Yes Means Yes, But… Why Consent Education Isn’t Straightforward
(Washington, DC)—In the #MeToo era, educators and activists are coming out even more strongly in favor of 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 the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, Kate Lockwood Harris argues that consent education isn’t so straightforward. The University of Minnesota Assistant Professor presents two communication myths that challenge the idea that “total clarity precedes ethical action,” arguing that the “yes” and “no” mantras “lower the standard for communicative competence” and ignore historical/cultural context.
Communication Myth 1: Discourse, or everyday talk, mirrors reality
According to Harris, people idealize communication and make assumptions about meanings. Common justification from perpetrators of sexual assault include, “It was a simple misunderstanding,” or “She didn’t say no.” There’s a catch-22 here: acknowledging that communication is often ambiguous leads perpetrators to believe it’s impossible to act ethically. But Harris believes denying or ignoring the complexity of consent is also a rape-supportive argument. It also dismisses messages from those who use non-verbal communication. A young woman’s viral story detailing an uncomfortable sexual encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari included a text message apology from Ansari using the “misunderstanding” line; the woman emphasized her repeated non-verbal cues. Harris argues, “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: Everyday talk is disconnected from social/historical context
Talk is not just talk, according to Harris. Meaning operates at multiple levels, and therefore, consent can never be simple – it’s always attached to cultural contexts that include relational dynamics, power and identity, history and culture, and more. Moreover, consent is an ongoing process (see again, Aziz Ansari).
Harris believes the Communication discipline has a role to play in shifting consent education and discourse. She provides four specific ideas for activists, educators, and policymakers, including:
- Provide historical information on consent
- Discuss cultural variations in directness
- Emphasize that ethical interaction requires reflection and interpretation rather than passive assumptions
- Refuse to frame communication as the opposite of “miscommunication” and acknowledge that not everyone shares the same meanings
Read the full article on Taylor & Francis Online here.
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