This is the first in what will be a series of posts critically examining some of the ways consent has been framed in feminist and other circles.
“No means no”
I think it’s fair to say that the “no means no” model of consent has the most mainstream traction in North America today. And it seems simple enough – when someone objects to you doing something to them, you don’t do that thing to them, right? As a rule, it works in every possible life context, not just sexual ones.
Of course, you still get people saying things like “sometimes a no is just a yes that needs more convincing” (this is actually a sadly common answer to the OKCupid multiple-choice match question asking people whether they believe that no means no). I would like to just completely write these people off ass assholes, except for two things. First, it’s too prevalent a belief to completely write off. And second, as much I would like it to be untrue, there’s still an mount of stigma attached to being a woman who gives in “too easily” to sexual advances.
To some extent, as fucked up as it is, (some) men expect to have to “work” for the privilege of having sex with a woman. Because women don’t ever have sex ’cause they like sex, they just do it to keep around a fellow who buys them nice things and takes care of them, am I right? And for reasons I will never understand, apparently in some straight men’s minds, a woman who uses sex as a gambit is actually preferable to a woman who really wants to have sex with them, and enjoys it.
Um… because they can’t be trusted not to have sex with other men, I guess? Yeah, that’s just a gross attitude, but it does seem like some people still carry it around.
But yeah, it is because our culture has set up the mainstream narrative of sexual politics this way that “no means no” meets so much resistance despite it’s obvious correctness.
That said, though, there are also some legitimate criticisms to be made of the “no means no” model. After all, it does set the onus on the person who doesn’t want sex to clearly express themselves on that point. And it’s been well documented that women, particularly, have been socialized against clearly rejecting romantic/sexual advances, lest they anger their “admirer” and “provoke” them to violence. Thus, many women simply aren’t comfortable expressing a clear “no”. And while it’s clear that women’s sometimes round-about ways of rejecting men are not actually as confusing as they are sometimes made out to be (and ‘softened’ forms of “no” are understood in many non-sexual contexts), the way in which rejections often omit the word “no” is a huge problem if your model of consent is “no means no”.
To put it simply: “no means no” implies that all you need to ensure consent is a lack of a no. And that makes this model easy to abuse. It means that everyone is walking around all the time in a default state of implied consent to sexual activity. And thus, if you never explicitly ask permission, you can get away with an awful lot.
And I want to perfectly clear here; the fault is not with people who have been socialized not to say “no”, it’s with people who refuse to accept rejection, and with the cultural narrative that makes it ok to keep going since she didn’t say no, after all. And the “no means no” doesn’t tell us what “maybe” means, so what’s a poor guy to do?
It’s all about plausible deniability, and unfortunately, the “no means no” model leaves a lot of room for selfish assholes to pretend they didn’t know what was going on.