So Yes Means Yes, But How Do I Ask?

This blog post was originally published on June 16, 2015.

Photo:
Photo: “Communication” by Joan M. Mass, Flickr Creative Commons.

As many of us know, UNC-Chapel Hill adopted a new affirmative consent standard in August 2014, meaning that, rather than “no means no,” UNC enforces a “yes means yes” standard—where consent is defined as the clearly conveyed, enthusiastic, conscious, non-coerced “yes.” It is the responsibility of person initiating the activity to receive affirmative consent, and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not lessen that responsibility. Consent can’t be treated as binding; if your partner and you say that next Friday you plan to have sex, you should still check in with your partner next Friday to make sure they consent. If, next Friday, your partner decides they do not consent, you cannot try to hold them to what they said the week before or make them feel guilty in any way for changing their mind. Also, consent to one activity is not consent to another (so, for example, consent to oral sex is not consent to vaginal sex).

I’ve found in my experience conducting One Act trainings that a lot of students struggle to understand the affirmative consent standard, and have a lot of questions about how it works in practice. Many of us are much more comfortable relying on body language, so enforcing a policy that heavily relies on verbal communication can be daunting.

But how do I ask? Won’t it kill the mood? Isn’t that awkward? Don’t you just know when someone wants to have sex? Is it really necessary to ask permission every step of the way? Does this mean that anytime I don’t explicitly ask permission, they can just regret it and call it rape?

Those are all questions I’ve been asked, on several occasions, by several students. A lot of those questions stem from a “but I just want to have sex” mindset, when the mindset should revolve around what both you and your partner enjoy doing. Affirmative consent isn’t about making things awkward, it’s about making sure your partner really does want to do what you want to do.

So how do you ask? Here are some suggestions:

“I’d really like to do ____, do you want to?”

“How do you feel about trying/doing   ____?”

“Does this feel good to you?”

“Are you interested in doing ___?”

“Are you enjoying this?”

“I like doing _____. What do you like to do?”

The possibilities are endless, so have fun with it! Remember that sex should be an ongoing conversation, where you check in with your partner to make sure they are excited about and are enjoying everything that is happening.

But what about just knowing when someone is consenting to sex? Why this change? Why use an affirmative consent standard, when, for years, relying on body language has been considered acceptable?

It’s simple: there has been new research  that indicates people are likely to freeze up when they feel scared, threatened, or traumatized. While most of us are familiar with flight or fight, there is actually this third chemical reaction in our brains – “freeze.” Because of neurobiology, people may not be able to speak up and say “let’s stop,” so they just disengage and wait for it to be over. Using an affirmative consent standard takes into account what happens in our bodies on a cellular level. Beyond biology, social norms may impact some a person’s ability to speak up. Statements like “maybe later,” “I’m tired,” “not right now,” “let’s just watch a movie,” or even silence are indicators that a person doesn’t actually want to have sex, despite none of those being an explicit “no.”

If you ask someone if they want to have sex with you (or do any other activity) and they say no, you didn’t “kill the mood.” You simply gave that person an opportunity to tell you that they didn’t want to have sex. Rejection usually doesn’t feel good, but neither does hurting someone. Affirmative consent is sexy. So play around with how you ask for consent, figure out what way is most comfortable to you, and practice good communication with your partner(s)! Being able to talk about what you are interested in doing together gets easier, and affirmative consent is sexy! Remember: even if you do find it awkward, a few seconds of feeling awkward is worth preventing harming someone.

If you’re worried that your partner may confuse regret with sexual assault, here is a great blog explaining why that likely won’t happen.

Can you think of any more ways to ask for consent? Post below in the comments!

So Yes Means Yes, But How Do I Ask?

Photo:
Photo: “Communication” by Joan M. Mass, Flickr Creative Commons.

As many of us know, UNC-Chapel Hill adopted a new affirmative consent standard in August 2014, meaning that, rather than “no means no,” UNC enforces a “yes means yes” standard—where consent is defined as the clearly conveyed, enthusiastic, conscious, non-coerced “yes.” It is the responsibility of person initiating the activity to receive affirmative consent, and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not lessen that responsibility. Consent can’t be treated as binding; if your partner and you say that next Friday you plan to have sex, you should still check in with your partner next Friday to make sure they consent. If, next Friday, your partner decides they do not consent, you cannot try to hold them to what they said the week before or make them feel guilty in any way for changing their mind. Also, consent to one activity is not consent to another (so, for example, consent to oral sex is not consent to vaginal sex).

I’ve found in my experience conducting One Act trainings that a lot of students struggle to understand the affirmative consent standard, and have a lot of questions about how it works in practice. Many of us are much more comfortable relying on body language, so enforcing a policy that heavily relies on verbal communication can be daunting.

But how do I ask? Won’t it kill the mood? Isn’t that awkward? Don’t you just know when someone wants to have sex? Is it really necessary to ask permission every step of the way? Does this mean that anytime I don’t explicitly ask permission, they can just regret it and call it rape?

Those are all questions I’ve been asked, on several occasions, by several students. A lot of those questions stem from a “but I just want to have sex” mindset, when the mindset should revolve around what both you and your partner enjoy doing. Affirmative consent isn’t about making things awkward, it’s about making sure your partner really does want to do what you want to do.

So how do you ask? Here are some suggestions:

“I’d really like to do ____, do you want to?”

“How do you feel about trying/doing   ____?”

“Does this feel good to you?”

“Are you interested in doing ___?”

“Are you enjoying this?”

“I like doing _____. What do you like to do?”

The possibilities are endless, so have fun with it! Remember that sex should be an ongoing conversation, where you check in with your partner to make sure they are excited about and are enjoying everything that is happening.

But what about just knowing when someone is consenting to sex? Why this change? Why use an affirmative consent standard, when, for years, relying on body language has been considered acceptable?

It’s simple: there has been new research  that indicates people are likely to freeze up when they feel scared, threatened, or traumatized. While most of us are familiar with flight or fight, there is actually this third chemical reaction in our brains – “freeze.” Because of neurobiology, people may not be able to speak up and say “let’s stop,” so they just disengage and wait for it to be over. Using an affirmative consent standard takes into account what happens in our bodies on a cellular level. Beyond biology, social norms may impact some a person’s ability to speak up. Statements like “maybe later,” “I’m tired,” “not right now,” “let’s just watch a movie,” or even silence are indicators that a person doesn’t actually want to have sex, despite none of those being an explicit “no.”

If you ask someone if they want to have sex with you (or do any other activity) and they say no, you didn’t “kill the mood.” You simply gave that person an opportunity to tell you that they didn’t want to have sex. Rejection usually doesn’t feel good, but neither does hurting someone. Affirmative consent is sexy. So play around with how you ask for consent, figure out what way is most comfortable to you, and practice good communication with your partner(s)! Being able to talk about what you are interested in doing together gets easier, and affirmative consent is sexy! Remember: even if you do find it awkward, a few seconds of feeling awkward is worth preventing harming someone.

If you’re worried that your partner may confuse regret with sexual assault, here is a great blog explaining why that likely won’t happen.

Can you think of any more ways to ask for consent? Post below in the comments!

Kissing & Pinching on St. Paddy’s

Today is Saint Patrick’s day, a holiday celebrated by folks with Irish ancestry or nationality, in recognition of the contributions of a first century missionary. I had the privilege of being in Cork, Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2009 where most businesses and government offices were shut down for the day. I enjoyed seeing how the Irish celebrated the date of Saint Patrick’s death with amazing costumes, a parade in the middle of town, windows painted (see picture below), hanging out with friends, and a meal with family.

st patty

This event has morphed from a religious holiday honoring Saint Patrick’s establishment of the Catholic church in Ireland (where the color blue was associated with knights in the Order of Saint Patrick) to an Americanized celebration of all things Irish, including the Irish independence movement and the color green.  Somewhere along the way, we also started teaching children to pinch people who aren’t wearing green on March 17th, and to kiss people who are Irish. An entire line of commercialized products have emerged – “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” t-shirts, “pinch proof” green shamrocks on buttons, green beer, and many more.

Regardless of what someone’s t-shirt says or what a tradition may be, it is important to get consent before touching or kissing another person, no matter their age, what shirt they are wearing, or what has happened between you in the past. . When someone is wearing a shirt that says “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”-  this does not give anyone permission to kiss that person. When someone is not wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day, it is still not okay to pinch that person without their consent.

When we allow touching another person without their consent to be the norm – even pinching, which hurts! – we make it easier for predators to blend in with the crowd. Research by David Lisak confirms that a small percent of folks are responsible for the majority of sexual violence. Most sexual predators are serial offenders, and they know what they are doing – they are intentional.

st patty2

…uh, most people know that, actually.

Let’s celebrate our holidays in ways that honor and respect people’s bodies and personal space. So this Saint Patrick’s Day, save the kisses and pinches for someone in your life who wants them, after getting their consent. Or be a trailblazer and start a new Saint Paddy’s Day trend!

What is the difference between “regret sex” and “sexual assault”?

Suppose a woman wakes up in the morning after a sexual encounter and then labels it sexual assault, to the surprise of her sexual partner.  Did this woman[1] regret having sex and then say she was a victim so she doesn’t have to come to terms with her actions?  Is she lying about being sexually assaulted so people don’t think she is a slut?

I often hear these questions at sexual assault response or prevention trainings around campus. The short answer to this question is, NO, women do NOT say they have been sexually assaulted or raped when they have had consensual sex that they regret.

Let’s break this down.

Do people who had a consensual sexual experience that they regret call it sexual assault?
NO, very rarely.[2]

  • Consider what happens when someone publicly says they have been a victim or survivor of sexual assault. Being a victim of any crime is not something that people are proud of or gain positive public recognition for reporting or discussing. Unfortunately, survivors commonly receive negative attention across news or social media for publicly discussing their experience.
  • Because many of us assume we know how we would react to trauma, victims/survivors are asked why they engaged in behaviors that happened before the assault (“why did you drink so much?”), which (intentionally or not) blame them for something which is not their fault.[3] When we take into consideration the low rates of convictions in the criminal system as well, it’s easy to understand why sexual assaults are underreported to the police, and rarely reported falsely. It only makes sense that some people who are assaulted never tell their friends[4] and avoid calling their experience “assault.”

This article called “Do Women Often Lie About Rape?” by Jarune Uwujaren demonstrates how problematic it is to assume that women lie about being raped. Uwujaren writes that given the high rates of assault, “The fact that some women lie about rape isn’t exactly the most pressing conversation we need to be having.” Instead, we should be talking about how few rapes are reported to authorities compared to the many people who indicate on anonymous surveys that they have experienced unwanted sexual contact or penetration.

Do we all have things that we actively chose to do that we later regret? Sure. Does this even include kissing, touching, or other sexual activity? It definitely can.

The bottom line, though, is that the vast majority of people do not actively and freely choose to engage in sex and then later call it sexual assault.  Learn more about why it is important to believe someone who tells you that they have experienced sexual assault.

Do people who experience sexual assault say they regret the experience?
YES, especially right afterwards.

  • In my experience, many people (men, women, and trans* folks) who experience unwanted and non-consensual sex blame themselves for what happened, even though it’s not their fault. They may mean that they regret actions they took before the assault, from being at a party to having anything to drink at all.
  • Many victims/survivors do not use the terms “rape” or “sexual assault” or “sexual violence” to describe their experience immediately after the incident.  Since alcohol is involved in over half of sexual assaults on a college campus, folks may not remember what happened if they were blacked out or drunk. They also may not be able to clearly talk about what happened because of new research about neurobiology in trauma victims which indicates that the “brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired.”[5]   If folks do remember their unwanted sexual experience, they may say that

*They wouldn’t have engaged in the sexual activity if they had been sober,
i.e. they regret drinking
*They didn’t really want to have sex
*They did not want to have sex without protection, but their partner insisted
etc.

In short, folks who experience unwanted or nonconsensual sex may tell you that yes, they regret the experience, and they may blame themselves because it’s easier for them than dealing with the reality that their control was taken away from them and they were sexually assaulted.

Sometimes, a survivor will later name the event as rape or assault because he/she/ze[6] realizes that (1) what happened WASN’T their fault, and (2) it wasn’t consensual.  So you could hear someone say they regretted the experience and then days, weeks, months, or years later say they were assaulted, but this doesn’t mean that they weren’t assaulted in the first place. It means they have come to terms with what happened to them and are hopefully on the road to recovery from a traumatic experience.


[1] Victims and survivors of sexual assault can be male or female or trans*.  I use the term ‘woman’ here due to the high rate of violence against women and the way I typically hear this question being asked.

[2] Researchers looking at reports over 10 years at one university estimate that rape was reported falsely (ie. fabricated or made up) 5.9% of the time. The FBI estimated in 1996 that up to 8% of reports of rape are false or unfounded (ie. there isn’t enough evidence base to move forward with criminal charges) which is consistent with other crimes.

[3] Many people at UNC-CH are actively working to change this reality for our campus.

[4] But hopefully speak to a confidential therapist, like at CAPS

[6] “Ze” is one of several gender non-specific terms used by trans*, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, agender, and people who reject the male/female binary