Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Why “Yes Means Yes?”

I wrote a post last week sharing some tips for teaching kids about consent. Several people asked me why I was focusing on the idea of “yes means” instead of the old standard, “no means no.” That’s a great question! Let me take a few minutes to share some thoughts on that and get your feedback as well.

One of the main concerns with the “no means no” approach is that there seems to be too much ambiguity. For example, I’ve heard stories from several young women who were date raped who said no or stop to physical activity and their date kept pushing. She were shocked by his lack of response, frozen with disbelief. After that initial no, she may not have said no several more times, and ended up being forced into a situation she didn’t want. But the young man says later, “Well, you only said no once, if you didn’t want to keep going I thought you would say no again.” In other words, a continued lack of protest does not mean consent! Of course, I would argue that one no means no and the initiator or any physical behaviors should stop at that one no. But that doesn’t always happen.

Another problem with the “no means no” approach is that it implies that the initiator of a sexual behavior has the right to engage in that behavior until the receiver of the behavior says no. It assumes that the receiver is a sexual object to be acted upon by the initiator. But that’s not what sex is about. It should be a mutual activity in which both people involved have the agency to engage or disengage.

This is where we come to the idea of “yes means yes.” Sexual activity should be mutual and consensual. When two people are engaging in sexual relations together, they should both want the other to be an enthusiastic partner.

California recently enacted a new law that defines sexual consent in terms of “yes means yes.” This law requires “affirmative consent” and makes it clear that consent cannot be given if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or if they are asleep. The law states that,

“Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent,” the law states, “nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”

Whatever you may think of the California law, I believe that helping children and adolescents frame physical behaviors in terms of “yes means yes” is incredibly useful. It gives both parties in any kind of physical affection some clear cut guidance on how to approach one another and how to make it clear what you do or don’t want to happen. Going back to our conversation with young children about giving a hug, instead of making a move for a hug first, the child can ask, “Can I give you a hug?” And then their friend can clearly state whether they want a hug or not.

Teaching our children and adolescents to be thoughtful about consent and mutuality in all of their physical relationships can only provide them with effective skills for sexual behaviors later in life. We want kids to know how to ask for consent and how to give or withhold consent in a clear way. That’s why I think the “yes means yes” concept has real value for parents and professionals working with children and youth. What do you think?

4 comments on “Why “Yes Means Yes?”

  1. Kimberly Thompson
    October 10, 2014

    “Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time” … that’s why I thought it meant nonverbals. Not the “revocation” part but the “ongoing throughout a sexual activity” part. That makes no sense to me if it is intended to be verbal.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 11, 2014

      Kim, I interpreted that as meaning that as two people engage in sexual activities, they both need to take the responsibility to be sure that it is mutual throughout. So, if a couple is making out, and one wants to move further, say into touching the genitals of the other, they should ask, “Can I touch you here?” Or “Is this okay?” The same with actual intercourse. This seems like verbal consent territory to me.

  2. Kimberly Thompson
    October 7, 2014

    I agree with the main premise — that sexual expression needs to be a mutual thing. However, I think there are a couple of issues that are not so clear-cut and therefore “yes means yes” is actually more nebulous a concept than “no means no.”

    1) “Yes means yes” requires people to rely on nonverbal cues, which (while real and vital to communication) are not as subject to categorization. Some people are better at reading nonverbal cues than others, and in the “heat of the moment” emotions and sexual arousal can distort perceptions. Reading nonverbal cues is a skill that is more global than just sexual situations, and particularly adolescents are still navigating this skill.

    2) I don’t know how this concept of “yes means yes” could possibly hold up as a legal concept, due to its reliance on nonverbal cues. People can give mixed messages. Whether female or male, people involved in sexual situations can send signals of both yes and no. Adolescents in particular may have a bit of their mind thinking, “I’m not ready for this” or “I need to be on birth control first” at the same time they are sexually aroused and want to participate. It is not a black-and-white thing. Some partners may back off if they sense uncertainty or ambiguity — but others, with different personalities, may see this as a situation where they need to persuade their partner, as a situation that is negotiable.

    I’m a woman and don’t want to see any woman coerced. However, I also am a daughter, a wife, and a mother of three sons. I don’t want to see anyone accused of rape because they misunderstood social cues.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 7, 2014

      Kim, I don’t understand the yes means yes concept as relying on non-verbals. In fact, I think it’s much more focused on clear, verbal consent!

      I’d love to hear other impressions.

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