no means no

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.


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