In the long history of feminism and anti-sexual-assault activism, mantras like “No means no” and, later, “Yes means yes” have shaped the way we talk about consent.
But as more and more people open up about their non-consensual encounters, Katie Mettler writes for The Washington Post, the language we use to describe sexual assault and consent has evolved. The #MeToo movement, originally established by activist Tarana Burke, has put the issue in the spotlight, and the cultural dialogue surrounding sexual “misconduct” has broadened to include more than the most explicit expressions of it (e.g., legal harassment and rape).
But even this shift in the discourse — from putting the responsibility of stopping sexual assault on the victim with “No means no” to putting the responsibility on both parties with “Yes means yes” — has occasionally missed some important nuances and context about consent and communication.
In a recently published essay in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, University of Minnesota Communication Professor Kate Lockwood Harris argues that we need to do away with such consent mantras. Communicating consent isn’t simple, she says, but that’s not a bad thing. I reached out to Harris in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month to talk about the two big communication myths about consent and how we should talk about consent instead.
Myth #1: Statements Like “Yes” and “No” Are Crystal Clear
Many consent education and advocacy campaigns have focused on saying, “Consent is simple.” That was the message behind the Project Consent campaign in 2016. Though saying “yes” or “no” should theoretically be enough to communicate consent, consent isn’t actually simple, Harris says.
Words used by different people sometimes have different meanings, not to mention people often use non-verbal communication. This makes communication ambiguous to some degree. “When activists say, ‘No means no,’ that’s true, certainly to some extent. But it’s also a lot more complicated. It covers up that communication is really complex. There’s always a lot more happening than just ‘no’ or ‘yes.’”
In fact, this myth allows perpetrators to assault someone with the excuse that assault can only happen when a situation is completely unambiguous or the excuse that she said yes despite getting non-verbal cues that say otherwise.
Myth #2: Everyday Talk Doesn’t Require Social and Historical Context
Just as words’ meanings aren’t simple, words are not disconnected from history, society or culture. A person’s culture or gender often plays out in the way we communicate, Harris says. “Anytime we use language, we automatically connect with history of words and much bigger culture.”
So while the mantra of “Yes means yes” puts a focus on pleasure, many women, for example, feel shame for being interested in sex, Harris says. And sometimes it can be hard for women to enthusiastically agree to sex or say what they want for fear of being seen as promiscuous.
Cultures also vary in terms of how direct people are when saying yes or no. “In some cultures, if someone invited me to a party, I could say no directly,” Harris says. “But in other cultures, I might say, ‘Thank you so much, I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ I never said no, but that’s what I mean. Sometimes outright saying no goes against culture.”
This myth plays out in a negative way when talking about sexual assault. “If we [only] focus on whether the person says yes or no, then we don’t have to think about how culture plays out or gender dynamics that might make it hard for someone to [do so],” she says.
How to Talk About Consent Instead
1. Understand how the meaning of consent has changed
Consent has shifted over time, meaning that it is not static. Before July 1993, marital rape was still legal in some parts of the U.S.; marriage gave permission to assume consent to sex was permanent. That’s not the case anymore, though some states still treat this differently than rape between two people who are not a couple, as The Daily Beast reported in 2015.
Harris says deepening our understanding of how the meaning of consent has shifted will help bring context to the issue; it’s not always black and white, in other words.
2. Differentiate ethical behavior from consent
Consent — which is inherently ambiguous and requires interpretation of meaning — and behavior — what we choose to do with consent — are entirely different, Harris says.
Although consent activism has often treated consent and behavior as the same thing, we need to shift the conversation to make people responsible for how they interpret communication, rather than just the language people use to give consent.
People already navigate scenarios in their daily lives where they have to interpret communication and meaning before taking an action. A sexual encounter is no different — meaning that if it’s unclear whether a woman has consented to sex, a man should listen, interpret what it means and make an ethical choice.
3. Miscommunication is not the same as lack of communication
Don’t confuse lack of communication for miscommunication. Assault doesn’t happen out of miscommunication; it happens when one person ignores communication. “Communication requires trying to understand the other person’s perspective. When someone has assaulted a person, they have ignored the other person completely,” she says.
Ultimately, Harris says, we should continue to have conversations about consent — but be mindful of how we communicate with each other and assume responsibility for interpreting meaning and taking action.
“Some people who assault other people say, ‘What could I do? It’s so complicated. I didn’t understand what that person meant.’ I think that’s why people have said consent is simple,” she says. But the complicated nature of consent and not assaulting people are not mutually exclusive. People are capable of understanding that consent is complicated and they can still not commit sexual assault.
Illustrations via Getty Images.