"Yes Means Yes" Must Win Controversy over Consent

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On Jan. 14, feminist website Babe reported a story of an anonymous young woman’s uncomfortable sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari in which he allegedly ignored signals of her displeasure. The story has drawn criticism for humiliating Ansari with an encounter that would not qualify as assault and many view as a normal “bad date.” The continued blowback against the story — both in tweets and articles printed in venerated publications, both from men and other women — should concern students and supporters of the #MeToo movement: it threatens our definition of consent.

HLN host Ashleigh Banfield berated the young woman who told her story for jeopardizing the #MeToo movement and humiliating Ansari. Both The Atlantic and The New York Times published op-eds that bear similar critiques against the woman and defend Ansari from the supposed overreach of #MeToo:  Caitlin Flanagan’s  “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari” and Bari Weiss’ Op-ed “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

The Babe article revealed a long-brewing conflict over the definition of consent. Those who see no wrongdoing in the reported sexual encounter are the ones who need to redefine their terms. Many of them likely grew up in a “No means No” world and operate under the definition of consent as “not a no” — which is both problematic and regressive.  Consent, as activists have worked for decades to redefine it,  is now more closely defined as “only yes means yes,” as an agreement to sexual action that is enthusiastic, mutual, and can be revoked at any time. That has been the definition of consent in states like California since 2014, and it is the definition of consent at the University of Texas.  

The implications of defining consent as “not a no” are unacceptable. By this definition, men assume consent until they hear “No,” and women only withdraw consent with a firm “No.” This should not be the norm, especially since “No” is difficult for women to say if they feel unsafe or pressured and, more insidiously, because many women are socialized to be accomodating: to value men’s feelings and sexual fulfillment over their own.

The accommodation mindset has recently been described by SNL’s Aidy Bryant and in the recent New Yorker short story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian — a female perspective on bad sex and the difficulties of expressing discomfort— which went viral largely because so many women related to it. In a world where many women are taught to be polite and obliging, “not a no” is an unrealistic way to define consent and safe sex.

“Only yes means yes” must be the widespread definition of consent. Women should be allowed to demand that men be attentive and talk to their partners about consent. If men fail to do this, as Ansari reportedly did, women should be allowed to voice their dissatisfaction within the #MeToo movement.

Aziz Ansari’s actions were not criminal, and should not be compared with those of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K.  But critics who say that #MeToo should limit itself to stories of sexual predation, assault and harassment — the extremes of sexual misconduct— are stunting the movement’s potential for positive change. If men and women work to change the toxic, “not a no” sexual culture which precipitates more extreme misconduct, they may lessen the number of future women who say  “Me Too.”

Laura Doan is an English and Plan II major from Fort Worth. She is a Senior Columnist.