This was originally posted in June 2009.
One of the tangential issues that came up in the rape thread that would not die is the statement “no means no.”
I really hate to have to point this out, believe me… but sometimes a simple “I’d rather not,” “I shouldn’t,” or even “no” isn’t clear enough. I won’t try to guess at numbers, I’m not qualified, but there are most certainly women who enjoy that particular game. Keep in mind that we’re talking about college kids here. Boys and girls in their late teens and early twenties for the most part, and clear communication about sex and relationships is going to be fairly uncommon. Again, I’m not even going to pretend to put numbers on it, but I’m absolutely certain that sometimes it is honest miscommunication.
“No means no” is a simple slogan, but it just doesn’t reflect reality. Imagine stopping only to be yelled at because your partner was getting into it and you ruined the mood. Imagine it happening when you’re young and still inexperienced and emotionally fragile. How many times do you think that has to happen before a person is capable of mistaking a sincere “no” for a repeat of the previous situation, if only for a short time?
I’m not trying to say it’s common… I’m just saying I’d be amazed if it never happened, and that I’d be amazed if there aren’t piles of similar ways a misunderstanding could happen in a moment of passion. If the “victim” says that it was a misunderstanding, I’m inclined to believe her unless there’s some other information to imply otherwise.
I’m going to assume that this is an honest statement of confusion, not an attempt at rape denialism or some kind of justification. It is worth noting, however, that I wasn’t sure when I read it or much of the conversation that followed from it. But it’s not useful to think of this as anything but a misconception that can be corrected, so I’m sticking with that.
The big problem with this statement is that “no means no” is not a slogan, meant to tell us what people are saying. It’s an instruction.
The way that our culture talks about sex–or, more importantly, doesn’t–is fundamentally screwed up. We’re not really talking, most of us. We’re role playing. We’re taking the things that we’re supposed to think and feel about sex and repeating them to one another in the place of figuring out and talking about our own feelings.
Religion hasn’t helped, of course. The inequality between the sexes and mistrust of pleasure that the dominant religions of our society have promoted place particular pressure on women to deny enjoyment of sex, to deny desire. That means that “no” has frequently meant something other than “no.” This is not a new concept.
However, it is a concept that came to be used by men as a justification for rape. As a means of excusing nonconsensuality, it came to be accepted and enshrined in a not insignificant portion of our media and our cultural mythos. That acceptance had to change.
“No means no” doesn’t mean that everyone will always tell you the truth. It means “The only way to be sure that you do not victimize someone is to believe that they are saying what they mean. Do that.” That part of it is true, and using counterexamples of when someone has not been entirely forthcoming doesn’t change that truth at all. All it does is provide fodder for the people who don’t want to follow the instructions.
In case it needs to be said, “no means no” goes for both men and women, and men were not the only people who needed to change their behavior. Communication never involves just one party. Men needed to act as though they believed something that often wasn’t true, but women needed to learn how to tell the truth. “No means no” means that women had to learn to speak about their own desire. They had to take responsibility for their own sexuality, societal pressures notwithstanding.
I don’t know how many times I heard while growing up, “If you’re not mature enough to talk about sex, you’re not mature enough to have it.” The topic at the time was birth control and preventing STIs, but the same absolutely goes for the topic of consent. This is similar to the idea behind prohibiting statutory rape–consent cannot be meaningfully given at certain maturity levels–although honesty and thoughtfulness are much better indicators of maturity than age. (Incidentally, for the folks who worry about being accused of rape after consensual sex, attending to a potential partner’s maturity has benefits for you, as well.)
In the end, “no means no” is about making the sexual landscape a better place to be: fewer victims, less blame laid on victims, more people seeing their desires fulfilled, better distributed work of communication. “No means no” isn’t about describing the world as it is. “No means no” is about remaking the world as we want it to be.