Talking about consent, as well as rape culture, is incredibly important. According to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. There have been many attempts to raise awareness and attempts to prevent sexual assault and rape. Sex positive feminism’s ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns are one such attempt.
The idea behind this slogan, and the many (usually university) campaigns which have commandeered it, is that only a ‘yes’ means ‘yes’. Some campaigns have gone further in an attempt to narrow down the type of ‘yes’ required – a ‘sober yes’, and ‘enthusiastic yes’, an ‘ongoing yes’. While ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns are not fundamentally bad, there are some aspects of them which prove problematic.
Consent is ‘sexy’
‘Yes means Yes’ was born around the same time as ‘consent is sexy’. The aims of both these slogans were to promote the idea that consent was something that you should always have, that it wouldn’t ‘kill the mood’, and that without consent, any sexual act is rape. While this is all true, these campaigns have flaws –if consent is ‘sexy’, what am I if I don’t want to give consent?
There’s also the issue surrounding the idea that things have to be ‘sexy’ in order to be promotable. Many ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns use sexual imagery, or models posing in the middle of a sex act. This further promotes the idea that consent is ‘sexy’, while seemingly ignoring the fact that it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s ‘sexy’ – consent is mandatory.
In an attempt to move further away from second wave radical feminism, which is often labelled as ‘sexually judgemental’ and ‘anti-sex’ or ‘sex negative’, sex positive feminism has ended up catering to (cisgendered heterosexual) men and the ‘male gaze’. Sex positive feminism is a ‘we’re not all like that’ response to the idea that feminists are inherently unsexy and prudes. In a similar vein to ‘I’m a feminist, but I wear make-up/shave my legs/don’t hate men’, it panders to hegemonic masculinity in an attempt to get men to take feminism more seriously, while simultaneously throwing other women under the bus.
Not Every Yes Means Yes
Margaret Cho, in the forward for the book ‘Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape’, says
“I said yes because I felt it was too much trouble to say no. I said yes because I didn’t want to have to defend my ‘no’, qualify it, justify it-deserve it….to say no at any point after saying yes for so long would make our entire relationship a lie, so I had to keep saying yes in order to keep the ‘no’ I felt a secret”.
In the very book that started the ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns, we are provided with one of the main flaws of the ideology – that saying ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’. ‘Yes’ means nothing if it is coming from someone who feels like they cannot say ‘no’ – if they know their ‘no’ will be ignored or they will be harassed until they change their mind, or if they want to appear ‘sexy’ and sexually liberated. Sometimes ‘yes’ means, ‘I can’t handle another argument with you’, or, ‘I want to please you’, or, ‘Let’s just get this over with’.
The issue is that we live in a society where no means ‘convince me’ or ‘maybe later’. This is one of the reasons third wave feminism moved away from ‘No means No’ and towards ‘Yes means Yes’. Rather than actually tackle the problem head on, they detoured around it and came up with an alternative. Rather than promoting the idea that when someone says ‘no’, they mean ‘no’ and you should stop whatever you’re doing, it became a campaign for sexual empowerment of women and their ability to actively want and desire sex by saying ‘yes’. By not teaching the meaning and the importance of saying and respecting ‘no’, ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns often set themselves up to accommodate and excuse harassment – as long as your partner says ‘yes’ eventually, the prior verbal and non-verbal declines and rebuffs make no difference.
‘Yes means Yes’ infers that women have the power to be their own agents when it comes to sex and consent, when in actuality this isn’t always the case, due to fear or coercion. As such, while every ‘no’ means no, not every ‘yes’ means yes.
Sex is Inherently Good
Sex positive feminism, and by extension ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns, are, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly positive about sex. They attempt to reclaim female sexuality and promote sex and sexuality in general as a good thing, in an effort to reduce the stigma and ignorance surrounding female sexuality. Sex positive feminism seems to encourage the idea that we can ‘fuck our way to freedom’ – that by being sexually liberated, we will (somehow) dismantle the patriarchy and other power structures, though apparently ignoring the fact that none of our choices happen in a vacuum, and that often what is proposed as sexually liberating is dictated to us by patriarchy and the male gaze. It also ignores that fact that not all sex is inherently good, pleasurable or wanted.
Not having sex, or having less sex, is never really promoted as a viable option or alternative in sex positive feminism. If you have had bad prior experiences, sex positive feminism recommends that you take things slower, or put in an extra effort to ‘set the mood’. We’re provided with a plethora of suggestions to make sex better or nicer, but never told that we don’t have to have sex at all. The ‘problem’ of not consenting is solved by consenting – not wanting to have sex is solved by trying different things, going slowly, feeling sexy, but never by saying that it’s OK to not want to have sex. This is painfully obvious when reading the advice sections of magazines like Cosmo – a reader is feeling uneasy or nervous about sex or a particular aspect of sex – the writers advice? Take things slow, light candles, do massages, then do the sex. I have yet to read an advice column which says ‘it’s OK not to have sex, and it’s OK not to want to have sex’. Instead, we’re bombarded with ‘101 ways to drive him wild’, ’50 best sex moves’ and ‘get naked!’.
Consent as a Means to an End
Another criticism of ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns is that they present consent as a means to an end – it holds up consent as a kind of legal contract rather than a necessary component of freedom, a prerequisite to sex rather than a meaningful state. It says ‘this is how to avoid raping someone’, rather than ‘this is how you have a mutually beneficial sexual experience’.
‘Yes means Yes’ often feels like a means to an end because it focuses more on giving someone permission to do x/y/z thing to you, rather than with you. While it encourages some level of conversation, at least enough to establish consent, this isn’t really enough when it comes to the need to address the lived experience of navigating consent within a rape culture – as discussed earlier, not every ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’.
Focus on One Type of Assault
‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns focus solely on sexual assault and rape perpetuated by acquaintances who aren’t intending to rape or sexually assault someone. They focus on situations in which, if the perpetrator only knew that what they were doing was rape or sexual assault, they wouldn’t have done it. In these scenarios, ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns may do some good. But it would be wrong to suppose that these campaigns do anything to prevent or reduce the instances of malicious and intended sexual assault and rape. One middle class young white woman’s screaming orgasm is not going end rape.
With the focus of ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns solely on receiving a ‘yes’, it ventures into murky territory when dealing with statutory rape and people who are legally unable to consent. Anyone who is under the age of consent is, legally speaking, not able to consent to sex. Under ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns, as long as the consent is enthusiastic, sober and ongoing (or at least appears to be), there’s no issue. While sex positive feminism and ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns are not actively promoting this idea, they haven’t been doing anything to counteract it. The idea that someone underage can give consent is pervasive in our society, and is evident by the number of statutory rape cases where the perpetrator is let off or given a more lenient sentence. One of the more recent examples is of a teacher who was sentenced to only 30 days in jail for the rape of a 14 female year old student – the judge said that the student was “older than her chronological age” and thus, able to consent.
As long as we live in a patriarchal rape culture, transforming theories of consent into practices is going to prove difficult. In an ideal world consent would never be coerced, nobody would force themselves upon someone else, and discussions about sex and consent would be the norm. ‘Yes means Yes’, campaigns have their flaws – some based on the theories behind them, but most are in relation to how consent is conceptualised in this imperfect and far from ideal world.
There has yet to be a model of consent which works perfectly, and under the patriarchy it is unlikely that one will ever be found. But it is still important that we talk about consent, and attempt to promote healthy and safe discussions surrounding consent as best we can. Therefore, it is important for proponents of all models of consent, particularly sex positive ‘Yes means Yes’ campaigns, to be aware of the shortcomings of their models, and to continue to develop and adapt them in order to promote healthy sexual relationships for all who chose to engage in them.