The consent conversation has moved on. We’ve gone from not talking about it all to “No means no and yes means yes”. But it’s not as straightforward as that, so let’s look at when yes isn’t consent.
Let’s step away from sex for a moment. If most of us look at our lives we can think of times when we’ve agreed to things that actually we’d rather not do at all. We took a quick poll in the office and between 6 staff nearly all of us could come up with examples from the last week. Some of those things were social obligations, family responsibilities or things we agreed to ages ago before we decided we weren’t in the mood, were too tired or simply didn’t want to. But we all carried on and did them anyway.
We’re not trying to draw parallels between sexual violence and going to a meal that you’d rather not. But sometimes the underlying reasons for saying yes when we actually meant no were very similar. What differs is the impact.
Our team spoke about not feeling able to say no because they would hurt the other persons feelings or cause an argument, some said it was just easier to go ahead anyway than to try and explain why they didn’t want to, others said that they felt they were too far along with making arrangements and backing out now would seem rude. In pretty much every example our team talked about how they’d said yes because they didn’t feel like they could say no.
And for a yes to actually mean yes (and therefore be a truly consensual yes), that person must know they can and be able to say no.
Some people may say yes because a no isn’t safe.
For others there may be a fear that a no would be damaging somehow; perhaps a withdrawal of support or damaging to your career if you didn’t go along with it.
A no might not have be said because you felt that things were already too far along to stop, or it might have been implied that you owed them somehow because of a meal or drinks.
Someone who’s been spiked, is drunk or has passed out can’t say no, even if they were saying yes before.
And that’s nowhere near an exhaustive list. There are so many situations where a yes is said but it’s not actually consent.
So what’s the impact of a yes that isn’t actually consent.
Unlike the results for our team’s examples, the affects of a yes that’s not consent are extensive. We often hear people talk about shame and guilt, feeling that they were to blame somehow and have no right to feel like they do because they actually said yes. Even when they meant no. We hear people talk about going along with something because it was the easier option than saying no. That the consequences of saying no were too dangerous, too risky or too complicated to say anything other than yes.
We talk about consent a lot. It’s a subject that should be simple but it isn’t always. We’re getting better as a society but there’s always room for improvement.
The consent conversation needs to move on again. It needs to include the if’s, but’s and why’s and until that happens we’ll keep trying to get clarity on consent.