“No means no” isn’t enough. Image from perennialflight.tumblr.com.
I was recently teaching a group of would-be volunteer victim advocates about the dynamics of sexual assault and particularly the role played by consent (specifically: the lack thereof) when a really good question arose: How do we prevent “accidental” sexual assault?
This is a question I hear frequently, and the story usually goes something like this: Person A is sexually interested in Person B. Person B is not sexually interested in Person A and makes that fairly clear. Persons A and B have a couple of drinks and wind up having sex. A day or two later, Person B files charges with the police station and Person A winds up serving a sentence for rape. “Person A thought there was consent,” the story usually ends. “Person B seemed okay with it. How is that fair?”
It’s not, not when told from that angle. But there is a very real problem with Person A’s decision to proceed.
It’s all very well and good to say that someone “seems okay with it,” but what that actually becomes is a very nebulous, tricky-to-identify moment in which “seems” becomes “was most assuredly” in Person A’s mind. We constantly encounter times when someone “seems okay” with us — when we take their taxi, when we recline our airline seat into their lap, when we fail to comprehend cultural cues — only to learn, later on, that they weren’t at all okay with us. Cultural prescriptions, prior trauma, and personal preferences often prevent people from saying or doing what they really wish. “Seems okay” is really not a good basis upon which to judge consent.
The reality is that consent is active, freely given, and specific.
Consent is active.
It is the presence of “yes,” not the absence of “no.” It means that you reciprocate my actions, or initiate them. It means that you are as enthusiastic, involved, engaged, expectant, and encouraging as I am. It means that we tell each other things like “Yes, please,” “Do more,” “Just like that,” or “Keep going.” It means that we are mutually engaged in our actions. If I’m hesitant, if you’re withdrawn or silent, if I’m passed out, or if things are one-sided, it’s a very good sign that we need to stop immediately.
Consent is freely given.
I can’t consent to you if you threaten me, coerce me, or pressure me. You can’t consent to me if I have power over you, if you are drugged or drunk, or if I’m blackmailing you. If either of us needs to do one of these things to obtain a “yes,” then it’s not really a “yes” at all.
Consent is specific.
It must exist for each sex act that we decide to do. This doesn’t mean that we go down a lawyer’s list of possible sex acts and positions, haggling over which things we like or don’t like. It does mean that a party is not a promise. A snog session is not a promise. An agreement for oral is not an agreement for anal. And so on and so forth. The whole “active” aspect of consent ought to be there the whole time.
The Unfair Story of Person A illustrates a pivotal point about consent: We’ve been teaching it wrong for a long time. The message for American teens in the late 90s and early 2000s was, “No means no.” It’s a great way to emphasize respect for the boundaries of others, but it expects that a “no” will be present if someone is disinterested in sex. There are loads of legitimate reasons that people don’t say “no,” many having to do with freeze responses, perceived power dynamics, or fear of reprisal. Person A was doing right by the old adage but was missing the point wherein there should have been a “yes.” And instead of recognizing the problem in Person A’s thinking, many of the people I teach have started pitying Person A (and, by extension, vilifying Person B) for being the “Accidental Rapist.”
In order to change dialogues about sexual assault, we need to change fundamental conceptions about what it means to consent. We need to encourage our friends, children, and students to reconsider “no means no” as an approach to rape prevention. I’m a little fed up with the “poor little rapist” mentality that this has generated, and I haven’t yet observed a change in rates of sexual assault around the world. When we talk about safety, we need to talk about responsibility. Talk about the “yes.” Emphasize its dynamism and importance. Teach those around you that the absence of “no” is not an invitation to a pants-off party. And, when pursuing your romantic excursions at home and abroad, remember that your partner’s “yes” is just as important as your own.