We’re long overdue for a cultural conversation on consent. While, unfortunately, it’s taken dozens of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and countless #MeToo stories across all our social feeds, those much-needed conversations are starting to happen. Yesterday, #WhatConsentMeansToMe was trending on Twitter, continuing a necessary dialogue about sexual violence, harassment, and what does and does not constitute consent.
At its core, consent is an enthusiastic, uncoerced, continuous “yes.” The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) explains what consent looks like in its most basic form as “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity.” As RAINN states, communication is the key to consent. Asking questions like “Is this okay?” is an easy way to establish what someone is or isn’t comfortable with. It also makes consent feel like an ongoing conversation rather than just waiting to hear “no.”
It may come as little surprise that statistically we’re still widely unclear about what is not consent. A recent study on what constitutes sexual assault by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in partnership with YouGov found that there is still a significant disparity between women and men, young men in particular, when it comes to what is recognized as sexual misconduct. “Within each category, 18-34-year-olds are less likely than older adults, and men are less likely than women, to view an action as sexual assault,” the study stated.
The conversation among Twitter users on #WhatConsentMeansToMe further shows we’ve got work to do when it comes to understanding consent.
Many people used the trending hashtag to talk about the “gray areas” of consent. Due to things like age, power dynamics, intoxication and the ability to consent, consent is not necessarily as simple as “yes means yes and no means no.”
As many people pointed out, the absence of a “no” does not automatically mean “yes.” As RAINN states, coerced sex is a form of sexual violence. “Pressuring someone into sexual activity by using fear or intimidation” is not what consent looks like, according to RAINN’s website.
There is confusion between men and women about whether coerced sex is considered assault, according to the aforementioned study from the NSVRC. Less men than women see coerced sex as assault (67 percent of men compared to 79 percent of women). To clarify, coerced sex is a form of sexual assault. If a person does not feel the have the ability to say no (e.g. for fear of retribution or threat to their safety), the act is not consensual.
The legal definition of consent and what constitutes assault is unfortunately not consistent in every state in the U.S. In North Carolina, a person is legally allowed to finish sex even after consent is revoked. Meaning, once someone says “yes,” it cannot be revoked even if someone becomes uncomfortable with the sexual act. North Carolina Senator Jeff Jackson was working to amend the law to account for revoked consent. However, it appears the bill may be tabled until the next year. “North Carolina is the only state in the country where no doesn't really mean no,” Senator Jackson told Broadly. “Right now, if a woman tells a man to stop having sex he is under no legal obligation to do so, as long as she initially consented. If sex turns violent, the woman has no right to tell the man he must stop.”
This law is in direct disagreement with what expert organizations on sexual violence, like the NSVRC or RAINN, define as assault and rape. These kinds of legal discrepancies further complicate our cultural conversations on consent.
Like many people on Twitter said using #WhatConsentMeansToMe, it’s equally important to understand what does not equal consent. Clothing can’t say yes. A past “yes” is not a current “yes.” Saying “yes” to a different activity or a different person does not mean “yes” to all activities or people.
Continuing to have these kinds of conversations, both online and in person, is very much needed, as evidenced by current statistics on sexual assault and harassment. These conversations are also necessary to becoming a culture that clearly understands and values consent going forward.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.