Only "Yes" Means Yes: Why Sometimes What You Think is Consensual Sex is Actually Rape
February 25, 2015
This article was originally published November 1, 2012 on Everyday Feminism and re-published here with their permission.
Written by Shannon Ridgway
What is consensual sex? Common knowledge states that it’s two adults who willingly agree to engage in sexual activity with each other.
Sounds simple enough, right? Apparently not.
When I googled the term “consensual sex”, I found many definitions of consent, and many definitions of what constituted a lack of consent but hardly anything on the phrase itself.
This lack of clear definition seems to align with the fact that [many people remain confused by what constitutes rape].
What Consensual Sex Isn’t
There is an unfortunate belief that still lingers in our society — and even upheld by some laws in certain instances — that says unless the other person verbally says no or physically displays acts of resistance (i.e. “fighting back”), then the sex was consensual.
Even though many women freeze when being sexually violated, which is as strong a defense mechanism as flight or fight.
So “yes” has come to mean “if the other person doesn’t say no (violently or screaming), it’s okay”. The problem with this definition is that it reduces the power of the second person involved.
If one person is ready to go and the other person is frozen in fear and/or says “no” in a small voice, it’s still rape.
So What Is Consensual Sex, Really?
It’s time to rediscover the true meaning of consensual sex.
Consensual sex is when:
Both parties agree to have sex (ideally verbally but at least physically)
Both parties show excitement and willingness to have sex.
How to know it’s consensual:
Look for visual clues – Does the other person seem excited or happy? Are they smiling? Or do they seem scared or unsure?
Check body language – Does the other person seem to be in a positive mood or have high-energy? Or do they seem tense and uncomfortable?
See if they’re engaged in the sexual act – Is the other person proactively kissing or touching you? Or are they still and only move if you ask them to?
And lastly and most importantly,…
Just ASK and watch for if the answer is said with fear or joy. If it’s a “yes” said in a small or fearful voice, wait before progressing and find out what’s going on. It may be shyness or it may be fear – don’t you want to find out which one it is?
Some Common Examples of What We Sometimes Think Is Consensual and Is Actually Rape
Now that we are clear on what consensual sex is, what isn’t it? Consensual sex is NOT:
1. Marital sex where one person doesn’t want to have sex
Yes, wives do not “owe” their husbands sex merely because they’re married. They too should have sex when they actually want to have sex.
This misconception has deep roots in sexist thinking that says women are the property of men and once bound by marital contract, give up their right to consent to sexual activity.
Because this was strongly believed (and thankfully less so now), it wasn’t until 1993(!) that there were laws in every US state and the District of Columbia that acknowledged marital rape was a crime.
2. Drunken or intoxicated sex where one person is incapacitated or unconscious and cannot consent
People often think that when we mix alcohol/drugs and sex, it’s hard to tell when there’s consent.
So let’s make it clear – just because someone’s drunk doesn’t mean they’ve given consent. They’re just drunk. It has absolutely nothing to do with consent.
It just means it’s easier for someone to have sex with them because they’re less able to know what’s going on – ie easier to rape them.
So if you can’t tell if they actually want to have sex because they’re unconscious, semi-unconscious, or simply too intoxicated to communicate effectively, don’t have sex with them.
It’s really that simple.
And yes, alcohol and drugs can lead to some people feeling less sexually inhibited and more likely to engage in sexual activity. The key is to make sure they can still communicate clearly and express their desire to have sex and you get that confirmation first before having sex.
3. Sex when the other person says “no” but because they’ve had consensual sex before or has been labeled a “slut”, their “no” is discounted
Because apparently if someone agrees to have sex 100 times and decides they don’t want to the 101st time, it doesn’t count.
Really? How ridiculous of an argument is that? A person has the right to decline sex whenever they want, with whomever they want, including if they’ve already had sex with them before.
Remember how marital rape is a crime? Married couples have tons of sex and it’s still rape if one person is forced to have sex at any point.
So unless you think your father should be allowed to rape your mother because they had sex to make you, don’t force your partner to have sex when they don’t want to.
4. Sex with a minor aka statutory rape
Yes, the term “rape” is there for a reason. Statutory rape means sex with a person under the legal age of consent or sex with a physically or mentally incapacitated adult. The young and the incapacitated in our society are awarded special protection under the law, because they cannot give consent in the same way adults can.
So this means that even if they give consent– verbally or otherwise– it is not true consent, and the sexual act will be considered an act of rape. This is true for both girls and boys. If a younger boy has sex with an older woman, that too is considered statutory rape despite popular belief.
This is also true if you purchase commercial sex from a minor. Just because the minor (female, male, trans*) is on the streets doesn’t change their age. And when the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 years old, the chance you’re having sex with a minor is high. So in addition to committing the crime of solicitation, you’re also committing statutory rape and personally benefiting from and actively supporting human trafficking.
5. Sex when one party withdraws consent mid-way after having initially given consent
This is one that seems to get the most heat because it’s not explicitly defined in some states as actual rape and some people feel entitled to be able to “finish” regardless of how the other person feels.
However, despite what the actual laws on the books state, the amount of victim-blaming that occurs, the misplaced sense of entitlement, or the many reasons for withdrawing consent (ranging from boredom, being in pain, to downright abuse) the fact remains – withdrawing consent means saying “no”.
And it still counts even after they give an initial “yes”.
Think about it – Say you decided to eat ice cream but then decided to not finish the bowl because you felt sick. If someone forced or pressured you into finishing it, don’t you think that would be a violation too?
So remember ignoring their “no” is a violation of a person’s autonomy and body and subsequently equals rape.
The bottom line between consensual sex and rape is this – both parties should actively want to have sex and express their willingness to participate to each other.
If this doesn’t happen but sex does, then it’s rape. Because as famed feminist author Jessica Valenti says – only yes truly means yes.
And if you feel like this isn’t important to consider when having sex, remember that it doesn’t matter if you didn’t “intend” to rape someone.
The other person still feels raped and will have to deal with the trauma for maybe the rest of their lives. And you may be charged with sexual assault.
So is this something you really don’t want to be clear on?
Shannon Ridgway is a Contributing Writer to Everyday Feminism from the great flyover state of South Dakota (the one with the monument of presidential heads). In her free time, Shannon enjoys reading, writing, jamming out to ’80s music and Zumba, and she will go to great lengths to find the perfect enchilada. Follow her on Twitter @sridgway1980.
Sandra Kim is the Founder & Editor of Everyday Feminism. She brings together her personal and professional experience with trauma, personal transformation, and social change and gives it all a feminist twist.