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Yes Has to Mean Yes

I keep stumbling across great blogs with great statements about the Assange case.  It’s not necessarily that this case itself is more important than any other (it’s not on its own merits); it’s that this case is a perfect example of the whole whirlwind of media, culture, and politics that happens when a survivor tries to get justice.  Here’s my new favorite statement on the issue, from Harriet’s Fugitivus blog:

“No means no” took us a long way. To put it simply, but not inaccurately, it took us from a world where no meant yes. That is an incredible gain. But “no means no” has taken us as far as it can. Namely, it has taken us to “yes means yes.” It has taken us to a place where we can recognize, create theory, create terminology, and openly discuss the idea that sexual violence and sexual abuse can happen without a “no” as well as with one. We believe that requiring a “no” is not good enough, not a high enough standard. We require a “yes.”


Here’s a tortured metaphor for how I see the concept of enthusiastic consent, and “yes means yes.” It’s like getting my bicycle earlier this year (I’ll explain; bear with me for a moment).

I live in Allston, a neighborhood in Boston known for its undergrad population, dirtiness, music, and plentiful bars.  I love it.  It’s pretty much everything I want in a neighborhood.  The housing’s cheap, food is available late, there’s great music and life all around me.  One of the biggest downsides for me, though, about living in Allston is that it’s physically far away from a lot of the other neighborhoods in Boston.  It’s not well supported by public transportation, and I don’t have a car.  Getting to and from my apartment was a hassle, back in the day.  I needed to block out between 45 minutes and an hour every time I needed to go downtown, or to visit friends who lived in Cambridge or maybe in Jamaica Plain.  It seemed like a really intractable problem: I wasn’t going to be able to get the MBTA to run on time by myself, and there simply isn’t enough money or public will to fix up the B line enough to make it a reliable train.  Also, it stops running at 12:30, which curtails my mostly nocturnal existence.  It seemed like a problem I’d just have to deal with, if I wanted to live in the neighborhood I loved.

That turned out not to be the case at all.  With this problem, there turned out to be a really easy solution: I got a bike.  Boston’s a very small city geographically; even though Allston feels really far away from a lot of the rest of the city, it’s really only about three or four miles from downtown.  What used to take me an hour or more now takes me about 25 or 30 minutes.  I can get to Harvard and back in an hour if I want, plus I get a workout doing it.  I don’t have to rely on the public transportation, I can travel whenever I want, and pretty much the only restrictions are how cold it is outside and whether I’m too lazy to mount on up.  Now if I want to ride the train, I can, but I’m not required to.  It’s sort of become a luxury for those commutes where I want to read a newspaper or a book.  What was previously a seemingly intractable problem is now…not a problem anymore.  It had a simple, easy solution.  Something like a magic key.  I get to keep all the parts of the neighborhood I love, and I lose the downside with one very simple behavior change.

Consent is the magic key to rape, here.  With consent, sexual activity isn’t rape.  As one of the younger generation that Harriet refers to throughout her post, I’ve glommed onto the idea of “yes means yes” as my operating theory of sexual relations - if my partners aren’t giving me enthusiastic consent, then we stop.  It’s not hard.  It feels a lot like the bike to me: if we can press this idea as our new cultural model of consent, then we can start to SOLVE rape.  If people are consenting to sexual activity, it is by definition not rape.  That’s where we want to be - in a world where sexual activity is wanted and where it is undertaken enthusiastically (whatever that might mean for individual people).  Enthusiastic consent can be verbal or not.  It can be negotiated ahead of time, or in the heat of the moment.  I’d suggest that the vast majority of humanity is pretty good at telling when someone wants to do something with us, and when they don’t.

The theory alone doesn’t make rape go away, of course.  But what it does do is make the previous tactics (the types of things that the media and Assange’s lawyer are throwing at his accusers) completely irrelevant.  If your partner isn’t giving explicit consent for the current sexual activity, it has to stop.  It’s easy to understand! 

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.


  1. Thank you for posting yet another fabulous bit from Harriet J. She's right, and the observation doesn't have to pit one wave of feminists against another. "No means no" was a vital tool that brought us to this point. Now we need "yes means yes."

    How I long for a culture when everybody gets that, and I don't have to worry about whether a potential partner truly considers me a partner or just an item for conquest.

  2. Maybe that's the saddest part of the Assange case. Nobody's talking about what real rape survivors (both women and men) go thru. It's far more "sexy" to talk about the other stuff.

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