Why Consent Needs to Be More Than Just "No Means No"

Note: For this article, I’ll be centering on women who experience sexual harassment/assault in hetero sexual encounters.

We can all agree sexual assault is a crime, and that no one should be subject to it. However, when we start having conversations about consent, what it is and what it looks like, those discussions seem to take place in murkier waters.

In the NSW Crimes Act (
https://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/#/view/act/1900/40), the meaning of consent, as it pertains to a person in a sexual encounter, is “A person consents to sexual intercourse if the person freely and voluntarily agrees to the sexual intercourse.”

Now let’s apply that definition to a story that’s been in the public space recently: yes, I’m referring to the babe.net story (https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355) about “Grace” a 22 year old woman, who went on a date with Aziz Ansari, a 33 year old celebrity.

Suddenly, what consent is, and what it looks like, has gotten more complicated. When this story was released, people – who had been all for #metoo – formed camps. Some people say Ansari should have stopped. Some people say Grace should have said no, and left. Some still say both things have happened, and some say this should never have been published.

However you feel about the journalistic integrity of babe.net’s work here, the piece still opened a door to a conversation that it seems many of us aren’t ready to have.

I saw the phrase “guilty…of not being a mind reader” (link:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/opinion/aziz-ansari-babe-sexual-harassment.html) used in defence of Ansari. I saw, basically: “Just suck it up, you had bad sex”. I saw a lot of “why didn’t she say no?”.
While, as a society, we might loyally recite no means no – and it always has and always does mean no – are we really happy with retreating into an area where all male actions will be without reproach in a sexual encounter until we as women say the actual word no? That men will push and pester until we shout no at the top of our lungs into their faces? Is that really in keeping with the idea that a person consents to sexual intercourse if the person freely and voluntarily agrees to the sexual intercourse?

Will we accept other variances of the word ‘no’? Will we accept “don’t” or “stop”? What about less direct rebuttals, such as; “let’s get back to the others”, “I’m not feeling it right now”, “I’m feeling a bit sick”?

Because I’ve used those last three to end sexual encounters. What I meant was “no”, but I never felt like I had to say the word no, and I didn’t: each of those encounters ended favourably, with no hard feelings either side. My sexual partners heard me, they heard and respected what I was saying – even though I never said the words “no” or “stop”.

So what about “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill” or “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you”? These are the sort of things Grace said that night.

Why is sex any different? As @elmyra points out: If men can read social cues out in public, why do we suddenly assume they lose the ability in the bedroom?

I think to take “no means no” quite literally (meaning everything was assumed as fine up until that word is uttered) lacks an understanding of the many ways humans interact and communicate.
What about non-verbal cues? Grace stated Ansari put her hand on his crotch repeatedly. Meaning her put her hand there and she removed it. Five times. Is this a non-verbal cue? I think it is.

What about shutting down and becoming unresponsive to the whole encounter? Is that a non-verbal cue? If you are in a sexual interaction and your partner starts crying, but has not said no, does that mean the consent is still active? You MIGHT say these cues could mean anything, but the thing is: do you continue without checking in with them? Is it too much to ask to check in with your partner, to ensure they’re ok and on board?

Instead of just no means no, we should say only an enthusiastic yes means yes. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-30/metoo-its-time-we-moved-to-a-different-model-of-sexual-consent/9371288) Our language around consent falls short, which is why we get divisive about what to label Grace’s experience, but the only way to build that language is to talk about encounters like Grace’s, and talk about sex in general.
We need to be open and positive about sex because women being outwardly enthusiastic about having sex, let alone wanting sex, is still something we’re not used to as a society. But we need to retire the old stereotypes. We need to talk about what affirmative consent looks like from a woman without the stigma and shame attached to a woman enjoying sex (e.g. slut shaming).

Sexual partners are people. When women walk away from sexual encounters like Grace’s, whether you believe it’s assault or not, it’s still demeaning to be ignored, and have your personhood reduced to something that needs to be worn down so someone can have sex with you, absent regard for how you feel.

Yes, rape culture is consumed by everyone – and that includes Ansari. But we need to prepare women especially for its effects in heterosexual sexual encounters. Why?
Because when a woman consumes and internalizes rape culture lessons in relation to sex, she does so at cost to herself. E.g. She blames herself for “bad sex” or assaults, she does not prioritise her own pleasure or feelings.
When a man consumes and internalises rape culture, he does so at cost to his sex partners. E.g. he blames the women for being sexually available and therefore deserving of assault, or more commonly, he believes sexual encounters are not focused on female pleasure.

Here’s the thing that so many people miss in this conversation: Women, including Grace, deserve to enjoy sex too. Sex is not just for men to enjoy. Women deserve sexual encounters where our partners care whether we are enjoying the experience. Sexual encounters should be positive and enjoyable experiences for everyone.

And all parties involved should care about that.

By: Tee Linden


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