Models of Consent, Part 2 – No Means No Redux

This is the second in a series of posts critically examining some of the ways consent has been framed in feminist and other circles. For more info, Go to Part 1.

Despite the clear issues with the no means no message, the slogan continues to be employed in anti-rape campaigns. It is a catchy slogan, and it’s message, while incomplete to a degree that is potentially dangerous (as we’ve seen), is an important one. It is clear, however, that even those employing the slogan are aware of it’s limitations, and as a result we see a lot of campaigns expanding on the message to make it clear that the absence of a “no” is not, in itself, an indication of consent.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

Image from the No Means No campaign by the Canadian Federation of Students. Text reads: “No means NO. Not now means No. I have a boy/girlfriend means NO. Maybe means NO. Maybe later means NO. No thanks means NO. You’re not my type means NO. [String of symbols representing an expletive] off means NO. I’d rather be alone right now means NO. Don’t touch me means NO. I really like you but… means NO. Let’s just go to sleep means NO. I’m not sure means NO. You’ve/I’ve been drinking means NO. Silence means NO. [blank] means NO.

Source: Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault. Texts reads: “No means NO! I’m not sure, means NO. Not right now means NO. I’m tired right now means NO. Silence means NO. Stop means NO. Staying still means NO. Anything but consent means NO.

There’s a number of really important things going on here, that address many of the criticisms I made of no means no as a stand-alone message.

The Canadian Federation of Students’ messaging in particular directly addresses the phenomenon in which people (especially women, or members of any marginalized group) are uncomfortable giving direct rejections. “No” can be hard to say, and we often try to say it without using the word no. Instead, we make excuses (I have a partner/I need to do this other thing right now, sorry!) that kick the rejection can down the road, and that are sometimes interpreted (by assholes, mostly) to be encouragements. These kinds of excuses unfortunately make people who aren’t actually concerned about what you want feel like they can negotiate with you about your sexual desires (pro tip: this is not a thing that works). The messaging in the images above combats the idea that it is ok to keep pushing after receiving ANY form of rejection – it’s not. Appreciate that the person who propositioned is being kind, but recognize the rejection for what it is and don’t be an ass about it.

Cool. I’m glad we cleared that up.

The second poster also deals with the more insidious form of deliberate ignorance and advantage-taking in the absence of a no. “Staying still means NO” is possibly the single most important concept here. The message is that just because someone doesn’t explicitly object to what you’re doing to them does not mean that they have consented. This is actually a very powerful and meaningful message, and is the one that most often trips people up when talking about consent in sexual situations. It just about erases the possibility that you can get away with whatever you want as long as you don’t ask permission first (i.e. as long as you don’t give your victim a chance to object, or put them in a situation where they will be too confused or scared to do anything that could be construed as an explicit objection).

Just about. But not quite.

In Part 3, I discuss the messages behind “yes means yes” campaigns, the ways in which it differs from “no means no” messaging, and fills some of the remaining gaps left even by expanded non means no campaigns like those discussed here. And I’ll also be exploring some of the flaws of “yes means yes” messaging.


  1. One thing I’ve noticed (that is slightly off-topic, but slightly relevant, bear with me) is that the flaws with No Means No extend beyond sexual situations. People have all kinds of trouble hearing a “soft no” when it’s not really what they want to hear.

    For instance: My folks are pressuring my non-religious sister to baptize her young son. They also pressure said sister and her husband to go to church with them every week. Given the power differential, the fact that my folks are (for the most part) good and loving people, and the lifetime of conditioning we girls experienced, it’s no wonder she always goes with a soft no – “Oh, not this week, thanks.” “We’re still deciding about the baptism.” “We’re not sure we’re ready yet.” Those three statements, of course, should translate to “No, no, no and stop asking,” but instead seem to translate, in my parents’ heads, to “Try harder and get pushier.”

    “I’m so surprised they didn’t raise you to believe that ‘No’ is a complete sentence,” said no one ever.

    And, to bring it back on-topic… that kind of behavior from them, that ignoring of the soft No when it’s something they really want (dare I say, think they’re entitled to?) grooms us to accept that kind of behavior from other people. It teaches us that our boundaries won’t be respected anyway, so why bother? In essence, it teaches us to accept that we will be victimized, that our personhood and desires don’t matter, and that if someone asks enough times we should just give them what they want because they won’t stop asking.


    1. Oh man, no, this whole thing is so totally on topic, you have no idea! I actually plan on getting more into the broader context of consent in everyday life things, and how it compares to/fits into the discussion of sexual consent. It’s… yeah. Power dynamics and the bind between giving a strong no (and being perceived as uppity or too big for your britches – after all, people are just trying to be nice or to help you!) and a soft one (which can leave you open being steamrolled) suck in every part of life, for sure.

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