Arielle Pardes | Rethinking sexual consent
The Screwtinizer | ‘No means no’ obscures the meaning of consent
February 15, 2012, 9:13 pm · Updated February 19, 2012, 11:41 pm·
Let’s say you go to Blarney’s tonight and after pounding back enough beer to flood all of Locust Walk, you leave with someone. You perform a sloppy, drunken version of the horizontal tango and when you wake up in the morning, your hangover is tinged with regret.
Were you raped?
The law books say yes. In Pennsylvania, you can’t legally give consent to sex while rendered mentally incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. Nor can you give consent while under coercion, while unconscious, while asleep, while under the age of 16 or without completely voluntary agreement to get it on. Yet people who dress provocatively, go out to drink or simply don’t say “no” are still assumed to be asking for it.
Perhaps you recall the $600,000 ad campaign launched by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board last year that targeted excessive drinking. One controversial ad that was eventually retracted presented a woman sprawled on the floor, underwear around her ankles, and read: “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.”
Wait a minute, now — if she couldn’t say no, then how was she able to say yes?
The “no means no” take on consent suggests, falsely, that if you’re not saying no you must mean yes. If you’re drunk at a party, you must mean yes. If you’re on a date, you must mean yes. The truth is that there is only one way to say yes (hint: it’s the word yes) and nothing else is permission for getting into your partner’s pants.
This seems obvious, right? Perhaps not. Recall, for example, the incident in 2010 when Yale fraternity pledges paraded around their campus chanting, “No means yes, and yes means anal!”
Clearly, Yale students haven’t mastered the English language as well as we have here at Penn. But more importantly, misconceptions surrounding consent brush off the very serious problem of sexual violence.
One-fifth of women on college campuses are raped during their college careers. Ninety percent know their assailant. These statistics, from the U.S. Department of Justice, are conservative estimates: less than five percent of incidents are reported to campus authorities or to the police. In 2010, only five incidents of rape were reported at Penn.
Jessica Mertz, associate director of the Penn Women’s Center, criticized the “no means no” phraseology for implying that there always needs to be a verbal “no” in order for an act to be considered non-consensual.
“Consent can’t be inferred from silence, passivity or lack of resistance alone,” she said.
In other words, “not yes” also means no. “Maybe later” means no. “I’m not in the mood” means no. “My pussy pop is not for sale” definitely means no.
When a Toronto police officer made the inflammatory statement that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to prevent being raped, the SlutWalk movement was born. SlutWalk protests erupted around the world, including one in Philadelphia last summer, featuring lingerie-clad women parading down the street. Protestors challenged the assumption that dressing sluttily — or saying anything other than “yes!” — is an invitation for sex.
So how, then, do we give the green light? The best way to think about sexual permission is enthusiastic consent, explained expertly in a book, Yes Means Yes! by feminist writers Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Enthusiastic consent is more than just freely engaging in sex — it’s being excited to do it.
The point here is that consent should not be a reluctant thing. When we pull down our panties and get revved up to go, we should be wholeheartedly excited to get it on — and our partner should be too.
Whether expressed verbally or communicated clearly through actions, “yes means yes” is a much clearer view of consent than “no means no.” Owning our sexual experiences and making it clear that anything we don’t explicitly encourage is off-limits leads to more empowering (and frankly better) sex.
The forward of Yes Means Yes!, written by Margaret Cho, invites readers to say “yes to yourself, yes to your desires, and yes to the idea that you have a right to a joyful sex life, free from violence and shame.”
I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for the Penn community to say yes to sex — to take ownership of our sexual desires, to empower our sexual experiences and to recognize that yes means yes and anything else means “please, step away from my genitals, immediately.”
Arielle Pardes is a College sophomore and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies major from San Diego, Calif. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Screwtinizer appears every other Thursday.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that “one-fifth of women on college campuses are raped during their college careers” rather than “one-fifth of college women every year.”