When Yes Means No

This article contains references to sexual assault. 

Yes, the title of this article disputes nearly all sexual assault training you’ve received here at the 5Cs. And, yes, that’s a good thing.

A few years ago, institutions of higher education across the country, including our own, began switching out “No Means No” for a “Yes Means Yes” paradigm for consent. This was a strategic move to shift the emphasis of campus policies towards affirmative consent, in which the absence of a “no” during a sexual act does not indicate a “yes.”

Some student activists and feminist scholars have praised this campaign for its supposed progressivism. The 5Cs have unflinchingly endorsed it. In fact, the EmPOWER Center’s educational brochures and workshops at new student orientations are all predicated on affirmative and, more importantly, enthusiastic consent.

I do not deny that this is an improvement to what was, undoubtedly, a regressive policy. But what continues to disturb me is how “Yes Means Yes” fails to account for the dangerous sexual interactions in which both enthusiasm and consent are expected and, subsequently, performed.

Policies of affirmative consent ignore the frequency with which individuals consent out of fear, coercion, and past trauma. In situations wherein a “no” manifests as a “yes,” our discourse surrounding consent reduces the complexities of sexual power dynamics to one harmful binary.

Those of us who have never been sexually assaulted think we know what it means – what it’s supposed to look like – to trespass lines of consent: we’ve watched scenes of sexual violence on television and in film, read graphic scenes of violation in the classroom, and even theorized for hours on end about sexual assault’s gendered politics.

Even if educational workshops on consent and Teal Dot trainings emphasize the variability of how assault can manifest, their scripted scenes of abusive behavior further solidify definitions of what rape typically looks like.

In turn, those who aren’t survivors can compartmentalize and theorize what it’s supposed to feel like to be assaulted and abstract it from their own sexual experiences. According to a whole anthology of visual and textual images, they have internalized about what sexual violence means, thus placing survivors in a separate category altogether.

It becomes easier, therefore, to configure rape as violence that’s supposed to take a particular and recognizable, yet completely atypical form – one that non-survivors can easily distance themselves from experiencing or even perpetrating.

As dominance feminist Catherine Mackinnon writes in "Feminism Unmodified," "We continue to stigmatize the women who claim rape as having experienced a deviant violation and allow the rest of us to go through life feeling violated but thinking we’ve never been raped, when there were a great many times when we, too, have had sex and didn’t want it.”

Sexual assault consequently becomes an anomaly: what happens when sex goes terribly wrong. But what we overlook here, as a result, is the sheer violence inflicted upon us through “ordinary” sex, the sex we consent to – and, yes, even the sex we might find pleasurable.

“Yes Means Yes” obscures the ways in which consensual sex, too, can be initiated and performed through intimidation and pressure. It renders irrelevant the important, underlying questions behind every sexual interaction: what pressures underpin a “yes?” How do both partners’ levels of sexual experience, genders, sexualities, ages, racial identities, and class factor into who initiates – or, rather, who can initiate – sex? Whose pleasure is prioritized and whose complicity is accepted?

Cis-heteropatriarchy can, and actually does, thrive within consensual sex – in fact, the latter can be a vehicle for the former. Even the “most” consensual of sexual interactions, whether straight or queer, can perpetuate their own gendered power structures of dominance and submission.  

This is not to say that all sex is rape, nor to take agency from those who find sex empowering. This is also not to encourage all who engage in sex to claim the experience of survivorship, nor to banish consent entirely from our discourse surrounding sex. My focus is, instead, on dismantling the glorification of consent as the benchmark that our college communities endorse for healthy sexual interactions.

What I suggest, here, is a radical departure from campaigns, such as “Yes Means Yes,” that reduce complex discourse surrounding the power dynamics of consent to simple phrases that colleges can tack onto banners and informational brochures. I propose a complete reconfiguration of the current paradigm that allows Claremont students to identify as self-congratulatory allies of survivors so long as they include “Consent is absolutely mandatory!” in their event descriptions.

We must be held accountable for envisioning and generating discourse surrounding sex that transcends the language of consent and delves into the language of power and implicit coercion. We must name the ways in which sex can be both consensual and traumatic. We must encourage honest conversation about the violence that even the most enthusiastic “yes” can conceal.

Consent is not the be-all, end-all to our conversations about sexual assault. Our college communities – college administrators included – are just as responsible for interrogating what underpins consent as they are for mandating consent itself.

Without a radical transformation of sex itself, and the violent power dynamics inherent in it, conversations limited to affirmative consent will continue to ignore deeper questions of who, after all, is allowed to claim sexual agency and pleasure.