Why it's not as simple as just saying no

Posted on May 28, 2013 at 2:20 AM


A teenage girl and boy are sexting on their phones. Eventually, they decide to meet up then head back to his place. They go to his room and things start to get heated. When he pulls out a condom, she doesn’t say no, although she does go a quiet and still. She isn’t sure if she’s ready, but she’s also curious about sex and worried about him thinking she is a tease. She ends up having sex with him and, although it's slightly painful, it's not as bad as she imagined. She even feels relieved.


Afterwards, she is talking to her girlfriends and says “I don’t know, I mean it was ok. I wasn’t really in the mood, but the poor thing was all hot and bothered! You know how boys are. I guess it wasn’t too bad, but I probably wouldn’t do it again.”


Ask the average woman if this girl has been raped, and their answer will most likely be no. Sure, she may have had a regrettable experience, but if she didn’t want to have sex, she could have said no, right?


Not according to Melissa Burkett and Karine Hamliton. They have published a new study that shows that even forty years after the sexual revolution, women are still often coerced into having sex that they do not want. And a lot of it has to do with our culture.


Right now, we live in a “coercion culture”. A “coercion culture” is a culture normalises coercive behaviour. In our current “coercion culture” preventing rape is considered to be entirely the responsibility of women. This kind of culture makes several (unspoken) assumptions about consent that make it difficult for even the most assertive person to “just say no”.


Consent is assumed


“Coercion culture” assumes that from the moment that a man and a woman begin to interact sexually, the woman is consenting to other kinds of sexual activity as well, including penetrative and oral sex.


Sometimes, the assumed consent begins before anything physical even occurs. Various women who were interviewed in Burkett and Hamilton’s study believed that just going to a man’s house, texting them with sexually explicit messages or flirting with them implied consent to sexual activity.


Consent is only about words


“Coercion culture” teaches women that the only way they can withdraw this assumed consent is by saying the word “no”. Unless the word “no” has been spoken, and spoken in an assertive, forceful tone, consent is still assumed.


This assumption is completely removed from the way that individuals actually negotiate during sex. When people were asked about how they convey consent in sexual situations, most people mentioned using body language to provide unspoken messages to their partner. Many people are negotiating consent without talking to each other at all.


Physical coercion is the only form of coercion


“Coercion culture” portrays rape as a man physically forcing a woman to have sex with him. Outside of this, it assumes women are making their sexual decisions free from coercion.


However, many women reported that if they did not engage in regular sex with their partner, they experienced –


Verbal pressure

Increased arguments

Loss of intimacy within their relationship

Fears that they would lose support from their partner

Fears that they would lose their relationship with their partner


It wasn’t rape – I just didn’t want it


“Coercion culture” ignores the fact that sex can be coercive, even when women don’t experience a sexual activity as rape. Women often cite a variety of complex reasons (such as wanting to please their partner or feelings of guilt about changing their mind) as reasons for having sex that they did not want. However, this sex was viewed by them as consensual because it did not fit the standard societal definition of rape.


Empowered women don’t get coerced


What makes it harder to expose all of these ideas is the assumption that because women can vote (for primarily male candidates) and work (for less pay than their male counterparts) they are now “empowered”. Women are free agents, making unhindered decisions about their lives and our sexualities. Empowered women, so the thinking goes, are on an equal footing with men. So there is no reason to worry about this coercion business - because it’s not happening.


This is perhaps the most dangerous assumption of all.


Consent culture


Let’s talk about a different kind of culture for a moment. Imagine a culture where anything other than an active and enthusiastic yes was taken as a lack of consent. That is a “consent culture”.


Imagine a culture where, when two people are having sex, it is considered normal to check in verbally several times with your partner to see if what you are doing is ok. That is a “consent culture”.


Imagine a culture where whenever you had sex you negotiated explicitly about what was and wasn’t ok, and assumed that you were consenting only to activities that you had already spoken about. This is “consent culture”.


Have another look at the example at the beginning of the article. Was what happened between that girl and her partner rape? Coercion culture says no. But was what happened between them entirely consensual? Absolutely not.

How would the above scenario have played out in a consent culture?

For starters, the entire context of would be changed. Both people in this scenario would have grown up in a culture that encouraged openness, exploration, and education around sex and consent. 

Texting back and forth wouldn't have any connotations of consent to anything else. Each person would have check in several times before making the decision to come over, by verbally asking things like "is this still ok?" and "are you still comfortable with this?".

Sex hopefully wouldn't have been initiated by just producing a condom. But if it was, the boy would have immediately stopped and checked in with the girl the minute her body language changed. 

They would have negotiated about different activities they could do together, or the girl could simply inform the boy that she has changed her mind. There would be no negative consequences, no pressure, no attempts to change her mind and no worries about her reputation. 

And if they did check in, talk, negotiate and decided together that they both still want to have sex, it would be in  way that was fun, pleasurable and consensual for both of them. 

Want more information on consent?

Try the Yes Means Yes Blog or  the Red/Yellow Card Project


Categories: Educational, Activism, Health

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