What's so Tricky about Consent?

March 26, 2018
An art piece with the words "yes" "no" and "maybe" clear among other variations of those words.
Art by Kirsten Hemrich

“No means no,” is the slogan many people throw out first when they’re talking about consent. This is supposed to mean that when a person says no to sex, you listen to them. It’s a decent motto for consent, as mottos go, but is it enough?

Many feminists have decided to turn this phrase around. Their motto is, “Yes means yes,” to petition for active, enthusiastic consent, instead of a “continue until she says no” sort of model (I say she because who gets and who gives consent is often gendered when we’re having these conversations). This accounts for any nonverbal cues that might not be read correctly. It also encourages people to use open communication and listen to their partner.

The word “consent” has been ringing in our minds a lot recently. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment have been stepping forward, and many perpetrators are finally facing the consequences for their actions. This has been a long time coming, and I hope the pattern will continue.

I also hope we clarify some of the confusion that’s arisen. Do we all agree on what consent looks like? Do men and women understand consent in the same way? What happens when verbal cues apparently aren’t clear enough, and the nonverbal cues are misread?  

The Aziz Ansari case illustrates this issue well. Last year, Grace went on a date with Aziz and experienced a night of discomfort and anxiety, while Aziz seemed to think everything was consensual and enjoyable. Some may say that Aziz is lying, and that could very well be the case, but we’d all like to think that a man who calls himself a feminist and wears pins supporting sexual assault survivors would be better than that. So what happened?

This issue is more complicated than “no means no.” There are many factors that go into consent. Both partners should be in their right minds, both partners should be able to understand what the other partner is saying and doing, and both partners need to feel as if they have a right to say no.

What happens when there’s a power imbalance, whether it’s because of age, status, or gender? Suddenly, the ability to say ‘no’ isn’t as simple as it was before. Grace is more than ten years younger than Ansari, and Ansari has wealth and fame on his side, while Grace does not. This power imbalance has been reflected again and again in the sexual assault and harassment cases that have shaken the political and entertainment worlds. Wealthy, powerful men have wielded power over others, and have used it to get away with sexual assault.

Along with this, our culture is phallocentric, with men’s pleasure placed above all else. Sexual encounters often revolve around men’s desire and pleasure, while women put aside their pleasure and experience discomfort because our culture teaches women that men’s pleasure comes first. This ends up creating situations where women feel awkward, anxious, and uncomfortable, but don’t have enough confidence and power to tell men so. And men often don’t understand how to speak to women to make sure that the sexual encounters are pleasurable for both parties.

I know this conversation has been heteronormative so far, but the gender imbalance between men and women is a big part of what complicates consent. This issue is not limited to straight interactions, though, and women are not the only ones who suffer. Another phrase that is perpetuated in our culture is “silence is sexy.” When watching movies and shows, the couple having sex on screen doesn’t usually talk much, as if they somehow know exactly what the other person likes and wants, without having to communicate. This teaches us that communication is somehow not a part of good sex, while I believe that communication should be the most important part of good sex!

If we’re not encouraging communication, we’re also not teaching people how to listen during sex. You won’t know what your partner wants and doesn’t want if you don’t know how to listen, and this often affects the person who already has less of a voice in the encounter.

All of these factors help to explain why Grace’s experience with Aziz Ansari played out the way it did. Ansari wasn’t prepared to listen to Grace, and Grace was raised in a culture where her voice and pleasure matter less than men’s. She came into the encounter with less power than Ansari, and she left feeling taken advantage of.

I think as people continue to come forward with their accounts of bad sexual encounters, we’re going to realize more and more that we don’t all know what consent and equal sex look like. We need to reevaluate our sexual culture and realize that communication is key, and we need to teach people how to communicate effectively. Part of this involves reframing sexual pleasure around all genders, and not just men. We should all be able to experience pleasure!

Consent is a lot trickier than we make it out to be, but with more communication and more emphasis on female pleasure, maybe we can improve these confusing sexual encounters, and less women will walk away from dates feeling like Grace did.

Letter From the Editor