If no isn’t an option, yes has no meaning

I am always amazed at what a difficult concept consent seems to be. She asked for it, she started the argument, she was into making out, what did she think was going to happen if she went there/did that …. are all variations on the theme of “she consented” and used to try to confuse our understanding of rape and intimate partner violence.

Most recently, I was shocked and repulsed at Ariel Castro’s gall in asserting that “there was harmony” in his home, and that much of the sex he had with the three women he had imprisoned was “consensual” and besides, the women weren’t virgins anyway. When I heard this on NPR, I began yelling “What the F?” in my car. Fortunately I was alone.

The good news is, it seems like most people reacted like I did, and that was heartening.

How is it that someone can be so confused about what constitutes “harmony” and consent that they can say with a straight face that it existed in that situation. Castro is an extreme case, but I suspect that one of the reasons he was able to convince himself of this is because it is generally consistent with the purposefully confusing and blurred picture men in particular get about female consent.

In other words, it’s not that far out of normal, and that is the scary part. Blurring the idea of consent plays out in all sorts of ways in our culture. And it is useful because it helps the dominant group pretend/ignore/claim that the subjugated group isn’t really being oppressed, but that they actually CHOSE or consented to their situation. This alleviates their responsibility to grapple with what relationships would look like if each person truly had equal value, dignity, and respect.

So in the interest of clarity, let me explain something about consent.

It is really quite simple: if a person can’t freely say no, then yes (or silence) has no meaning. Yes only means something if NO is a real—no negative consequences— possibility, something one can say free of the fear of violence, force, humiliation, murder, homelessness, loss of economic security, the safety of one’s children. If NO is dangerous, then YES is empty. It’s not consent.

Consent-Flowchart

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