In rape culture, “no” is not always honored as “no.” No was an important aspect of my experience of sexual violence, because I had initially given consent. I said yes. The problem came when I changed my mind, and my “yes” became a “no.” I was alert, angry, and unambiguously vocal in my “no.” Sometimes the situation isn’t as clear.
One lesson from #Steubenville? Yes, boys and men need to be taught how to prevent rape. But some also need to be taught what rape even is.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) March 17, 2013
In Steubenville, OH, two high school football stars were convicted of raping a teenage girl too drunk to give consent. She was too drunk to say yes or no. By taking advantage of her inability to respond, the perpetrators broke the law. This case and the discussion around it, has broadened the national discourse on sexual violence and rape culture. One idea getting more expansive coverage is the importance of “yes,” in sexual encounters rather than simply the absence or presence of “no.” Jessica Valenti asks,
If a woman doesn’t say “no” to sex—is that the same thing as saying “yes”?
She elaborates with more pointed questions:
Are all women really to be considered willing sexual participants unless otherwise stated? If we flirt with someone, or even kiss them, does that give them permission to do whatever else they want to our bodies until we strenuously object?
With this framing, it’s clear that women are not in a perpetual state of consent. Therefore, assuming “yes” in absence of “no” is inadequate. Coercion is a very real part of rape culture. Sometimes partners acquiesce:
One of the results of being a survivor living in rape culture is women consenting to sex we don’t want just to avoid it being taken from us. — Suzan Eraslan (@SuzanEraslan) March 17, 2013
But acquiescence is not the same as active consent:
— nicole denise (@ndcollier) March 15, 2013
— Luke Harms (@lukeharms) March 15, 2013
The only way to know that sex is consensual is if there’s a freely and clearly given “yes.” This may sound radical to the uninitiated, but don’t we all want to make sure we’re only having sex with people who are actually interested? Ensuring enthusiastic consent requires only the most basic respect we all owe our partners in the first place: paying attention to how they’re doing, and asking them if we can’t tell.
In other words, only yes means yes.