consent

“Consent is sexy” is an insidious message

Look, I get the point of saying “consent is sexy”. I get that it became a thing in direct response to naysayers of the importance of consent who insist that asking before touching someone (especially sexually) is somehow inherently unsexy or a turn-off. I also get that we are living in a culture that seriously does sexualize and eroticize female non-consent and just violence against women generally, and that it is important to try to fight back against those forces as they continue to form so many people’s sexualities, sometimes in very dangerous ways.

“Consent is sexy” is and always has been at *best* a band-aid solution to some specific aspects of rape culture. And it has always been clear to me that we shouldn’t need to sell consent in this way, or call it anything other than right, or the only non-evil way to interact with other people. The fact that anyone thinks that the message is necessary tells us how much work still needs to be done, if nothing else.

But. It needs to stop now. We need to stop actively promoting the idea that consent is sexy. Because there are ways in which it is actively harmful and helps rapists.

I don’t think it’ll be surprising or revelatory to anyone if I point out that many people (read: most women) feel an awful lot of pressure to be “sexy” in accordance with what their culture tells them is sexy, regardless of whether they enjoy those things, or particularly want to have sex. Heck, women are told they need to be conventionally attractive in order to be perceived as professional (or, y’know, even just worthy of being treated with the most basic respect), as if those things have anything to do with one another.

Women are taught to model the behaviours that the culture they grow up in declares to be sexy. Naturally, as the idea that consent (and especially enthusiastic consent) is sexy gains more traction, this means that women are feeling and will feel more pressure to model the appearance of said enthusiastic consent regardless of their actual desires.

By framing consent as “sexy”, we are making it harder for people, and women especially, to feel like they have the freedom to decide whether to consent or not. Not because it’s bad to find consent sexy – I do still agree that finding consent sexy should be and will be a sign of the death of rape culture if that ever comes – but because we are still living in a misogynist world, and because we are still living in a rape culture, and this particular attempt at combating that culture is far too easily turned against itself.

Consent is necessary and important, regardless of whether it is sexy. It is mandatory even if it is inconvenient, even if it is a turn-off. And deciding not to consent to anything, at any time, is not unsexy, either.

Back to basics: questions from the search terms, vol. 2

This edition of “questions from the search terms” covers some 101-ish topics!

“why is victim blaming wrong”?

Ok, I totally remember a time when I didn’t really understand the problems with victim-blaming. Some of the underlying theory is not inherently obvious, and it is often talked about as if it is, so I’m going to try to make it all explicit here.

The main reason that victim-blaming is wrong is that it involves placing responsibility on Person A for the fact that Person B decided, of their own accord, and for their own purposes, to do something bad to Person A. This actually means removing some of the blame from the person who did the bad thing, and suggesting they are not fully responsible for their actions, which is problematic. Very often victim-blaming takes the form of suggesting that Person A wanted whatever terrible thing to happen, that they “asked for it” and brought in on themself, and that’s just not how things work.

But, the counter-argument goes, people need to take precautions to protect themselves from bad people. We encourage people to have strong internet passwords and to never share them, and that’s generally considered ok. People keep their houses and cars locked so they won’t be robbed, and these kinds of recommendations don’t get the same reactions from feminists as suggestions that women should dress more modestly, or that they should never go anywhere alone ever.

There’s… a lot going on here. I can’t unpack it all, but there are specific reasons why victim-blaming in cases of abuse or sexual assault can be particularly damaging, and counter-productive. There are multiple reasons for this, including these:

  • A lot of the advice on “how to avoid rape” is just plain wrong, in some sense. It mostly only applies to cases of stranger rape, which is a pretty small subset of actual rapes. Most abuse, both sexual and otherwise, is perpetrated by people close to and trusted by the victims.
  • Victim-blaming in cases of abuse/sexual assault teaches abusers and rapists what circumstances will allow them to get away with their abuse (because it lets them know what circumstances will cause others to blame their victims instead of them).
  • Reinforcing the idea that an abuse or sexual assault survivor is responsible for the abuse they experienced only adds to the self-blame that they are almost inevitably already inflicting on themselves. We already know all of your bad advice; we already know all of the reasons why it was our fault, and trust me, we’ve been even more creative about it and found reasons you probably never even thought of. We don’t need your “help” here.

There is so much more to say about this, but I will leave it here for now.

“why is it bad to say ‘not all men'”?

A couple of things, here.

Firstly, a lot of the time, people feel the need to jump to the defense of men as a group, and declare that “not all men” do whatever thing, in conversations that are explicitly about the behaviours of some men. And usually, the people in these conversations know that not all men are terrible, that not all men are rapists, that not all men do whatever thing is being complained about. And the conversation isn’t about all men. It’s about the things that some men do, it’s about how hard it is to be affected by those things, it’s very often about the real lived experiences and hardships of women (yes, all women) and/or people who aren’t men and/or people who aren’t cis men. And by stepping in and making it about whether “all men” do the thing misses the point of the conversation entirely. Don’t do that.

Secondly, it is very important to note that to some extent, regardless of whether all men do x thing, all men need to be a part of these conversations. All men benefit from male privilege in various ways. And this is not a fault, or a flaw, or something to be guilty about. But it is something to be aware of, and it is something you have a certain amount of responsibility to use for the good of those who do not have that privilege. So yes, all men.

“can i omit parts of consent”?

I… um, I don’t know exactly what this question is supposed to mean, but it is very concerning. I’m going to try to address a couple of different interpretations here.

I suspect that the “parts of consent” here refers to something like the “enthusiasm” required by the standard of “enthusiastic consent”. Enthusiasm is a great ideal in many situations, but requiring enthusiastic consent in order for a sexual interaction to be considered truly consensual ignores the actual lived experiences of many people, particularly asexual people and sex workers, both groups for whom sexual interactions may very well be genuinely consented to, without there necessarily being any enthusiasm about the interaction itself. So, yes, there are some situations in which true enthusiasm is not strictly necessary, though it’s a vital touchstone to aim for, in developing any sort of ongoing sexual relationship.

Really, I think the concept people are aiming for in pushing enthusiastic consent, is “non-coerced” consent. This may not always be easy to identify, because often the coercion that causes people to “consent” to sex they don’t want is cultural rather than something that comes directly from their partner. Asexual people are pressured into giving sex a try, or are repeatedly told that if they want to be loved, they’re going to have to have sex. And women generally receive similar sorts of messages about obligations to have sex. Being aware of these things, and explicitly reassuring your partner that they are under no obligation to do anything they don’t want to do, will make it easier of you to make sure your partner is comfortable, and to actually figure out what they want. It is better for everyone, in the long run.

I am struggling to fully nail down all that I want to say here, really, but this post from the Asexual Agenda has a great, nuanced exploration of some alternate models of consent. It is very worth reading.

Alternatively, though, the “parts of consent” in question here might be indirectly referring to the idea that consent needs to be acquired for some things, but not others. All I will say is this: the standard of non-coercion should apply to all interactions you have with all people at all times (yes, sometimes coercive force is necessary in self-defense, or defense of others, but these sorts of situations are definitely not what we’re talking about here).

“Hidden” sexual violence in the media: or, this is one of the reasons it is so hard to get people to see rape as rape

[This piece was originally written for a online course I am taking at Coursera, “Understanding Violence” (hence the noted difference in tone to my normal writing here). It relates back to a post a wrote a long time ago about scenes that turn up in movies and tv that are clearly intended to be innocent or seductive, but that actually portray coercion, assault, and/or rape. Trigger warning for descriptions of fictional scenes of sexual violence.]

In the media today, sexual violence is often portrayed in ways that are not intended to be sexual violence. That is to say that quite frequently, I see scenes in movies and television that are intended to be non-violent sexual content, but that in reality portray sexual violence that goes unrecognized by the writer and much of the audience. Moreover, the ways in which this happens differs significantly depending upon the gender of the person against whom the sexual violence is being perpetrated.

A very common trope in supposed seduction scenes in movies and television is the portrayal of men ignoring women’s displeasure with their advances, of continuing to behave sexually toward women despite their protests, until eventually the women suddenly change their minds and decide they want to have sex after all.

One of the most blatant examples of this trope is in the movie Blade Runner. The ‘seduction’ of Rachael (Sean Young) by the protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) plays out as follows: Deckard kisses Rachael. She responds with discomfort and tried to leave. He physically forces her against a wall, and commands her to kiss him. She complies. He commands her to tell him to kiss her (i.e. he coerces her into giving false verbal consent, or to falsely express desire). She does so. They continue to kiss, and now Rachael appears to begin to enjoy herself.

In this case, it is unclear whether the scene was intended to portray dubious consent. It should be noted that Rachael is an android, and that she was in fact designed to serve humans wants and needs, a detail which complicates the story and raises questions about the meaning of consent, and some people have argued that this scene is made to be deliberately ambiguous on this point. What is clear, however, is that regardless of the director’s intent, many people who watch the movie do not see this scene as coercion.

There is a long-standing debate on Wikpedia, for instance, on whether this scene is more accurately described as rape or seduction. The “Rape/Seduces” section of the “Talk” page about the movie opens by very clearly stating “[Rachael] does consent” (“Talk: Blade Runner” 2013). Although these is rich discussion about the issue, the actual Blade Runner entry shows that the consensus on the issue is that this scene portrays Deckard “forc[ing] her to acknowledge and trust her feelings” (i.e. that he forces her to admit that despite her protests she secretly does want him.) This is an extremely dangerous way of discussing the use of coercive force in sexual encounters, to say the least.

A more contemporary example of this form of coercive ‘seduction’ appears in Tyler Perry’s Temptation. This movie includes a scene in which Harley (Robbie Jones) expresses a desire to have sex with Judith (Jurnee Smollet). She does not reciprocate. He physically grabs her, and she resists, repeatedly telling him “No.” He appears to become even more turned on, and pauses only for a moment to reassure her (“Okay, now you can say you resisted”) before continuing the physical assault.

At no point in this scene does Judith give any appearance of consenting to this activity. What is shown is very clearly a sexual assault. But later in movie, this scene retroactively cleaned up in a flashback sequence that confirms that at some point Judith changed her mind and stopped resisting, and the couple made love.

Generally speaking this scenes are considered to be unproblematic and entirely acceptable, because ultimately the women succumb and consent to the men’s advances. However, regardless of the fact that the women change their minds, during the period of time that the men continue to pressure the women, and continue to try to kiss or undress them against their clearly stated wishes, up until the point where the women begin to consent they are committing sexual violence.

There is a serious misunderstanding in these scenes about what constitutes consent, and at what point you need to have consent in order to not be committing sexual assault. Of course, in reality, you need consent for every part of the interaction, from the first kiss or touch, onwards. And if at any point that consent is not present, than sexual violence is occurring,
I do think it’s important to note that in these fictional scenes, the women in question are not harmed, and end up having (presumably) fond memories of the encounters. What is concerning about these portrayals, more than anything else, is the message they send to men that if you keep pushing back against women’s resistance to your advantage, they will eventually change their. When men in real life attempt this tactic, they can and do frequently wind up committing sexual assault or even rape, depending on how committed they are to continuing to try to “seduce” a woman who does not want to be seduced.

To make matters more disturbing, it is important to note that part of the mechanism that creates such a preponderance of scenes of questionable consent in the mainstream is the ratings board. There are numerous reported cases in which filmmakers have been required to remove evidence of female sexual desire and pleasure in order to avoid an R rating.

A recent example of this is the movie Sucker Punch. The movie originally contained a brief, fairly tame sex scene. Emily Browning’s description of what happened to the scene speaks volumes. According to her report, in order to get a PG-13 rating, Zack Snyder reportedly had to edit the scene in a way that ultimately eliminated any sign of agency or desire on the part of the female character. Rather than replace a consensual sex scene with one that played as an assault, Snyder decided to cut the scene entirely.

What is extremely important to note here is that while the ratings board was ready to slap an R rating on a consensual sex scene, they were willing to drop that rating to a PG-13 is the consensual sex was changed into a coercive ‘seduction’.

In the same vein, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce has spoken at length about the problems she had with even acquiring an R rating for her movie (it was originally granted an NC-17). To be sure, Boys Don’t Cry deals with a great deal of sensitive and disturbing subject matter – based on a true story, it follows a short period in the life of Brendon Teena, a trans man trying to escape his past a forge a life in his male identity. He briefly finds love, before his girlfriend’s family discovers that he is trans. This revelation culminates in his being gang raped, (when he reports the rape to the police, he is subjected to further humiliation), and eventually murdered.

But none of this is what bothered the ratings board. As Pierce reports it (you can hear her telling of the story in This Film is Not Yet Rated), in order to get the rating dropped to an R, she was required to repeatedly trim down and re-edit the consensual sex scene in the film. This scene is not explicit, and shows no nudity. It was simply a long shot of Brendan’s girlfriend’s face showing clear sexual pleasure. And this was repeatedly deemed unacceptable.

The brutal rape scene however, garnered no comment, and required no editing.

In part because of the lesser cultural hang-ups around portrayals of male desire, the ways in which the media seemingly unconsciously portrays and normalizes sexual violence against men is very different than the treatment of women. Rather than displaying a poor understanding of consent, or a preference for coercion over portrayals of genuine female sexual pleasure, there is a disturbing tendency to completely disregard altogether the concept of male consent (or, rather, the possibility that a man might refuse to consent to anything.) Consider the following examples from popular television shows.

In the first episode of the show Californication, the protagonist Hank Moody (David Duchovny) has sex with a number of women (always with their clear consent). However, there is this extremely strange and disturbing thing that happens in one of the sex scenes. When he is in the middle of having sex with one of these women, very suddenly and without warning, she hauls off and punches him in the face. He is clearly shocked, though not upset. She punches him once more before simply leaving him, bewildered. For the remainder of the episode, he has a black eye from this encounter.

Now, as in the examples of sexual violence against women, Moody is not particularly upset by this incident, and his feelings about it seem to lean more toward bemusement than anything else. Regardless, it is very important to look objectively at what happened here – a woman physically assaulted him apparently for her own sexual gratification, without first acquiring his consent to do so.

A more extreme example of this occurs in the fifth episode of season five Doctor Who. In this episode Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) attempts to seduce the Doctor (Matt Smith) in much the same way that the men in above examples try to seduce women. She kisses him, and when he pushes her away, she continues to advance, kissing him more even as protests verbally, and struggles and to get away from her. She tries to remove his clothes, while he continues to try to stop her. At no point is it implied that there is anything wrong with her behaviour, and in fact it is played for laughs – as if the Doctor is somehow oblivious to her desire, despite the fact that it is clear that he knows exactly what is going on and does not want it.

The main difference between this scene and the male-driven seductions described above is that the Doctor does not change his mind, and eventually simply escapes. It is clear the Amy had no intention of stopping and things would have only gotten worse if he had not gotten away. And yet somehow, this scene is still generally considered a light-hearted one.

Once again, here, the male character’s lack of consent for the sexual activities the woman forces upon him is apparently irrelevant. The clear message is that male non-consent does not matter, is not important, and somehow doesn’t count.

The people who write these scenes that unintentionally portray sexual violence, when they seem to intend only to depict sexual seduction, display a clear lack of understanding of consent, and of sexual violence itself. And this lack of understanding is reflected in the ways in which audiences tend to receive these scenes (largely they read in the way the writers intended them to, as seduction). Ultimately, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, wherein these kinds of images and behaviours are normalized and not recognized as sexual violence by audiences (which include future screenwriters, who will re-enact these problematic models of seduction for the next generation).

In many ways these kinds of unintentional, and largely unrecognized, forms of violence in the media are more dangerous than the overt depictions, which are more often accompanied with some sense of immorality. Thus, the way in which some kinds of sexual violence are portrayed as acceptable and even normal is one of the most disturbing trends in media today.

Pregnant people are people, too

I am pro-choice. 100%. Under all circumstances, and for any reason, I believe that the decision of whether or not to continue hosting a fetus inside of their body lies with the person who’s body is being inhabited by the fetus. And mostly, I leave it at that. But I also think it can be useful to explore the actual ethical quandaries that can be wrestled with in coming to this conclusion. Because I do think that a lot of people struggle with this issue, and that’s legitimate, but I also feel like there’s not always a good space to talk about it in a debate where one side tends to shut down any discussion of morality and the definition of life, and the other simply calls abortion murder, no discussion.

But I think that both of those positions are reductionist. it’s completely unreasonable to say that fetuses aren’t living things; quite simply, they are. And I also think that late-term fetus may even count as people (at least, they’re as much people as newborn babies are). And I wanted to actually put in words the reasons why I can hold these views and also still be 100% pro-choice in every instance.

Because I actually don’t fully buy the “well it’s a personal moral choice” argument, and the “right to privacy” grounds on which abortion is legal in the US have never made even the slightest bit of sense to me. If, in fact, abortion were tantamount to murder, these arguments would imply that murder shouldn’t be illegal on the grounds of privacy and personal moral choices, which is ridiculous.

The thing is, I don’t think that the question of whether a fetus is a person (or when a fetus becomes a person) has any real bearing on whether abortion should be legal or not. It’s not news that every fetal “personhood” argument ever made has completely erased the personhood of the person that the fetus is living inside the body of.

Because, for me, this is the crux of the whole thing. I don’t care if the fetus is a person or not, because no person should ever have the right to live inside of another person against their will. In this model, the death that results from abortion is self-defense, (or possibly a mercy killing, since removing the fetus intact and simply letting it die would be comparably cruel) and not murder. This is not a difficult moral issue for me, but I’ll play along and try to anticipate some of the objections to this.

But the fetus can’t live outside the womb! It’s not deliberately invading your body! it just needs you to survive!

This is just completely irrelevant. Bodily violation is bodily violation regardless of intent, regardless of the whether the person (or fetus) violating someone’s body knows or understands that they are doing so. The person being violated is being violated regardless, and they have the right to stop the violation.

We are never legally required to sacrifice our bodies to save other people’s lives in any other circumstances. We aren’t even required to do so for our own children after they are born. I would be legally within my rights to deny a kidney, or even my blood, to my child, even immediately after birth. But for some reason people still insist that I should be required to carry the thing around for nine months inside my body. The inconsistency here is unfathomable. My right to bodily autonomy is not changed by the fact that I happen to be pregnant.

But you brought it on yourself! I mean, I can see a reason why abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, but you gave implicit consent for the fetus to take up residence in your body when you chose to have sex, (you slut)!

Um, no. That’s not how consent works – meaningful consent can be withdrawn at any time. Even if I have sex with the intent of creating a fetus in my body, if I later decide that I do not want said fetus in my body, I can kick it the fuck out.

That’s not even how natural consequences work. By the logic above, there’s a bunch of other conclusions you would have to come to that are patently ridiculous. We don’t, for instance, tell people that chlamydia is just a natural consequence of sex, and that to take antibiotics is to kill the chlamydia is wrong. (Again, even if for some reason I decided to have sex with the express purpose of getting chlamydia, I would be well within my rights to seek treatment for the consequent chlamydia.)

Or let’s look at other things relating to bodily autonomy. I’m registered on the list of bone marrow donors where I live, which means that if someone turns up requiring bone marrow that matches mine, I may be contacted to donate. Being on this list has positive consequences for me – it makes me feel good about myself. Maybe not as good as sex, but still, it’s a thing I chose to do of my own free will and for not much other reason than because it made me happy to do so.

And yet.

If I were called on to donate marrow to someone, I would not be obligated to follow through. Similarly, just because I enjoy having sex sometimes does not mean that I am morally obligated to carry a resulting fetus to term. There’s just no logic by which this could possibly follow. Just no.

This is the logic that is so often used to control women’s bodies and actions – you shouldn’t be out alone at night, or drunk, or dressing outside of certainly narrowly defined and contradictory “rules,” or rape is a direct consequence. You shouldn’t be pretty at work, or getting hit on by your boss is your fault. You shouldn’t be ugly at work, or getting fired is your fault. You shouldn’t try too hard to be conventionally attractive, or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t stray too far from conventional attractiveness or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t have sex with other women, or corrective rape is your punishment. You shouldn’t have no sex at all, or someone will have to rape you to teach you that sex is good. But you shouldn’t enjoy sex too much, or babies are your punishment.

And yes, I do fully analogize the bodily violation of rape with the bodily violation of being legally forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. That shit wreaks havoc on your body and on your mental health. Birth is not a simple thing, it’s painful and exhausting and ugly.

Fuck. That. Noise. Consenting to sex does not imply consent to anything other than having sex in that moment.

But isn’t it the nice thing to do to let the innocent fetus use your body? And the nice thing to do is the right thing to do, after all.

Um, yeah, I guess it might be the nice thing to do. It would also be the nice thing to do to donate half of my income to charity, but most people would understand that weighing the hardship that would befall me if I did such a thing outweighs the desire to be nice. Once again, choosing to carry a fetus to term is a very big commitment, with far-ranging impacts on quality of life, ability to work, mental health, and many other things. Sure it’s nice, but it’s grand gesture nice, and not common courtesy/moral obligation nice.

…So, have I missed any of the big arguments?

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”).

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.

Models of consent, Part 1 – No Means No

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.

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Part 2 looks at some of the ways in which “no means no” has been expanded and improved upon over the years.