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More to Consent than “Yes”

October 31, 2014
Informed, enthusiastic consent.

Handy little chart – cut out and keep!

I don’t just mean consent for sexual activity, but that is the main topic through which consent is understood (or not, as seems to be the case) so it will be mentioned a lot.

It is a really great positive step forward that there is new focus on pushing the idea of ‘yes means yes’ rather than the old ‘no means no’. It refocuses onto the person receiving the consent rather than the person giving consent having to communicate explicitly in the terms the receiver may understand and ensures mutual understanding is fundamental. The 2014 Bill currently under consideration in California, USA, is fantastic news as Jessica Valenti explained in the Guardian online in September 2014.

However I don’t think this refocusing onto ‘affirmative consent’ goes far enough, and recent posts about the Canadian radio presenter Jian Ghomeshi and his (alleged, for legal reasons) assault of 8 women (at the date of posting) as well as the myriad plethora of other stories going back as far as I can remember clearly show this. Yes a simple word, short and to the point, one syllable, one clear meaning. Yes means yes, it should be obvious. But more than just that one word may be required for unambiguous clearly understood consent.

There is more to communication than the spoken word. There is body language to take into account; tone, situation and the context within which consent is sought. Is there any sort of external pressure which might stop a person being able to say ‘no’ or being able to express their true intent and/or meaning? A marriage proposal in the full glare of one’s relatives, for example. Or if talking about sex, within the context of an abusive relationship or when one’s potential partner is very intoxicated for example. Both these restrict one’s capacity to give consent, so when one says yes it may not mean yes.

To stop rape, you need to stop people raping.  Not stop women drinking.

Or in other words, 2 out of 3 are committed when the woman is sober.

Why is this so important? What is wrong with just emphasising yes? Well, as this NHS poster from 2007 (which is still up in some NHS facilities) clearly shows we live in still a rape culture of victim-blaming and objective sexualisation of women which relies on advising women on how to prevent becoming a victim of rape (never preventative advice for men, who are also victimised), rather than a culture of perpetrator-blaming and prevention of anyone becoming a rapist. If you don’t believe me, I assume you missed the whole #yesallwomen campaign or are afraid you may have committed some form of sexual assault and are in several levels of denial (and I am applying this to all genders). A ‘Yes’ might have been obtained, but is it truly meant? In any situation, how can you be sure?

I have blogged about consent before in a specifically sexual context and summarise here –


  • Means having all the information one feels is necessary to oneself in order to give informed consent.  Ask questions and expect answers.
  • Means giving all the information one feels is necessary to oneself in order to receive informed consent. Expect questions and give answers.
  • Means honest open communication.
  • Means understanding that consent must be updated; a yes for one activity is not a yes for all.
  • Means knowing anyone under any form of duress (e.g. emotional or physically abusive relationship) directly related to the situation cannot give informed consent.
  • Means knowing anyone very intoxicated on whatever substance they cannot give informed consent, especially (and I can’t believe I have to write this, but Steubenville etc) if they are unconscious.
  • Means knowing anyone who is very intoxicated may also not be able to understand whether they have received informed consent or not; be wary of this and don’t become an abuser/rapist. If you feel intoxicated or in any way unsure of your judgement, do not have sex or do not proceed with whatever activity requires consent.
  • Means never assuming consent has been given.
  • Means understanding yes may not mean yes and no definitely means no.
  • Means you are allowed to say no and you do not have to give reasons.
  • Means erring on the side of caution – if you are not 100% positive then you should assume consent has not been given.
  • Means respecting a person’s autonomy – no-one has a right to sex or to consent. It doesn’t matter how much you spent on them or what your expectations may be. There is no such thing as entitlement.

No universal moral rule applies in all situations with regard to the giving of consent. For example the power disparity in a relationship such as boss/employee does not necessarily preclude the possibility of informed consent but because the power imbalance exists informed consent is explicitly required. The person in the position of power always has the more responsibility with regard to obtaining and updating informed consent.

So, while I agree with and whole-heartedly support the affirmative consent campaigns, it does not go far enough for me. We need to have conversations about informed consent, ensure our children understand it and have the confidence and knowledge to be able to give and receive informed consent, in all things. Classes in sexual consent are also a good idea, and are happening already.

Ultimately, informed consent is the ability to say “yes”, to say “no”, and to say “maybe, but I want to know more first before I can decide” and to know that that decision will be respected and adhered to. We MUST ensure that it is.


From → Ideology

  1. Laura permalink

    Great Article! Where did you get the chart, did you make it? Such a nice starter to talk through the issue

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