Communication Currents

Young couple

Yes Means Yes, But… Why Consent Education Isn’t Straightforward

March 5, 2018
Interpersonal Communication, Nonverbal Communication

Long before the #metoo era, educators and activists came out in strong support of seemingly clear and direct consent statements in the hopes of preventing sexual assault: “No means no,” and more recently, “Yes means yes.” But in a new essay in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, University of Minnesota Assistant Professor Kate Lockwood Harris argues that these interventions “lower the standard for communicative competence, disconnect it from historical-cultural context, and miss opportunities to politicize consent.” She outlines two common communication myths about consent that contribute to rape culture, challenges the idea that “total clarity precedes ethical action,” and offers specific changes for how people can talk about consent, all drawn upon insights from Communication Studies.

Communication Myth 1: 

Discourse Mirrors Reality

To explain this first myth, Harris begins by unpacking the accepted understanding of discourse, which is to transport information from point to point, meaning that words denote a single meaning. She is quick to note that Communication scholars take a different approach: “Discourse does not only represent the world but creates the world.” Thus, identical words spoken by different people may have different meanings, and communication is therefore always somewhat ambiguous. While consent discourses such as “yes means yes” and “no means no” may seemingly reflect reality, Harris says this suggests that “ideal communication is less negotiated, less ambiguous, and less fraught than what Communication Studies scholars assume” – providing an excuse for perpetrators of sexual assault. Common justification from perpetrators include, “It was a simple misunderstanding,” or “She didn’t say no.”

Harris says that acknowledging that communication is often ambiguous leads perpetrators to believe that it’s impossible to act ethically. She argues, however, that denying or ignoring the complexity of consent also leaves rape-supportive arguments intact. She provides multiple examples of consent education blog posts and videos that assert that consent is “unconditionally simple,” evoking this first communication myth. Characterizing consent as simple is problematic, not only because it dismisses messages from people who use non-verbal communication, but also because it suggests that ethical interaction occurs only when people eliminate ambiguity, “not when they learn how to act ethically in the midst of inevitable and unavoidable ambiguity.” To put it simply, Harris argues that ambiguity is not a reason to assault someone. “If public arguments emphasize only that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are unambiguous, they miss the actual problem…ignoring the desires of another person.”

Communication Myth 2:

Local Discourse, or Everyday Talk, is Disconnected from Social/Historical Context

The author explains the difference between little “d” discourse, which is local, everyday conversation, and big “D” Discourse, which is the overarching meaning patterns that accumulate over time, across contexts. Given these definitions, Harris argues that meaning operates at multiple levels during any given communicative episode. Ultimately, she writes, consent discourse’s larger connections to society cannot be ignored. To arguments that say consent is straightforward, Harris counters: “Consent can only be simple if we sever it from cultural contexts that exceed interpersonal interaction.”

Supporting the second communication myth means ignoring relational dynamics, power and identity, history and culture, and that consent is an ongoing process. “Words operate in context,” Harris writes, “but arguments about simplicity seem to require overlooking that context.”

Using Communication Studies to Shift Consent Discourses

So how can educational programs draw on Communication Studies to debunk communication myths and create better consent discourses? First, Harris applauds multi-level intervention programs, because “social and cultural factors – not individual beliefs and behaviors – support and enhance the risk of sexual violence perpetration.” She argues that because Communication scholars analyze more than an individuals’ words, Communication Studies “can help to ground violence prevention programs in perspectives that cross both proximal and distal discourses.” Second, she supports bystander education as an approach to community-based intervention, emphasizing all community members’ role in sexual violence prevention. Communication Studies theories link various levels of intervention, Harris writes: “Individuals engage with Discourse as they decide what to say, discourse is the motor of dyadic interaction, discourse operates in organizations and institutions, and Discourse shapes the larger social landscape.”

To round out her essay, Harris outlines four specific ideas for activists, public thinkers, educators, and people who have everyday conversations about consent:  

  1. Provide historical information on consent
    • Incorporate facts about consent at different time periods to show how consent has shifted over time and disrupt the notion that consent is static and immune to social influence
  2. Discuss cultural variations in directness
    • Norms for directness and indirectness vary across culture and language; people should cultivate an awareness of the range of possible styles
  3. Emphasize that ethical interaction requires metacommunication
    • Discourse is inherently ambiguous, requiring people to reflect on their interpretations and account for difference; metacommunication normalizes active coordination of meaning rather than passive assumptions
  4. Refuse to frame communication as the opposite of “miscommunication”
    • Recognize differences in understanding and attempt to understand them rather than rely on an absence of communication or require everyone to share the same meaning

Harris concludes by noting that communication is by nature “difficult, fraught, exciting, complex, curious, and rewarding,” yet humans still find ways to act ethically in the midst of this complexity. She calls for feminists and educators to “stave off problematic interpretations of ‘yes means yes’ and ‘no means no’” that only reinforce rape culture, and to recognize how “interpersonal interaction implicates cultural and social systems.”

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Harris, Kate Lockwood. (2018). “Yes means yes and no means no, but both these mantras need to go: communication myths in consent education and anti-rape activism.” Journal of Applied Communication Research. doi: 10.1080/00909882.2018.1435900

About the author (s)

Kate Lockwood Harris

University of Minnesota

Assistant Professor

Kate Lockwood Harris