The silent ‘no’: a matter of consent

Blogs writer, Rosie Plummer, offers a sensitive analysis of our society’s continued struggle with gender roles and the issue of non-verbal consent.

In light of the recent accusation against Aziz Ansari, I felt intrigued to explore the conflicts of living in a liberal, but patriarchal society, in which men are expected to make the first move, but have to be aware of the potential pitfalls of doing so. Clearly, men and women need to understand both the vocabulary and body language which indicate discomfort in sexual situations, and learn to respect their partner’s right to say ‘no’. But how easy is it to read the subtler indications of discomfort? Especially if your partner doesn’t vocalise that unease. What the backlash to the accusations against Ansari reveal is that many in society don’t understand the difficulty that women have in asserting their voice in the face of male pressure.

Recently published an account of a 23-year-old woman, under the pseudonym Grace, who spent a night with Aziz Ansari. The account caused controversy online when many began to ask why ‘Grace’ did not leave the situation, with many claiming that her experience was a ‘normal’ one in the dating world.

Questioning why ‘Grace’ did not leave is entirely unhelpful, and undermines the shock and trauma that this woman clearly faced. The idea that a woman should ‘just leave’ when uncomfortable also overlooks the intimidation and power dynamics which come into play in so many cases of sexual assault.

The claims that ‘Grace’s’ experience was not assault, but rather an outcome ‘to be expected’, raise a related set of concerns. Particularly when the claims are taken together with Ansari’s response to the account, in which he stated that he thought the situation was consensual. Though you could argue that Ansari’s statement was merely a defence in order to avoid responsibility for his actions, it does raise questions about how we understand non-verbal consent.
In today’s society, gender roles are still enforced upon us from a very young age, and we ourselves often uphold them in adulthood. Most women I know still wait for a man to make the first move. Indeed, most won’t even ask for a guy’s number, preferring to wait for him to ask for theirs. The expectation for men to take initiative often continues into the bedroom. Obviously, anyone initiating sexual contact needs to check that their partner is comfortable with their actions. However, too often women do not feel strong enough to say ‘no’, especially in a situation where they feel intimidated – as demonstrated in ‘Grace’s’ account.

The issue with cases such as the one concerning Aziz Ansari is that a lot of the communication of the ‘no’ was via body language, because the victim didn’t feel able to outright refuse Ansari’s advances for a second time. So yes, people should be able to read body language to some extent, especially people such as Ansari who claim to be so in touch with feminism and issues of harassment. Clearly, if a woman is pushing you away, then you need to stop. However, sometimes body language is not obvious; but should that make it any less valid?

The accusation against Ansari aside, we must explore the outcome of someone going along with something they aren’t entirely comfortable with, without expressing it; and interrogate who is responsible for ‘consent’ in that scenario? Whoever is initiating the contact should be checking whether the other person is comfortable with the situation, but if one person states that they are fine, can the other really be expected to know otherwise? The best solution to this ‘grey’ area is to ensure that both men and women feel empowered enough to say ‘no’.

If accounts like Grace’s are ‘too common’ to count as sexual assault, then we need to change the narrative around consent, and make people (especially women) feel strong enough to verbally express their discomfort. Campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup have revealed themselves to be incredibly enabling in this respect and we should continue to use them positively – as platforms dedicated to empowering the voices of women.

Yes, it is vital that our society properly educates men about consent and yes, it is crucial that those such as Weinstein are held fully responsible for their actions. However, the best thing that can come out of movements like #metoo is sexual empowerment, which can ensure that both men and women feel confident enough to create a more accurate and open dialogue about consent.

The online backlash to ‘Grace’s’ account proved that as a society we still blame women for not saying ‘no’, rather than recognising that they are often too afraid to do so. The real challenge is not only educating men, but also enabling women to express themselves without fear of their partner’s response.

Rosie Plummer

Photo credit: Pixabay