When we talk about consent, we often use the phrase no means no. It sounds straightforward enough, but viewing consent in this way is incredibly problematic due to its reductive simplicity.


When we talk about consent, we often use the phrase no means no. It emphasises the need for sexual partners to be aware of each other’s limits, and to be responsive when someone decides that they don’t want to do something. It sounds straightforward enough, but viewing consent in this way is incredibly problematic due to its reductive simplicity: you can’t categorise consent into either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, and attempting to do so has harmful consequences, both in terms of sexual assault and our understanding of sexuality in general.

She didn’t say Yes, but she didn’t say No

In many sexual assault cases, the perpetrator will argue that the victim ‘didn’t say no’ and thus, by implication, consented. This is dangerous territory. I mean, imagine you’re six tequila shots into the night and you’re flirting with the cute guy you just met and you decide to go hunt down a kebab and then the next thing you know he’s got his hands up your skirt and you don’t know what the hell is happening. Or, imagine your relationship is falling to pieces. You’re always fighting with your boyfriend, but as you’re falling asleep one night he decides he’s feeling a little frisky. He tells you he loves you. You don’t say no. You don’t know how.

By placing so much importance on this word, we’ve created an atmosphere where the burden is on women to actively say no. And if they don’t, it means they’re saying yes. There needs to be a shift from this attitude to one where both partners are responsible for ensuring mutual consent.

No means No and Sex-Negative Culture

Our narrow conceptualisation of consent is symptomatic of a broader sex-negative culture where we’re subject to a sexual double standard. Sexually active men are described in a positive light, whereas females engaging in the same behaviours are viewed negatively, and are branded with terms like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. Women are expected to be sexual beings, but they’re also expected to be passive in fulfilling their desires.

Sex-negative culture is also grounded in the historical idea, often propounded by organised religion, that sexual desire is sinful and weak. For men, it’s a potentially risky distraction – an Achilles’ heel to be shielded and concealed for the sake of their economic and social prestige (nothing like an ill-considered extramarital affair to take you down, right, Tiger?). For women, it’s something more dangerous and unnatural, a force to be contained, harnessed and repressed.

Sexuality is not viewed as an essential part of a person, but as something separate that briefly, guiltily manifests itself in the physical act. Relegating sexuality into this exclusive, negative context codifies gender expectations around sex, while constraining sexual interaction to ‘permissible’ acts that often reflect society’s own power dynamics. As a result, it reinforces specific understandings of sexuality, including an acceptance of male sexual aggression toward women and the perception that non-heterosexual sex is perverse.

Creating Positive Sexuality

In order to fight sexual violence and expand the dialogue regarding consent, we must re-evaluate how we understand sexuality. Brad Perry, the sexual violence prevention coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, explains that we should endeavour to create a “culture where people experience sexuality in a state of well-being – a culture incompatible with sexual violence because of a deeply shared belief that sexuality is a precious part of everyone’s humanity.” In the culture Perry’s asking us to imagine, sexuality is seen not as a personal weakness but as a personal strength.

Presently, sexuality has become oversimplified and distorted, creating rigid, even stereotypical sexual identities (‘red-blooded’ lads, ‘loose’ girls, ‘promiscuous’ gay men) without making concessions to the particular needs or feelings of the individual. As a result, our society blocks healthy understandings of sexuality. Positive sexuality, however, enables all manifestations of sexual identity to be acknowledged and viewed as valid.

How Does This Change How We View Consent?

When our idea of sexuality changes, we create a new way of looking at consent. The phrase changes from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes.’ This new form of consent emphasises the need for sexual partners to communicate and respect each other’s desires. It also permits an open dialogue about sex, instead of focusing only on whether an individual does not want to engage in a particular act. All individuals benefit when they actively search for consent because they better understand the desires of their partner or partners.

This reframing of consent and sexuality challenges our subsisting rape culture. Often tolerated or condoned in popular media, rape culture normalises male aggression and violence against women. It places sexual assault prevention on the shoulders of the victims rather than the perpetrators. Because positive sexuality encourages a woman’s voice and control during sex, it challenges the beliefs and attitudes this culture is founded on.

We must create a culture that allows for the safe exploration of sexuality, and which values and respects each person’s sexual identity; a culture that finds sexual violence culturally abhorrent. Actively seeking consent in one small step that all individuals can take to help build a sex-positive culture.

- Toni Haraldsen
Photography by Zara Sigglekow


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