What is Consent?
From "No Means No" to "Yes Means Yes"
What is consent? Sometimes it’s easier to answer this question with the rally phrases we often see.
For instance, I’m sure you’ve all seen, “no means no,” a phrase advocating for consent.
While “no means no,” is still around today, in the mid-2000s, language around consent began to change.
In 2008, feminist writers and activists Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti published an anthology “Yes Means Yes.”
The anthology is intended to draw attention to the way rape is viewed in our culture, and also draw attention to female sexuality and pleasure. Essentially coining “yes means yes,” as a form of affirmative consent.
Thus, as a society, we shifted, “yes means yes” was popularized, but did all of us truly understand what this shift in language signified?
I mean, “no means no” vs. “yes means yes,” what’s the difference?
Why does it matter, and what is consent?
Understanding "Yes Means Yes"
Advocates of affirmative consent wanted to address the societal assumption that being passive or silent does not equal yes.
In other words, the lack of no is not consent.
Therefore, they shifted the focus from “no means no,” to “yes means yes!” They advocate for ongoing, enthusiastic consent from everyone involved.
Which, also shifts the focus to pleasure, and what is pleasurable. A nice added touch considering that female pleasure is often overlooked. (Alas, let that be another post.)
But, to touch on it quickly, affirmative consent implies that women are autonomous and have agency in their sexual encounters: it’s not just about what people don’t want in sex, but actively reshifts our thinking to what they do. Yes means yes!
And while this seems to be a step in the right direction, it is essential to note here that sometimes “yes” doesn’t always mean yes.
It would be lazy and dangerous to overlook the statistics of forced or coerced “yes’s.” In which case, this is not consent at all. But, instead, assault.
I know we’re going in circles here. But, the thing is, with active communication, things become a lot less grey, and a lot clearer. As they should.
Besides, if you’re not able to communicate about boundaries and consent, then you may not have gotten consent at all.
While not every yes means yes, when we mix alcohol and drugs into the equation, it becomes even more pertinent that consent has been given.
Those in favor of affirmative consent argue that it stands in the gap that “no means no” leaves in terms of incapacitation and consent. Because, if someone is passed out, incapacitated, or incoherent–they can’t consent.
So, a lack of no, certainly does not mean yes.
So What is Consent?
There is no cut and dry definition of consent. And, depending on where you live, if you’re in the United States, your state may (or may not) have its own legal definition of consent.
For example, my home state of Missouri does not specifically define consent. Woot woot, sike. But, they do state that rape of the first degree occurs when someone has “sexual intercourse with another person who is incapacitated, incapable of consent, or lacks the capacity to consent, or by use of forcible compulsion.”
However, just because my state is missing an active definition of consent, doesn’t mean that I won’t practice gaining consent from my partners.
Consent then is a clear, coherent, willing, and ongoing “yes” from your partner(s).
Clear consent means that your partner(s) actively agree, or give you an affirmative “go for it.”
A “maybe,” “I’m not sure,” pressured, coerced, or convinced “yes,” is not clear and is not consent.
An example of asking and gaining clear consent might sound like, “Can I go down on you?” To which, they convey a clear and enthusiastic “yes” with their actions or words: a sexy nod, or responding “hell yeah.”
Without proper communication, gaining consent can be a grey area.
(MEANING YOU SHOULD COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PARTNER(S) ABOUT THEIR BOUNDARIES OUTSIDE OF SEXUAL MOMENTS.)
So, when we introduce alcohol into the equation, things can get a lot more grey.
I’m going to break down alcohol and consent in another post, but your partner(s) must be coherent for consent to be given.
This doesn’t mean consent can’t ever be given after drinking or using drugs. But, since alcohol and other substances can impact a person’s ability to communicate and alters their inhibition level, you need to be super clear about consent before moving forward.
If your partner(s) is passed out, incoherent, incapacitated–meaning they can’t make rational, or reasonable decisions–they cannot consent.
If you are unsure if your partner is capable of consenting, then you should air on the side of caution and wait until they can clearly and coherently tell you what they want.
To break down “rational and reasonable,” if the person in question has been monitored all night by friends–they probably can’t consent.
If they cannot walk–they cannot consent.
If they’re suggesting to do things like, climb a tree, for example, or other things that you feel are unsafe, then they’re not coherent.
If they’re not coherent, they can’t consent.
As I said, someone who has said yes under pressure is not giving you consent. If they’ve said no, and you continually persist or proposition, and eventually they say yes…You have not gained consent.
When asking for consent, you need to respect the answer you are given. Don’t continually rub your genitalia or body on the person, don’t give them reasons why they should consent, and don’t force them. That is not consent.
Consent is clear, coherent, willing, and also ongoing. Just because someone consented to something previously, doesn’t mean they have authorized consent for the indeterminable future.
Being in a relationship does not mean that you have clear, ongoing consent for the length of the relationship. Ongoing consent is just that, ongoing! And you should routinely check-in to make sure you have ongoing consent.
Ongoing consent also means that you should gain consent every step of the way. Just because someone consented for you to go down on them, doesn’t mean they’ve consented to sex, for example.
You need to gain consent for each step of the way, folks. While this may sound tedious, it can be quite alluring: “Where do you want me next?”; “Can I put my mouth there?”
Also, to note, I’m not saying you have to be like Otis and ask for consent every 10 seconds. However, it’s best to make a practice of getting ongoing consent, no matter how long you’ve been with your partner(s) and how many times you may have done a specific act.
Asking for Consent
To some, asking for consent or being asked if they consent can seem scary, awkward, or weird. The “ongoing” aspect of consent I’ve specifically faced push back on.
But, that’s where communication becomes essential. Consent doesn’t have to be interruptive or awkward, especially if you’ve had conversations about consent in non-sexual moments. Asking your partner(s) what they’re comfortable with and what they’re not before sexy-time arises, makes it that much clearer once it does.
So, if you don’t like the idea of your partner(s) asking you every step of the way, then that should be communicated to them, as well as what you are and aren’t comfortable with.
Because, as of right now, ongoing consent isn’t the norm, it might feel awkward or weird. But, we shouldn’t assume that we have ongoing consent, and we should make a conscious effort to ask.
No matter how many times we’ve been with our partner(s), no matter how many times we have done a specific act–we should always seek to gain ongoing consent. Let’s make it the norm!
And, if that’s not your thing, then again, communication is key! Every person is different, and every person will give consent in different ways. Thus, communication to be clear on our partner’s boundaries is imperative.
Not only should you be clear on your partner’s boundaries, but you should also be clear on your own. Before talking about consent, before getting intimate, ask yourself what you do and do not want out of the experience. That will help you to better communicate your needs and boundaries, and also hopefully make things more pleasurable.
How Do You Ask for Consent?
How do you ask for consent from your partner(s)? What do you do to establish your own boundaries, and how do you communicate those?
Comment and let me know below!