On Consent: Is “Yes Means Yes” Too Strict an Approach?

consent green light

definitely not one-way.

THIS PAST SUMMER, I WROTE ABOUT THE FREEZE RESPONSE – when someone becomes unresponsive instead of fighting or fleeing in an uncomfortable or threatening situation. I used this as one example of why “yes means yes” consent education is so valuable: by teaching those we’re with not to make a move before we’ve given clear consent, it can help us freezers, who can’t always say no.
But there was another point I wanted to make in that piece. Sometimes, people make mistakes in sexual situations. Not all instances of misconduct can be reduced to female objectification, male entitlement, or a society accepting of violence against women. For example, some people don’t know about the freeze response – they don’t realize someone won’t necessarily push them away or express refusal in some other manner if he or she doesn’t want sexual contact. Not all instances of sexual misconduct fit into the narrative of rape culture.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, writer Cathy Young recently said that the “yes means yes” approach to consent education and sexual assault legislation reaps troubling moral and legal consequences by broadening the definition of rape to include instances of lesser misconduct, such as guilt-tripping or persistent requests for sex after being told no:

This isn’t just feminist theory; it’s having an impact in the real world. Consent-education programs on college campuses, from Columbia University to the University of Texas at Austin, are increasingly adopting the ‘yes means yes’ approach. But this crusade against ‘rape culture’ oversimplifies the vast complexity of human sexual interaction, conflating criminal sexual acts such as coercion by physical force, threat or incapacitation — which should obviously be prosecuted and punished — with bad behavior.

I understand Young’s critique of “yes means yes” education to result from reducing it to the confines of rape culture. It doesn’t have to be so. Discussions of rape culture and rape and sexual assault can be part of “yes means yes” discourse without comprising it fully.

The “yes means yes” approach defines consent as the clear, free, and enthusiastic affirmation to engage in sexual activity. When a person is manipulated or otherwise coerced into sex – and this can happen with or without the knowledge and intent of the one doing the coercing – consent, based on this definition, is lacking. Take, for example, what writer Suzannah Weiss writes about ways in which women frequently practice misconduct: After her boyfriend said he wasn’t interested in having sex that night, she tried to seduce him by slowly undressing and lying on the floor in front of him. She thought her seduction attempt had been successful, because he did have sex with her. However, the next day, he told her that he just didn’t want her to feel bad about herself.

Weiss’s boyfriend didn’t have sex out of an enthusiastic desire to do so; in the terms set out by “yes means yes” education, consent was lacking. In Weiss’s own interpretation, she had failed to obtain consent: “Even if someone physically gets on top of you, they are not making the decision freely if something other than their own desires are influencing them.” Is Young right – does the “yes means yes” approach mandate that we label Weiss a rapist, and her boyfriend, a rape survivor?

Weiss’s example is useful in this discussion partly because it points out a tricky situation involving not only non-physical coercion, but unintended coercion. It’s also important because it’s an example of sexual misconduct acted out by a woman on a man. Young notes that the kind of misconduct being described here is prevalent, acknowledging her own history of pressuring men in various ways for sex, stating that, based on the “yes means yes” approach, “if [she] were to claim victimhood, [she] would either have to admit to being a perpetrator as well or fall back on a blatantly sexist double standard.”

The piece in which Weiss honestly owned her history of misconduct, involving both unintended coercion in the example above as well as more intentional tactics such as sulking to get what she wants, was written partly in response to Young’s editorial. Weiss responded directly to Young’s statement above regarding victims and perpetrators: “rather than concluding, as Young does, that we should reject a standard that finds so many of us guilty, I think we all need to accept guilt. Many men and women alike have failed to obtain affirmative consent because we simply did not know what we were doing.”

But this does not mean that Weiss must be considered a rapist and her boyfriend, a victim and survivor of rape. The most noteworthy aspect of Weiss’s response, for me, is the language that she uses. Young is framing “yes means yes” in the language of rape culture by using terms such as “victim” and “perpetrator.” Weiss doesn’t use this language; she also talks about the type of mistakes she has made as misconduct, not rape or assault – words that carry with them the weight of violence and intent. (While it is true that assault can take the form of verbal threats – to hurt oneself or someone else, or to abandon the person if they don’t have sex, for example – these can still be understood as acts of emotional violence.) And, by stating that “many men and women alike have failed to obtain affirmative consent because we simply did not know what we were doing,” Weiss departs from rape culture discourse that treats sexual misconduct primarily as the product of misogyny and objectification and entitlement. She de-escalates the language around non-physical, non-threatening, and often unintentional forms of coercion by framing them as mistakes.

Why is this so important?

For one, it allows us, in a way that rape culture discourse does not, to acknowledge the extent to which women practice misconduct. A roundup of research shows that between 20-30% of men on college campuses experience some form of unwanted sexual contact each year; that more than half are pressured for sex after saying no; that, in the U.S., public opinion consistently finds sexual coercion of men by women relatively acceptable. Yes, more women than men are the victims of rape and assault. However, the fact that women are more often subjected to sexual violence and coercion should not, in any way, keep women from acknowledging and correcting the ways in which we participate in misconduct.

“We need words beyond rape and assault to account for lesser forms of misconduct, including “coercion” and “manipulation.”

Second, the de-escalation of consent language allows us to broaden our view of what constitutes misconduct without labeling everyone who has made a mistake a rapist – something with both moral and legal implications. It shows that the “yes means yes” approach, while advancing a high standard for consent, makes room for a nuanced understanding of the ways in which consent can be lacking and mistakes can be made without criminalizing or demonizing every person who has made a mistake.

Finally, this broadened understanding of misconduct can help dismantle the harmful gender essentialist notions that sometimes underlie coercive or manipulative tactics. Men are not creatures driven by an uncontrollable and incessant craving for sex, and women are not the gatekeepers of sex. Women are capable of sexual misconduct and men can be on the receiving end thereof.

The language that we use when discussing consent, and particularly situations in which it is lacking, is important. We need words beyond rape and assault to account for lesser forms of misconduct, including “coercion” and “manipulation.” We need to understand that, sometimes, people coerce and manipulate accidentally – by confusing their actions for seduction, for example, or by basing their behavior off false assumptions concerning how different sexes experience sexuality. Intentional coercion that intimidates or threatens may be framed as assault, but other types may not. Allowing for a broader discussion of consent and misconduct in no way detracts from the very serious realities of rape and other forms of violence against women. It rather affords a more well-rounded understanding of sexual misconduct and how it harms all people, as well as paving the way for a more inclusive, less accusatory, conversation.