The Power of ‘Yes’ and Enthusiastic Affirmative Consent
by Jennifer Jun
Trigger Warning: This post contains graphic description of sexual assault.
Anyone who’s been through a high school health curriculum knows that sex education focuses on asking for consent and that no means no (or, you know, “don’t have sex. You will get pregnant, and die,” as the Mean Girls’ coach puts it). No means no. It’s simple.
Yet it seems that people can’t get their head around an idea that’s just as simple: that yes means yes. Yes means yes and that’s the only thing that means yes. Being drunk isn’t consent, flirting isn’t consent, and wearing revealing clothing certainly isn’t consent. Unfortunately, a rape trial in Steubenville, OH last year raised another serious concern: people assume silence is a form of consent for sex.
The victim, a completely intoxicated 16-year-old girl at a house party, was witnessed by several to not even be able to lift her head, nonetheless walk. Two high school boys took the unresponsive girl by her ankles and hands, raped her in a car, then took her back to the house where people started to urinate on the shirtless girl on the ground as a joke. If Jane Doe were sober enough to give consent for sex, she would’ve been able to react to the “joke,” which, of course, she couldn’t. That was the whole point of the joke. Concurrently, her silence during the rape didn’t mean that she consented to it, it meant that she was so intoxicated to articulate a clear refusal.
The boys’ lawyer argued that silence is consent; that “she didn’t affirmatively say no.” Not only is this against the law that going out with someone is not equivalent to consent for sex but it also implies that lack of refusal means yes; that the default in a sexual situation is yes. Newsflash: there is no default. Yes is the only thing that means yes.
Let me make this clear: silence does not imply consent.
The only form of consent should be enthusiastic affirmation, not an enthusiastic negation. There should be a verbally affirmative consent before any sexual activity. The affirmative consent standard is defined as a clear, unambiguous and voluntary agreement between participants to engage in specific sexual activity.
Unfortunately, the current culture depicts sex as a quiet activity, leading to ambiguous ‘gray’ sex. This model lies on two major faulty assumptions. First, one person’s pleasure takes priority over another. Second, that people inherently want to get laid, well pronounced by Robin Thicke’s hit song Blurred Lines: “I know you want it/ You’re a good girl/ The way you grab me/ Must wanna get nasty.” Admittedly a catchy song but not so catchy when it comes out of rapists’ mouths.
The popular objection to enthusiastic affirmation is that ‘it will ruin the mood.’ Objectors claim that speaking out loud and asking if the other is comfortable with whatever you’re doing would just break the spontaneous beauty of it all. Who needs permission when you’ve got a magical sixth sense that you just know what the other people want? Sad to break it to you, but people are not gifted with this supernatural power. We need verbatim communication.
What’s more, just saying no is not enough. If a person is not sure what he or she wants, it’s harder to put the brakes on, ultimately going too far beyond his or her comfort zone. Wait a second, this situation sounds awfully familiar: rape. The “silence is sexy” script is vulnerable to rape culture. This social pressure into thinking that silence is romantic is a weak argument that will “fall apart under even casual scrutiny,” as this blog post puts it.
The oh-so-fragile mood our “silent is sexy” script has built is not a single person’s fault. Our culture is to blame. As a participant in today’s culture, I can’t say I’m not guilty of accepting this script as a norm. However, affirmative consent isn’t a radical or novel idea. Societal change comes from individual changes, and it’s about time we take a step away from the commonly accepted view and reevaluate the convention.
In researching for this post, I have come across several campaigns (links below) that are helping others become conscious of the inevitable need for affirmative consent. My charge to you is this: take a look at these campaigns and think about how you can contribute to this movement for awareness.