Moving Beyond “No Means No” to “Yes Means Yes”

We have feminism to thank for many things, including women’s rights to vote and to get an education, as well as the newly increasing visibility of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, war zones, the domestic sphere… well, sadly, lots of places. One significant element feminism has contributed to dialogue on sexual assault is the phrase “No means no” when referring to consent. Totally important–but not the last word on consent.

I’d like to talk about the “No means no” model of consent, the newer “Yes means yes” model of consent, and why all these feminist discussions are important for everybody who’s sexually active, thinking about being sexually active, or generally a member of Western society, which sends us aggressive sexual messages through advertising and the media every day.

This Fugitivus blog post by Harriet on feminism’s history of consent is what got me thinking about all this (yes, it’s long, and also about important topics like the definitions of rape and how Naomi Wolf is construed as representing all feminists on this topic, but I recommend reading it if you have the time; I’ll try to summarize important parts, though).

What is the significance of “No means no”? Feminists coined the phrase in a time when no could mean yes, when public recognition of rape and sexual assault was dim and dismal. In Harriet’s words: “No means no” gave a voice to the abused, the raped, the victimized. It created a phrase to describe a phenomenon that men and women knew existed, but were unable to describe in a way that society as a whole took seriously.

But “No means no” only gets you so far. What happens when your “no” is not heard, when it is ignored, when it can only be kept up for as long as you have the energy to protest, to fight, to not be afraid, to not give in? What if you know that the longer you hold out, the worse it’ll get? Most people know what a “no” means, but someone determined to have sex regardless of another’s consent will contrive ways to turn that “no” into a “yes”: cajoling, threatening, plying with substances, coercing, playing mind games.

As Harriet writes:

…we are trying to create a world where the responsibility for defining rape does not lie with the person being raped. For many of us, that is what saying “no” during a frightening sexual encounter means; if our partner does not care if we want sex, if our partner does not care how we want sex, if our partner does not care if we are in pain or pleasure, if our partner does not care if we feel safe, if our partner does not care that we are moving away from them, if our partner does not care that we are trying to get to the door, then our partner will not care if we say “no,” and we will be raped. This is not difficult math for us to calculate. The only further calculation is how bad our rape is going to be, how long it will last, and how badly we will be injured. So as long as we keep our mouths shut, it will not be rape, and we will not be victims, and this will be over much sooner. If we say no, it will become rape, because “no” is what creates rape, “no” is what defines consent, not the lack of a “yes”.

And that’s the problem with the “No means no” model: it is a “no” that defines consent, not a “yes.” And a “yes” can be forced from someone; a “yes” can be invented out of silence (well, it’s not exactly a “no,” is it?). This is why the “Yes means yes” model of sexual is so important. It’s the next step in not only women but everyone having a more positive relationship with their sexuality. “No means no” was an important landmark in achieving recognition for the pervasiveness of sexual assault, but stopping at this step means continuing to define sexuality as negativity and lack.

The folks at the blog Yes Means Yes work on providing positive models of consent. One of their posts (another great-but-long one I highly recommend) defines enthusiastic consent as such: Enthusiastic consent is a principle that says that “no means no” is crucial – if a sexual partner says no, you have to stop – but it’s not enough. In order to ensure consent and prevent sexual violence, everyone, regardless of gender, has to make sure that their partner is enthusiastic about what’s going on.

Isn’t that a great idea? Incorporating but moving beyond the “No means no” model? This idea of consent as an ongoing negotiation, not simply a yes/no switch, is healthy because it encourages communication between partners. When you’re tuned into someone’s wants and needs, you’re less likely to be able or willing to hurt them involuntarily or through a miscommunication.

Scarleteen has a wonderful guide to consent as well. However you go about seeking consent, figure out how you can talk about sex in a way that is comfortable for you, and then talk away. This is definitely one of those areas where it’s better to err on the side of more communication rather than less–for the sake of your pleasure, as well as the politics surrounding it!

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.