Creating a consent culture beyond 'no means no'

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There seems to be a lot of misinformation about what constitutes sexual violence. When we talk about sexual violence, the conversation inevitably turns into perpetuating rape culture myths, like how men will be the targets of witch hunts (never mind that statistically men are more likely to be the victims of sexual assault than falsely accused) or policing victims' clothing or lifestyle choices.

Consent definitionSo how do we start to chip away at this confusion? One of the best ways is to go back to that old debating principle: define your terms. We don't live in a world of 'blurred lines', but we do live in a world that is undereducated in the way we talk about consent.

The phrase 'no means no' has been bandied about for so long that is has become almost cliché. For many years, it was a great tool for explaining the basics of consent. If someone says no to something, don't do it.

But 'no means no' is a tagline, not the start and end of the conversation. Because when you think about it, there are obvious gaps in a 'no means no' framework. It doesn't cover the myriad circumstances that can mitigate consent. Age and mental capacity are the obvious ones.

Then there are people who aren't in a position to say no, because they are unconscious, intoxicated or (to the point of the recent Weinstein scandal) threatened or coerced, especially by those in a position of power. That's not even going into trickier topics like how the majority of sexual offences occur within an intimate relationship or newer and disgusting methods of sexual assault like stealthing.

This is why in recent years the conversation in legal and activist circles has shifted from using 'no means no' to 'yes means yes', otherwise known as affirmative consent. Affirmative consent makes the conversation not about one person necessarily saying no, but to both parties actively communicating with each other. In this model consent can be as simple as saying the word yes or affirming your agreement through enthusiastic participation, while silence or lack of resistance is not consent. Framed this way, consent is the presence of a yes, rather than the absence of a no.

If affirmative consent seems like an overreaction to you, consider the words of Jaclyn Friedman, editor ofYes means Yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape. In a piece for the Washington Post, she writes that affirmative consent makes up her 'core response' to many of her students' anxieties and in her teaching about sexuality in college campuses. Nothing she says 'seems to give [students] more clarity and comfort than explaining the basics of affirmative consent'.

 

"If we want narrative to change from teaching girls about how to avoid rape to teaching everyone how to respect each other's boundaries, we should be having these types of discussions early on."

 

It's obvious from the existence of organisations like The Line that people want to understand where the boundaries of consent are. Given the fact that young people, young women in particular, are the most targeted group for sexual harassment and violence, and that according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, 70 per cent of sexual offences are not reported, giving young people the space and language to negotiate their own experiences becomes a pressing issue.

If we want narrative to change from teaching girls about how to avoid rape to teaching everyone how to respect each other's boundaries, we should be having these types of discussions early on.

People don't need to be versed in every legal technicality, but why not bring structures to clarify and communicate into the mainstream when they already exist? It shouldn't have to take scandals like Weinstein's or victims reliving their trauma in hashtags to be talking about this. Issues of consent run deeper than 'no means no' and our conversation should reflect that. Consent isn't just a topic of the law courts, but an ongoing conversation to have with each other.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, rape, consent, Harvey Weinstein


 

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Existing comments

Spot on. Silence and lack of resistance is not consent. Thanks Neve.
Jennifer Anne Herrick | 18 October 2017


In formulating a reply, it often helps me to ponder on the meaning of a particular word in the article. In this case, of course, 'consent' is the important word. The phrase 'informed consent' means permission granted in the knowledge of the possible consequences. Sexual ethics is a complex topic and education and empowerment of vulnerable girls and women is very important. Well written, Neve.
Pam | 19 October 2017


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