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Creating a consent culture beyond 'no means no'

  • 18 October 2017


There seems to be a lot of misinformation about what constitutes sexual violence. When we talk about sexual violence, the conversation inevitably turns into perpetuating rape culture myths, like how men will be the targets of witch hunts (never mind that statistically men are more likely to be the victims of sexual assault than falsely accused) or policing victims' clothing or lifestyle choices.

So how do we start to chip away at this confusion? One of the best ways is to go back to that old debating principle: define your terms. We don't live in a world of 'blurred lines', but we do live in a world that is undereducated in the way we talk about consent.

The phrase 'no means no' has been bandied about for so long that is has become almost cliché. For many years, it was a great tool for explaining the basics of consent. If someone says no to something, don't do it.

But 'no means no' is a tagline, not the start and end of the conversation. Because when you think about it, there are obvious gaps in a 'no means no' framework. It doesn't cover the myriad circumstances that can mitigate consent. Age and mental capacity are the obvious ones.

Then there are people who aren't in a position to say no, because they are unconscious, intoxicated or (to the point of the recent Weinstein scandal) threatened or coerced, especially by those in a position of power. That's not even going into trickier topics like how the majority of sexual offences occur within an intimate relationship or newer and disgusting methods of sexual assault like stealthing.

This is why in recent years the conversation in legal and activist circles has shifted from using 'no means no' to 'yes means yes', otherwise known as affirmative consent. Affirmative consent makes the conversation not about one person necessarily saying no, but to both parties actively communicating with each other. In this model consent can be as simple as saying the word yes or affirming your agreement through enthusiastic participation, while silence or lack of resistance is not consent. Framed this way, consent is the presence of a yes, rather than the absence of a no.

If affirmative consent seems like an overreaction to you, consider the words of Jaclyn Friedman, editor ofYes means Yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. In a piece for the Washington Post, she writes that affirmative consent makes