Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Language around consent

I'm sure after reading the little tangent in the last 50 Shades post you all knew there was a post about consent coming. So, trigger warnings: I will be talking about rape, I will be talking about consent, I will be talking about all sorts of issues that float around it, and I'm not sure how qualified I am to be talking about these things, so, be warned. The standard comment rules of "Differ without being a dick" will apply to this post, so if I mess up here don't be afraid to call me out, just, you know, do it politely please.

Right, so, you know the phrase "No means no" right? I mean, everyone does. Yet for some reason, we don't give a lot of power to "no". It has to be a certain kind of no for us to listen. It has to be a firm no. A forceful no. It has to be the type of no that will make you a shrill, uptight bitch. You know, all the things women are told we're not supposed to be. Those types of no upset people, right? So we try to say it passively, we try to say it nicely, we try to say it in every way that lets our "no" be ignored because we didn't really mean it.

Here is the triggery personal part. I used to fall into that trap all the time. We'll call him P. P was the first serious relationship I had ever had, and almost all of my sexual firsts were with him. I don't think P is a bad guy and wish him ill, I want to say this first, what I'm about to talk about is just one of the incredibly problematic behaviors he had. I think I'm allowed to still think well of someone and be aware of their faults and problems, after all. So, I would be at P's place and he would try to initiate sex. He'd touch a boob or start kissing and it was blatantly apparent what he was doing. I didn't mind, but I wouldn't be in the mood, and say so. I'd say no. Not a big no. Not a forceful no. Not a stern no. Just a "neh." followed by showing a hand away. His response? Put the hand back and keep going. I could have said "no" again. Sometimes I did, but usually I just went with it. I mean, I usually got off anyways, and he was my boyfriend, so it was fine, right? Ignore the fact that when I did push and stick to my "no" he'd get upset. Not screaming and rage upset. He'd sulk and be moody for a while. He was sulky and moody often enough that at no point in my inexperience did I stop and say "Wait, this is fucked. My wishes around my body are not being respected!"

Then again, I didn't really say no, right? I wasn't firm! I didn't repeat myself! I shouldn't have had to. I wish now I had called him out no it, because he didn't think he was doing anything wrong. He thought "no" that was mild and lifeless meant "try harder" since it wasn't a "real" no which he had been taught for a long time. My not standing up and correcting him was just one more person telling him that was okay. I regret that. I wish I had been more aware, and more bold at the time.

All this is a way of saying that "No means No" isn't as strong as we think it is. Ignoring the fact that saying no is hard. Ignoring the fact that when you're scared and intimidated and shocked and not totally sure what's going that "no" often doesn't even occur to you. Ignoring the fact that saying "no" means having to stop something to do so. There are a lot of problems with "no means no" but I'm not suggesting we do away with it.

I have two solutions to suggest. One is to give "no" more power. When someone says no, leave it at that as much as possible*. Friend doesn't want to dance? Don't make them. Friend doesn't want to drink tonight? Okay. Your body, your call, dude. If in innocuous social situations when you say no it's ignored, or makes people angry, you're going to be afraid to use it when it matters. Like when someone is being sexually aggressive but you kind of like them but you're really not sure if you actually want this or not and- You get the point. If we start treating "no" like it is important, like it matters, not only are we empowering people, we are making it harder for would-be attackers to ignore the "wrong type" of no.

My second solution is to start pushing for "yes means yes" which is, quite simply, that you should ask. I know a lot of people don't like the idea of asking to kiss someone, or to have sex with someone. It's inorganic! However there are ways to ask that are sexy. "Listen, I think you are absolutely stunning and I really just want to kiss you right now, can I?" "Can I (INSERT MANY SPECIFIC EXPLETIVES THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO PREFORM ON PERSON HERE)?" Think of it as an extension to dirty talk if that helps you wrap your head around it. (Once again I'm going to link to Pervocracy because it is just a wonderful place and you should go and read all of it right now.)

Now, why do I think switching from the current standard of "Person A grabs and kisses Person B and things evolve naturally from there" to "stop and ask the person if they want it first" would be an improvement? A few reasons. One is that it would open up dialog about sexual wants and expectations much earlier. I think this is just important period, because sex needs to stop being an awkward taboo and something that is normal to talk about. People are just going to be having better sex because of it. The more important reason in this context is it gives people an opening to say no. It takes the pressure off of the person to come out and say no if they're scared because now it's an option that is much easier for them to take because you asked first! It shows that you value the consent of the person you want to have sexy fun times with, and that is going to help them feel comfortable around you. It also takes a lot of the confusion out of consent. "Well, she didn't say no or stop so I thought..."** You ask, they say yes or no, you keep going or stop, and ask before the next big step (say, going from kissing to fingering) so there remains no confusion over if both parties want to be doing these things. It makes consent more important, and takes some of the mystery and confusion out of it.

I think these are important things. I think a lot of things are important things, but usually I come to a standstill when I try to think of something to DO about these things I find important. Do I start going to protests, or rallies or something? Maybe write letters to my MP? Does that stuff even make a difference? I don't know. I'm still figuring that out, but on this topic, on this one thing, I've at least got an idea. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm hilariously mislead and this is all just PC fluff, but... I don't think it is. I think these are the sorts of steps we need to start taking to shift our cultural narrative to a better one, and if nothing else, talking about it can only help, right? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

*I know not to make blanket statements like "no should always be absolute" because that means closing the door on a lot of communication etc, but you get what I mean.
**Or didn't say the right kind of "no" as discussed above.


  1. I think you are definitively on to something. That was a very great post and I agree completely.

    Unfortunately, you are right, the "no means no" idea is only true if your "NO" is a strong/forceful no. The idea of "try harder" is usually associated with the first few No's.

    (Big example, from a silly show on TV, Degrassi TNG. A girl had a guy on top of her and when he produced a condom to have his way with her, she was saying "No" and "please stop" but she was doubted and ridiculed and she had to fight really hard to get to court and press charges, on the fact that she willingly went up to the bedroom and "liked" the guy. Because she wasn't able to put up a strong enough fight to get him off her, because she wanted to be alone with him, because he had time to put on a condom, it wasn't "really" a rape. Because she could have stopped it. Because she didn't "really" said "no." All of that opens up a lot of rage in me, but I thought it illustrated what you were talking about.)

    I like the idea of "yes means yes". I don't like that saying no is viewing as "try harder". If I'm with someone and they ask me if I want to "get it on" and I play coy and say we shouldn't or that I'm tired or all kind of other excuses, that's when they need to make sure, do I mean "No" or do I really mean try harder, this is foreplay. If I say no and push their hands away, it really shouldn't need any more explanation.

    It really pains me to see that it doesn't always work like that though. Is respect and consideration going out the window?

  2. I think you are absolutely right. I had a conversation with a friend a few days ago about how a lot of people don't consider it rape if the person being violated was drunk/ wore revealing clothing/ acted a certain way/ went somewhere alone/ etc. She made a good point by saying, "We live in a society that teaches 'Don't get raped' instead of 'Don't rape'"

  3. I was recently raped, and since then I've really noticed how often my "no" isn't taken seriously by most men. "No," to them, seems to mean "flirt/tease/whine/guilt-trip/insult me further to try to get me to say yes." Then I feel like I can't be harsh about telling them off, because I worry and/or know they'll get all wounded and freak out on me for being such a cold bitch. Even one or two men who know I was raped still do this.

    I think you're right--women aren't taken seriously when they say "no," because women are seen as objects. We really need to move more toward the "yes means yes" mindset you talk about here.

    1. I read this comment this morning before heading out to work and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. I am so, so sorry you had to go through that, and I'm sorry that you're surrounded by a bunch of assholes who can't respect "Dude, I was raped, I need you to NOT be a pushy jack ass and respect my boundaries". I've been trying to think of how to respond, though my first instinct (since I noticed on your profile that you mentioned being into feminism) was to point you to Captain Awkward and the Yes means Yes blog (both are just wonderful generally but both sometimes talk about coping with trauma related to sexual assault) but that felt like cheating.

      So what I will say is this: Don't be afraid to be a bitch. If these guys are ignoring your boundaries, if they are so callous about your experiences and your feelings that they will still push after you point out your own trauma, they don't deserve nice. Let them think you're a bitch and leave you alone, they sound incredibly toxic and unsafe, and would be doing you a favor.

      Okay, one link: https://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/mythcommunication-its-not-that-they-dont-understand-they-just-dont-like-the-answer/