If you’ve been on the internet in the last few days you have no doubt heard about the most recent addition to the #MeToo Wall of Shame—comedian Aziz Ansari. In an article on Babe.net, a woman name “Grace” details a date with the young comedian and his repeated attempts to have sex with her despite her frequent nonverbal refusal of his advances. The Babe article frames Grace and Ansari’s encounter as sexual assault as Grace says in the article, “I believe that I was taken advantage of by Aziz. I was not listened to and ignored. It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.”
Since the article was released, it has sparked a heated debate on whether or not the Grace’s experience can really be called a “sexual assault.” Many feminists point to the familiarity of Grace’s experience as evidence of rape culture—even good guys do bad things. However, the more common response seems to be against Grace’s interpretation of events. A quick scroll through Twitter shows a range of responses against Grace: She could have said no. What did she expect him to do, read her mind? She could have left. She gave him oral sex. How could it possibly be assault if she agreed to do that? Some have compared Ansari’s actions to those of the infamous Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, arguing that while Ansari may be creepy, he’s nowhere near criminal status (as though sexual crimes function on some sort of Likert scale). Dozens of think pieces have argued that Grace’s accusations are a blow to feminism and undercut the entire goal of the #MeToo movement. Even famous feminist icons like Margaret Atwood have joined the fray, arguing that the #MeToo movement undercuts the legal system rather than fixing it. The critique has been harsh to say the least.
These conversations are important because they raise key issues that need to be worked out as part of fixing the problem of sexual violence, but I’m not particularly interested in adding yet another defense or assault of Ansari or any other man caught in the #MeToo crosshairs. Rather, I’m interested in the ambiguity inherent the Ansari story and a troubling fact that this could easily have been prevented.
One of the most frequent critiques of Grace’s accusations is that she didn’t explicitly said no during her encounter with Ansari, and when she did, he stopped. For many, this seems like a pretty clear-cut act of consent. If no means no, then Ansari was in the clear until Grace actively voiced her discomfort. Since he stopped when she asked him to, he’s good. I argue (and many others have as well) that this is a pretty backwards way of looking at consent. The presumption in a “no means no” approach to consent is that consent exists in the absence of a no. If a someone doesn’t say no, then they have consented. However, as Grace’s story shows, there are many ways one might say no and there are many things that may stop someone from saying no. So where do we go from here?
Affirmative consent takes the traditional “no means no” approach to consent and turns it on its head. According to New York’s “Enough is Enough” legislation (which adopted affirmative consent as a uniform standard in NY public universities):
"Affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent. The definition of consent does not vary based upon a participant's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression."
To boil it down to its simplest terms, in affirmative consent, yes means yes.
Affirmative consent as a practice takes much of the guesswork out of sexual encounters by simplifying consent. Only an enthusiastic, knowing, and voluntary yes counts. To be clear, this means:
No means no.
A yes given under pressure of coercion (as in Ansari’s case) means no.
A yes given under the excessive influence of alcohol or drugs means no.
Maybe means no.
Silence means no.
Anything other than enthusiastic yes means NO.
Affirmative consent can be verbal and non-verbal (though if consent is verbally asked for—“do you want to have sex?” or “is this okay?”—a verbal answer must be given. Otherwise it means no.). The basic rule is that if you can’t tell if the consent is enthusiastically positive, then you should ask.
It’s a simple concept, yet it solves so many of the problems that are increasingly coming up in #MeToo stories. It is gaining popularity around the country. States like New York and California have passed laws making affirmative consent the standard in sexual violence training and investigations in public universities, and many other states and universities are considering similar policies. Likewise, many individuals choose to practice affirmative consent in their own sex lives both as a protection for themselves and as a way to connect with their sexual partners.
Many opponents of affirmative consent argue that explicitly asking for consent during a sexual encounter is “awkward” or “ruins the moment.” I argue this is more caused by socialization than any inherent awkwardness of affirmative consent as a practice. We are taught that sex is meant to be whispers and intrigue. Perhaps historically it has been. But historically sex has also often been assault and rape, and female pleasure during sex was often discouraged. The idea that asking for consent is awkward relies on highly gendered ideas about sex and what is “normal” in a sexual encounter, but perhaps it’s time to restructure those ideas. In the light of #MeToo and growing awareness of sexual violence, I don’t see how making sure your partner is enjoying having sex with you is a turn-off.
Personally, I actively practice affirmative consent. I have been married for 5 years and with my husband for almost 9 years. In that time, I cannot remember a single sexual encounter that didn’t start with some version of affirmative consent (sometimes as simple as “do you want to have sex?”). We know each other very well. We can almost always tell when the other is or is not interested in having sex. We still ask. Every time. In eight years, it hasn’t made our sex life “awkward,” and it hasn’t ruined any moments. However, it has given each of us a way to show our respect for one another. It has allowed us to show our dedication to making sure we are both comfortable and happy in our relationship. It has helped us improve our communication. In many ways, affirmative consent has made our relationship (sexual and otherwise) a lot better.
As we continue to watch the #MeToo movement develop, I argue that we need to use this opportunity to talk about affirmative consent as a new way to approach sexual relationships. No is not enough. The next time a story like Ansari’s crosses your newsfeed ask yourself, what if he had just asked?
About the Author
Danielle Clapham is a PhD student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She received her B.A in English Literature at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, and her M.A. in British and American literature at Marquette University. Her research focuses on experimental realism and the politics of representation in expatriate modernist fiction. In addition to her research, Ms. Clapham also identifies as a person with a disability and a feminist. She is very active in disability rights activism and conversations surrounding education reform. When not proudly claiming the role of social justice warrior, Ms. Clapham spends her time knitting, reading, and cultivating an unhealthy obsession with tea.