"no" doesn't always mean no

no doesn't always mean no blog post

never disrespectful, cuz his momma taught him that

Given the current culture around sexual assault awareness, I already know I'm going to get a barrage of slack for this, so please at least hear me out.

You guys, sexual violence work is hard.  HARD.  Emotionally draining.  Painful.  Confusing and incredibly frustrating.  Individuals and organizations that are brave and strong enough to do that work are absolutely incredible and have all of my respect.  I can't do it.  Admittedly. It's too hard for me.  I have always admired those that can.  Some of them are not only my dearest friends, but my most admired colleagues.  This post is not AT ALL intended to invalidate or diminish the tremendous progress they make every single day at making this world safer for all of us to live in.

However, I think that some of the work that WE do as preventionists and sexual health advocates may be unintentionally harming folks individually and our society on a larger scale.

Because in all honesty, no DOESN'T always mean no.  It's just true.  People say no to sex every single day - because we're tired, not in the mood, stressed out, experiencing pain, are self-conscious, bloated, have a headache, don't have time, are on our period, have an STD, are feeling disconnected from our partner, the kids are in the room next door, etc. etc. etc.  Some of those times, we end up having sex.  We said no.  We then had sex.  It was not rape.  

no doesn't always mean no

To be clear, I am talking about those times when we say no at first, but then change our mind and give consent.  Is that consent always verbal?  Nope.  Is it always the gold-standard enthusiastic?  Hell to the nah.  Sometimes it is begrudgingly.  Sometimes we decide to have sex because the needs of our relationship supersede our own desires at that moment.  Sometimes we decide to have sex because a partner has seduced us with foreplay.  Sometimes it's because they finally did the damn laundry without us having to ask and we want to positively reinforce that behavior (um, I'm talking about a friend, obviously).  There are an infinate number of contexts where a no can turn into a yes.  Shit!  The whole concept of "playing hard to get" - one of the most cliché forms of flirtation - centers around saying no even when you mean yes.

So yes, I realized that in these contexts, consent still exists, which means sex and not rape.  However, I worry that boiling such a complex concept down to a simple "no means no" tagline is doing a disservice to those we are trying to educate.  I have had conversations with many folks who were confused about a previous sexual encounter after hearing consent explained in this way.  They might have thought they seduced their partner with wine, a nice dinner (check out this post on aphrodisiacs), and maybe some oral sex  Was that actually coercing and not seducing?  Are they a rapist?   Or, if they were on the receiving end of said seduction/coercion, are they a victim?  Were they raped?  

The intent of this work is pure.  Reducing violence and trauma.  But are WE traumatizing folks by (perhaps over-simply) defining their experience for them?  Are we creating sexual assault victims where trauma did not previously exist?  How does this dilute the experience of "actual" survivors who were violated, traumatized, and taken advantage of.  


I'm not saying I have the answers.  I don't.  I DEFINITELY don't.  This is something that has been confusing the bejeezus out of me for years, especially spending so much time working on college campuses where this issue is in the forefront.  How do we BEST serve our students/clients/loved ones that not only raises awareness, but promotes health, sexuality, and healthy sexuality?  I would LOVE to hear all of your thoughts on this one.  All!

colby zongol

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