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What’s missing when we say ‘no means no’?

Words by: Lauren French, MSexol (Curtin) Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine

We’ve all heard the word consent, but too often our understanding of it is greatly limited. Consent is something I’ve been teaching for the last five years. I’ve been going into schools and working with young people to understand why consent is such a hard topic to wrap our heads around. In the past few years, consent has been all the rage. It’s popped up in the news, in every other podcast and our politicians are even starting to mention it. This exposure is an amazing thing, as everyone should have a deep understanding of consent and how it plays out not just in sex, but in all aspects of our lives. However, in consent being such a hot topic, some have tried to simplify the message for the masses.

‘No means no!’

‘If it's not a yes it's a no!’

‘Silence isn’t a yes!’

These messages are all over social media and while I agree with them, consent its’t this black and white most of the time. While there are many things forgotten about consent, the most common one I’ve noticed is power.

It’s all well and good to say no means no, but what if we don’t feel safe to say no? What if the person asking is in such a position of authority and power that we feel we have to say yes? What if we just really like them, and while we really don’t want to have sex, we do want to be with them? Now power isn’t about overpowering someone, it's not even about someone threatening them with their power overtly. Power is felt without anyone having to talk about it.

Power comes in many different forms, and most people have some level of power compared to another, creating a power imbalance in the relationship. Power might look like individual elements; like social status, having a car or in a same sex relationship being openly ‘out’. Power can also be the big stuff; like race, gender, sexuality, wealth and ability. Our society as a whole has power imbalances, so these can be directly reflected in our relationships. Now to be clear, having power doesn’t make you a bad person. But when we have power, we need to be mindful of how our power might effect someone else. How your power might make someone feel when asking for consent. How your power makes it harder for someone to say no to you. How your power might effect another persons safety. When we’re aware of these things we know how to ask someone while giving them an out.

‘Hey do you want to come back to my place, no stress if you don’t!’

‘I’d really like to kiss you, but I want to check that’s something you want to?’

‘Are you okay with what we’re doing, we can totally stop or take a break if you want’

Giving your partner the option to say no safely is just as important in consent as asking in the first place. Let's not put all the responsibility of consent on the person being asked. Let's ask with consent in mind, we don’t need to wait for a no to think about it.

Lauren French is a proud First Nations woman, a member of the Society of Australian Sexologists & a clinical Sexologist working with the Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine. Lauren is also a sexuality educator with Body Safety Australia, a non for profit organisation specialising in childhood sexual abuse prevention.

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