Models of Consent, Part 3 – Yes means yes!

This is part three in a series of posts on consent. Click through to read Part 1 and Part 2

Everyone should read this book!

In Part 2 (no means no redux), we discussed campaigns that expand on the no means no message to include other things that mean no. Ultimately, though, this kind of campaign can fall a little flat, since they succeed only in reducing the circumstances under which implied consent can be assumed. But the thing is, it’s never ok to assume that someone else will consent to a thing you want to do to them.

One of the images I included in part 2 actually does just manage to squeak in with message, when it says “anything but consent means no”. The problem here is that there is still no good definition of consent given. Ok, so we’ve seen soft nos, silence, or stillness don’t constitute consent; but what does?

This is where “Yes means yes” messaging becomes relevant. How do you know someone consents to have sex with you? When they say yes, of course! What I love about this message is that, while it’s exactly as concise as “no means no,” it carries the implicit requirement that you ask permission before you do something to someone. Because of the loophole I had talked about in earlier posts where, when “no means no” is the generally accepted model of consent, abusers can get away with a lot more by avoiding giving their victims the explicit opportunity to refuse consent – since it’s a common experience to freeze up when one’s boundaries are crossed without warning, by not asking permission, rapists reduce the probability that their target will clearly say “no,” and give themselves plausible deniability.

This loophole doesn’t exist in the yes means yes paradigm, wherein the actual intended meaning is usually “only yes means yes,” and in fact, more often than not “only an enthusiastic yes means yes”. (Maybe it should be “YES! means yes”?)

Yes means yes rhetoric has a lot going for it. It’s a paradigm wherein asking for permission is a necessary step in getting permission. And it removes rapists’ plausible deniability. By itself, though, it doesn’t really cover everything – I’ve written before about what can happen when people don’t take “no” for an answer, and bully their target into saying yes. Of course, this kind of behaviour doesn’t qualify as gaining enthusiastic consent, but I would argue that real problem is not in accepting and unenthusiastic no, it’s in the tactics used to get it. This is why “yes means yes” can’t stand alone, and requires a “no means no” counterpart, so that is clear both that 1) you have to ask before doing; and 2) if the person says no, you accept that no at face value.

In some ways, the combined rhetorical messages of yes means yes and no means no create a pretty airtight defense against rape (if and only if people actually abide by the rules of course), and this makes it a really solid model from which to talk about consent.

And yet. I don’t think it’s perfect. In the next instalment, I will explore some of the more nuanced aspects of “Yes means yes” (or, rather, “yes means yes and no means no”).

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