Why Yes Can Mean No

Inspired by the recent performance of The Vagina Monologues at CMC, this piece is part of a series of  Forum articles by women at CMC about women and sexuality. Check out the first piece in the series here. If you’re interested in contributing an article on these topics, contact us at thecmcforum@gmail.com.


It started with “consent is sexy.” But, of course, there was no point in that—it was like saying rape is just bad sex, instead of a felony. Then there was “consent is mandatory.” It was much better, reminding us that sex is consensual, and everything else is rape. But then there was me, after a party, in a man’s dorm room. And there was “is this ok?” If we are being legal about this, I said ‘yes’—no coercion, no imminent threat of violence, no inebriation (well, not a lot, anyway). But what I want to talk about is what happened before I said yes, who taught me to say yes, why I thought it was better to say yes, and why I really meant ‘no.’

The type of feminism I’m trying to talk about isn’t easy to swallow—it won’t be included in the next Vagina Monologues, and Jezebel won’t write an article about it. But, if feminism means anything to me, it means no longer being alone when I am hurt. In my conversations with fellow feminists, women of color, queer people, and other members of organizing communities, these are some of the conclusions I have come to about what happened that night when I said yes, but meant no.

Depending on who you are, it might sound ridiculous: why would anyone ever say yes when they meant no? Honesty is important to any relationship—sexual or otherwise. Besides, the legal definition of rape in the State of California states “rape is an act of sexual intercourse when a person is incapable of" . . .

Honestly, there’s a lot more to it than that for me. At five, relatives used to kiss my cheeks even as I winced and turned away. At the tender age of twelve, I was taught that my bra straps and thighs deserved detention because they distracted boys at school. At sixteen, my boyfriend assured me that most girls liked this—I just needed to relax. So at 20, in someone’s room after a party, ‘no’ was scary and unfamiliar to me. These incidents, unfortunately, are not unique to me. In discussing this experience with friends, we coined the term “raped by rape culture” to describe what it was like to say yes, coerced by the culture that had raised us and the systems of power that worked on us, and to still want ‘no.’ Sometimes, for me, there was obligation from already having gone back to someone’s room, not wanting to ruin a good friendship, loneliness, worry that no one else would ever be interested, a fear that if I did say no, they might not stop, the influence of alcohol, and an understanding that hookups are “supposed” to be fun.

Image credit: Visionello/Flickr

For me, and many others like me, consent isn’t easy. Yes doesn’t always mean yes, and we misplaced ‘no’ several years ago. This experience isn’t random, but disproportionately affects oppressed communities. Consent is a privilege, and it was built for wealthy, heterosexual, cis, white, western, able-bodied masculinity. When society has taught some of us to take up as little space as possible, to take all attention as flattery, and to be truly grateful that anyone at all could want our bodies or love, it isn’t always our choice to say yes.

Consent as a privilege doesn’t just happen in sex. It happens for those of us who give too much in friendships without knowing how to ask for reciprocation, who let doctors touch us in ways that are triggering because we don’t want to make trouble, who dance with handsy strangers because our friends already left the party, who stick around in toxic relationships because we don’t know if we’re allowed to expect better. When you’re poor, disabled, queer, non-white, trans, or feminine, ‘no’ isn’t for you. I don’t mean to insist that every person oppressed in these systems of power can’t have empowering consensual experiences, and I know many who do. What I do mean to say is that for me, finding ‘no’ is a process, consent is elusive, and sometimes, even when people don’t mean to—they hurt me.

So if consent isn’t just sexy, quippy slogans on tank tops, or boob-shaped cupcakes, what happens next? First, we have to realize that all oppression is connected, and all rape is racist, classist, ableist, patriarchal, hetero and cissexist. We cannot make consent available to all if we are not simultaneously disrupting these structures. Next, we have to stop trying to squash the variety of experiences of coercion into one “Affirmative Consent” law. We cannot trust the state to defend consent and bodily integrity—not in Baltimore, Ferguson, Los Angeles, or Claremont. In this moment, we have to throw out legislation entirely to realize that justice for our communities wasn’t built into those systems anyway. We have to stop looking to our Title IX office for a second and take a look at ourselves. We have to stop being defensive and start apologizing for the ways that we are hurting each other.

If you are still struggling with “but she didn’t say no,” or believe that rape only happens in alleys late at night, or even that rape is the only way consent is violated, you aren’t here yet. ‘Here’ is where consent is woven into the fabric of our daily lives. ‘Here’ is where, beginning in childhood, we get to decide what happens to our bodies; it is where we actively listen to what our partners are saying—and what they are not yet able to say; it is where the ways we express gender on our bodies are never questioned; it is where bodily integrity, personal space, and emotional well-being are prioritized over property. This is not an exhaustive list, and ‘here’ is anywhere where we can imagine radical spaces of agency and self-determination for individuals and the communities they belong to.

I’m certainly not ‘here’ yet, and I can’t get ‘here’ alone. I have to negotiate finding ‘no’ for myself while also being there for other people doing the same thing, and apologizing when I replicate harm that has been done to me. If you’re trying to find ‘no,’ believe me that you aren’t alone. If you know someone trying to find ‘no,’ support them. If you didn’t allow someone else to have ‘no,’ do better. I know it’s hard; consent is really hard. But if we love each other—if we are, in fact, a community—then it is mandatory.

The views expressed in opinion articles are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors or other employees of The Forum.