Friday, September 20, 2013

Consent--No is Less Important than Yes

Photo courtesy of Doug Wheller
Over the past couple of weeks, there has been an internet brouhaha over rape culture and slut-shaming, inspired by Kim Hall's open letter to teenage girls. Many folks have sounded off with incredibly good stuff (like this post from a father to his son, this post showing another mother's reaction, and this post detailing the way another mother handles teenage sexuality). I've posted twice in response: once in direct response, and again regarding what rape culture doesn't look like.

And that brings me to consent. We hear all the time about how "no means no," and it's true, but the fact is, it's rare that anybody says "no." Maybe eventually they do, but things have already gone too far at that point, and the rapist probably already knew that person didn't want to have sex with them.

So let's stop this nonsense rhetoric about "no means no" and start talking about "yes means yes."

This is not a new concept. People who have really awesome sex, especially those who speak or write publicly about it, just can't shut up about enthusiastic consent. Why? Because it's totally clear and unambiguous, and leads to really awesome sex.

The "no means no" line implies that a lack of "no" is the same as consent. If a woman just lies back and takes it, she must be consenting. Never mind that she might be unconscious or afraid to make things stop. Never mind that she might have been threatened, coerced, or otherwise forced into letting things happen. She's not flailing at you with her fists and screaming, so she must have consented.

"Yes means yes" turns this on its head. It means that, if your partner doesn't outright state their desire to have sex with you, you don't have their consent. No more "it wasn't rape because she wasn't awake to say no." No more "it wasn't rape because, after I held her down so she couldn't leave, she let me have sex with her."

People don't say "no" for all kinds of reasons. They don't want to hurt your feelings. They're nervous. They're afraid of what might happen if they turn you down. They're unsure of what they want. Regardless, silence isn't taken for consent in most situations, so why should sex be different?

If you asked your girlfriend, "Do you want a Hawaiian vacation for your birthday?" and she didn't say anything, would you buy plane tickets? If you asked someone at the grocery store, "I only have one item, do you mind if I check out ahead of you?" and they stared determinedly into space, would you cut in front of them? Why is it that "you didn't say no" applies only to sex?

There's some misconception about asking for consent and getting a yes that it somehow makes things less sexy. This, friends, is total bullshit. What could be sexier than whispering in your partner's ear all the things you want to do, and asking if they're ready to do them? Or hearing them tell you exactly how they want to fuck you, then responding enthusiastically? Enthusiastic consent makes sex better, both in that you'll get turned on by your partner's sexy "yes, oh please, yes!" and by knowing what to do to please them. You simply cannot go wrong.

Also remember, you are not asking for permission, you are investigating desire. It's far, far sexier to say, "Do you want me to fuck you now?" than it is to say, "May I fuck you now?" It also opens better communication. Maybe your partner's answer will be, "No, I want you to give me a blowjob, then I want to give you one." Maybe it will be, "I want it, but not just yet, warm me up with your fingers first." Or possibly, "No, baby, let me fuck you." No matter what, you'll know exactly how to proceed, and you won't have killed the mood in the process.

It's important to point out that getting consent never goes away. No matter how long you've been together, no matter if you're married or living together or just had sex a minute ago, you need to get consent every time. Consent for previous sex doesn't count for current sex, and consent for one act doesn't count for another.

So tell me, do you want to have sex with someone who lets you fuck them, or with someone who wants you to fuck them?


  1. Right on! Perfection. I'd love you to check out my new site if you're interested, maybe you could contribute sometime:

    1. Thanks for the praise and the invite!

      I'll consider your invitation. What I write about is far more sex than kink. I'm not sure my content is truly appropriate for your site.

  2. "What could be sexier than whispering in your partner's ear all the things you want to do, and asking if they're ready to do them?"

    Why must consent be made sexy? Why should we need to "sexify" a basic human right?

    Also, women can say yes when they're intoxicated or otherwise drugged, or they can say yes when they fear retribution or disappointment from men. These situations constitute rape, do they not? Enthusiastic consent is nice but not at all panacea (and I realize you don't present it as one, I just think that needs to be pointed out)

    1. Many people don't ask for consent just because they think it kills the mood. They skip right over discussing what's okay out of fear of being thought of as prudish or weak. Consent CAN be sexy, and I want to stress that fact to those individuals.

      As for the false yes, that's an entirely different conversation. However, I very much doubt that a false yes with enthusiasm is common. And for women who have been threatened or coerced into saying yes, I'm confident there was, at first, a denial of consent. Only when that denial was ignored did they say something different.

  3. Consent is more complicated than just yes. No is simple, it means no consent, end of story. Yes doesn't mean yes, and the absence of yes doesn't mean no.

    Yes doesn't mean yes if you are underage or intoxicated or are threatened or under the influence of drugs. The absence of yes doesn't mean no if you actively participate; you remove your clothes and put a condom on his penis.

    Consent can be given without yes, and conversely being told yes is not sufficient for consent to be present.

    1. As I said above, people rarely say, "No, I don't want to have sex with you." When we don't voice our consent, things can get messy and fuzzy, and it can be hard to know whether someone wants to have sex with you. Imagine a man lying on top of a woman, and she's kissing him deeply and passionately, but making no moves to remove his clothes. Is she consenting to sex?

      I disagree about some of your points regarding who can and cannot give consent. Minors and people under threat obviously cannot consent, but being under the influence of drugs or alcohol doesn't inherently remove a person's ability to consent (or request consent). I have very explicitly requested and given consent while under the influence of multiple substances. It's possible.

      With that said, it's probably not a good idea to have sex with someone for the first time if one of you is altered and you didn't negotiate things beforehand. If you're ever unsure, decline. You can always come back to things when you're sober. Or sometimes you can't, because you only had that one opportunity, in which case you really haven't lost that much.

      As far as nonverbal consent, it definitely can be given, but what do you have to lose by asking for explicit, verbal consent as well? Really, I'm curious. Even if a person has just put a condom on you and straddled you, how is saying, "You really want to fuck me, don't you?" making anything worse?

      As for your last line, I wasn't talking about reluctant consent. Enthusiastic consent isn't about wheedling a yes out of someone. It's about ensuring the person you're fucking really wants to fuck you too. It's about breaking the notion of indifference as desire. It's about taking any sign of confusion, reluctance, or indifference as a message to stop, not barge ahead as long as she doesn't say no.

      In short: you're right, consent can be given without words, and sometimes the word "yes" doesn't actually mean "I want to fuck you." But those should be exceptions, not standard practice.