Augustine: Recognizing that yes can mean no

Kathryn Augustine, Op-Ed Contributor

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“No means no, yes means yes.” Consent, in the realm of sexual activities, is generally viewed as a binary: either giving permission by responding yes or denying permission through responding no.

However, consent is not a black-and-white, single-word response. While I agree no always means no, I think it’s narrow to believe that yes means yes in every instance.

The typical view of sexual assault may include one person forcing someone into a sexual act, even after they outright say no. In reality, sexual assault is broader than that singular scenario; it can take place even when someone says yes.

The phrase “No means no, yes means yes” fails to take into account the context of the situation in which the individual said yes. Simplifying consent is problematic when there’s no emphasis placed on the possibility of overt pressure or manipulation.

Envision a situation where someone is repeatedly asked to do something sexually after saying no several times. Finally, they relent apprehensively, feeling as though there was no other option. Or, a situation in which someone is guilted into a sexual act, yet there is a look of discomfort on their face. They only said yes to eradicate the pang of guilt in the pit of their stomach.

Though the word yes was spoken in both cases, true consent was absent.

Persistent asking — “Have you changed your mind yet? Please, just do it” — is a form of pressuring. Using guilt — “I’ve had a rough day, and it’s been so long” — is emotional manipulation. And it doesn’t take a mind reader to detect discomfort or hesitance by the way someone speaks, their body language or facial expressions. It is everyone’s personal responsibility to be wary of these cues.

Rather than explaining consent as a straightforward yes versus no, we need to emphasize that consent means that both parties genuinely want to engage in the sexual act. This means paying attention not only to what is said, but to other important nonverbal markers of consent like body language, facial expressions and tone of voice.

If we accept this simplified version of consent, “But they said yes,” turns into an excuse. People can argue that as long as yes is used, they’re in the clear — but that’s just not the case.

Envision a situation where someone asks their partner if they want to share a sandwich and their partner responds with no. The individual nods understandingly and the conversation ends there. They refrain from asking again and again or using a slew of tactics to draw out the word yes.

In an ideal world, every scenario involving sexual consent would play out in this manner. Since we know this is an unrealistic expectation, at the very least we need to recognize and attend to the individuals — approximately 20 percent of college-aged women and 5 percent of college-aged men, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — who experience sexual assault in a diversity of ways.

Growing up, we learned that yes was the key to consent in health classes over the course of middle and high school. I was stuck in that narrow mindset until I saw those types of scenarios involving manipulation play out through high school. We need to pay more attention to the fact that sexual pressuring and uses of manipulation, even when the individual says the word yes, are aspects of sexual violence too. And we need to eliminate all defenses for that behavior, including phrases that only tell half of the story.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at kathrynaugustine2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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