set boundaries and expectations with your partner.

Changing Your Mind Is Always Possible

Yes, you can change your mind at any time! You can withdraw your consent at any time if you feel uncomfortable. One way to do this is to make it clear to your partner(s) that you are no longer comfortable with the activity you agreed to in the past and want to stop. This is completely normal and can be caused by a variety of reasons, including not being able to enjoy yourself, sudden triggers from past trauma, or simply wanting to stop for no reason at all — you don’t have to have a reason to stop, because you don’t have to justify it to anyone why you want to stop a particular activity. Consent doesn’t obligate you to continue an activity you don’t like, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for changing your mind.

Withdrawing consent may be difficult or difficult for some people to do verbally, so you can use non-verbal cues to communicate your decision to your partner. The best way to make sure that everyone involved in a sexual activity is comfortable, aside from talking about it before you start, is to periodically check in and confirm that you haven’t changed your mind about the activity. Also, make sure there is consent from the partner(s) when switching from one sexual activity to another.

What Is Enthusiastic Consent?

Enthusiastic consent is a model of consent that focuses on positive expressions of consent. To put it simply, enthusiastic consent focuses on the presence of the word “yes” and not on the absence of “no”.

Enthusiastic approval can be expressed not only verbally, but also through non-verbal cues such as positive body language, smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding.

Enthusiastic consent might look like this:

Giving and receiving consent clearly and clearly before engaging in sexual activities that you and your partner(s) really want to have a particular sexual activity or are open to trying it until something changes;

  • Asking for permission to change the type or intensity of each sexual activity using phrases such as “Is that okay?”, “Should I stop?” etc.
  • Before initiating any type of physical contact, obtaining confirmation that this contact is motivated by mutual interest;
  • Remind your partner(s) that you can stop at any time;
  • Periodically checking whether a particular activity continues to be pleasurable for the partner(s);
  • Recording feedback during a particular sexual activity, including positive feedback when it is pleasant or unpleasant for you.

What Are the Gaps in Legislation and Practice?

As mentioned above, according to international recommendations, consent to engage in sexual activity during childhood cannot be considered as consent. The Criminal Code of Georgia considers 16 as the age of consent. Regarding the age under 16, Partnership for Human Rights (PHR) lawyer, Ana Tavkhelidze, explains that the law is strict, however, sexual intercourse with an adolescent under the age of 16 only qualifies as rape if it is violent, and if the adolescent under the age of 16 gives consent, in this case the crime is sexual. A relationship or any other act of a sexual nature is considered (Article 140).

Photo: Ana Tavkhelidze/Facebook

“Consent of a child under the age of 16 is not considered consent to sexual relations, therefore it should automatically be included in the definition of rape,” Tavkhelidze says.

In particular, according to Article 140, intercourse or other acts of a sexual nature with a minor under the age of 16 is punishable by imprisonment for a term of 7 to 9 years, and according to Article 139, forcing intercourse or other acts of a sexual nature against a minor is punishable by imprisonment for a period of 5 to 7 years.

Tavkhelidze draws attention to the next problem and states that, according to our legislation, the act of sexual content against a child between the ages of 16 and 18 is not punishable by criminal law and it is considered by administrative or civil law, which is not in agreement with the international standard, according to which 16- From and up to 18 years of age, an act of sexual content against a child against his will is punishable by criminal law.

“If someone touches the body of a 17-year-old child on a bus, it is not punishable under the criminal law, and is dealt with administratively or civilly with sexual harassment, which is also a problem and a shortcoming. In this section, the age limit should be raised, and the act of sexual content towards a child under 18 years of age should become a crime punishable by criminal law,” says Tavkhelidze.

Another issue that human rights defenders point to is Article 137 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, according to which rape is sexual penetration of a person’s body in any form, using any part of the body or any object, committed by violence, threat of violence or using the helplessness of the victim.

“Under our law, the article dealing with rape is not based on the absence of consent. This is not consistent with human rights law. However, if a woman says she was robbed, the police believe her and start an investigation, but when a woman says she was raped, the police doesn’t believe her and either don’t start an investigation at all and ask the victim humiliating questions, or they start an investigation, but the case doesn’t even go to court”, says Baia Pataraia.

As Ana Tavkhelidze explains, according to the international standard, any case when there is no consent is considered rape. Taking this into account, in addition to changing the current definition of rape and writing “without consent”, it is necessary to consider such cases as rape, such as forcing a person to have sexual intercourse with a third person.

If person x forces person y to have sexual relations with person z, this is not considered rape by our legislation, although it is required by the international standard. We have written in the legislation: violence, threats of violence, the use of a helpless state, which contradicts both the Convention on the Protection of Fundamental Freedoms of Human Rights and the practice of the European Court of Human Rights, the Istanbul Convention, etc. “All international instruments oblige the state to change this definition,” says Tavkhelidze.

The Women’s Movement has been demanding a change in the law for a long time. According to them, consent is crucial, and lack of consent is rape. In 2020, the members of the movement addressed the Parliament with an open letter, in which they demanded the inclusion of the component of consent on the part of the victim in the rape article, and the previous, November 25, 2022, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, local organizations held a protest march and once again demanded to change the legislation.

Baia Pataraia states that the primary role of the state is to change the laws and articles that deal with rape based on human rights law, to base it on consent and not just the use of force, coercion or taking advantage of helplessness.

“The state should retrain all the relevant structures: the police, the prosecutor’s office, judges, psychologists — all who will be involved in the investigation of rape cases. It will be very good if specialization is introduced for judges as well. “At the same time, sexual education and public awareness are needed, which, for example, is the work of the Ministry of Education ,” says Baia.

She considers the normalization of non-consent to be a problem of people’s mentality and perception and states that it is not only a problem of this country and legislation. According to Baia, the problem is patriarchal thinking.

“According to the patriarchal way of thinking, the power and the truth always belong to the man, and the woman is in a disadvantageous position, where she is not believed and everything is blamed on the woman. This is a very deep problem, which comes from gender inequality and the power imbalance between the sexes,” says Pataraia.

"Consent, in general, is an important topic and goes beyond sexual life and crime. The concept of informed and free consent is also important in medicine and in the signing of contracts, so everyone should really understand this issue", - Baia Pataraia

“Implementation of Justice for Crimes of Sexual Violence Against Women in Georgia” is the name of the report of the Public Defender and the Council of Europe, which evaluates criminal legal procedures for crimes of sexual violence in terms of the Istanbul Convention and human rights standards. The document analyzes 24 criminal cases conducted in the period from 2017 to 2019, as well as 17 resolutions on the termination of the investigation and information received from the focus group.

According to the main findings of the study, the rate of referral to cases of sexual violence in Georgia is still low, and justice is served only in a small number of cases. During the 2-year research period (from June 2017 to May 2019), 361 reports of sexual violence were submitted to the police, of which 251 cases were investigated and only 26 verdicts were reached. Of these, 20 people were found guilty of sexual violence, and 6 were acquitted of sexual violence. In no case has the justice system recognized sexual violence as a form of discrimination against women.

However, the document states that the standard of proof in sexual assault cases is restrictive and rigid in practice, and the perpetrator is not held accountable unless the victim’s testimony is corroborated by evidence from various sources. The study notes that such standards contradict the requirements of human rights instruments and lead to impunity for criminals.

The next important finding is related to the lack of female forensic experts. The document mentions that this factor often prevents the examination of the victim. In most cases, the absence of an expert report means that the investigation will not continue and the perpetrator will not be held accountable. In addition, during criminal proceedings, victims are often asked humiliating questions, which undermine their dignity, question their credibility, and may lead to their secondary victimization.

What Happens Without Your Consent Is Never Your Fault

When talking about verbal and other signs of consent, it is important to note that you may not want to engage in a particular sexual activity, but your body may have physiological responses such as erection, lubrication, arousal, or orgasm. Having similar physiological reactions does not mean that the activity that occurred was based on your desire. It just means that your body may be reacting even when you haven’t given your consent.

Referencing physiological reactions by abusers and using them as proof of voluntary activity is one common practice. By using phrases such as “you know you liked what happened”, “you were not against it because you got wet/had an orgasm” (or any other physiological response the body has during sexual activity) they silence abused women and force them not to speak out about their experiences.

Remember that your body’s physiological response does not mean you agreed with what happened. If you’ve been raped, sexually assaulted, or harassed, it’s not your fault in the first place, and the physiological response your body had does not detract in the least from your experience and the gravity of the crime that was committed against you.

According to Martin Lalumiere, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, genital reactions during an attack are reflex reactions. This is the body’s way of minimizing damage.

Our respondent, Thea, is one of those women who blamed herself for the incident, despite theoretically understanding why it could not be her fault and that stopping at any time is possible and it is normal.

“I didn’t go to psychotherapy and I didn’t consult with anyone, because I didn’t tell my friends and family members what happened to me, and probably I’m not going to tell my family members either. I have a lot of good friends and I really don’t expect them to criticize me, but I’m not ready to talk about it openly yet,” says Thea.

"This is a different matter, because I might be expecting someone to have tell me: you were communicating with him normally that evening, and if you followed him home, you should have known what would come of it. It certainly is true, but us, women, should be able to say no when we don't want something to continue anymore", — Thea

How to Deal With What Happened?

Speaking of consent, Baia Pataraia points to the importance of raising awareness. According to her, public awareness is one of the key elements in solving this problem.

“The awareness of young people is the most important, so we use all possible ways to communicate with them. It is necessary for the Ministry of Education to be actively involved in such campaigns and for sex education to exist in the country. We try to tailor our campaigns not only to girls, but also to boys and men, because they also need to understand the importance of consent. We have developed two booklets for parents so that they can educate their children on body safety and other important and sensitive topics.

We always help abused women, we provide them with legal assistance, which involves full legal proceedings, including international tribunals. Also, we have a social worker. We also intervene in property disputes when a woman is a victim of gender-based violence. As for prevention, we train professionals, conduct campaigns, work closely with the media to promote public discussions,” Baia shares.

Salome also talks about the need for a support system and notes that in her experience, it is most important for friends to empower abused women, and for society to believe women when they share their experiences. She remembers that her friend also went through sexual violence and she too had to answer unnecessary questions and prove the truth. According to Salome, the abused women should not have to prove that it really happened, but the perpetrators should have to prove that the women are accusing them unjustly.

"We have to believe the women victims unconditionally. In my opinion, no woman would lie about something like this just because she has a story to tell," — Salome

“And for those women who have similar experiences, I would first of all recommend therapy, if they can receive this service and have the means to do so. Also, talk to your friends.

I’ve tried to talk to my friends about it personally, but I haven’t seen much support in this regard, and probably again because she was my girlfriend, it ruled out violence or any type of non-consensual relationship for them. In addition, I received questions from friends that I did not expect. For example, what exactly happened? How did all this happen?

What helped me was talking to my partner. It’s common for queer women to ignore what happened, just because it didn’t happen in a hetero relationship. It was the same in my case – if a guy had done something similar, I’m sure I would have had a completely different reaction,” says Salome.

As for Thea, at this stage Thea is engaged in various physical activities in order to “regain” her “lost” body. She compares this experience to dissociation and says that sometimes she feels like her body is not hers and she doesn’t know who Thea is. For minutes she stares at her fingertips, her face in the mirror and cannot recognize who is looking at her from there. Such episodes are intermittent and last only a few minutes, but they make Thea lose her sense of security and autonomy over her body. “I had dissociation even before this incident, but I can’t say that so often. After what happened, sometimes I may even forget who I am, how old I am, I cannot physically recognize myself. “I read a lot and tried some techniques to get rid of these episodes,” says Thea.

"Exercising, dancing seems to help me get back to where I once felt in harmony, but it's a long process and I hope someday I'll be where I want to be," — Thea