Yes Means Yes: Affirmative Consent



[This post is part of our Let’s Talk About Sex Series] Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the topic of sexual assault and rape, especially in high schools and on college campuses. The issue that has been put front and center after many horrid incidents, is what consent looks like.

Many youth ministries have sex as a regular topic on their agenda, and rightly so. But few include open conversations about what consent looks like. Yet we need to talk about this, because it’s not something that is crystal clear to students (anymore).

Youth culture in general does not embrace a clear affirmative consent, but perpetuates the stereotype of girls who say no or say nothing at all, but in reality ‘want it’. Our students may be raised in church (if that’s even the case), but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to this line of thinking. And—dare I say it?—the derogatory culture towards women in some churches doesn’t help to give women a full, equal voice in sexual matters either.

“She said no, but I know she wanted it.”

How often do we hear variations of this in rape and assault cases? And that’s nothing to say of the many, may rap songs that include some reference to this line of thinking.

Then there are the many instances where there was no consent at all, where girls or women were either too drunk to give consent (or to protest), or drugged, or both. There have been cases where bystanders watched, filmed even, while a clearly unconscious or dead-drunk girl was being raped. Somehow they thought that meant consent.

affirmative consent

But even if students are raised Christian and even if they do believe girls and women are valuable and worthy, we still need to teach them what consent looks like. Because they’re growing up in a time and age where they get bombarded with conflicting messages when it comes to this.

In New York (my state), a new policy called ‘Yes Means Yes’ has been adopted on state universities and colleges and is spreading to private campuses. They key thought is that only an active ‘yes’ is consent for sexual activity, not silence or a lack of resistance. That’s exactly what we need to teach our students.

This is what affirmative consent looks like:

  • the consent is voluntary and cannot be given when it is the result of any threat, coercion, intimidation, force, etc.
  • consent is active, not passive; silence or lack of resistance does not mean consent
  • consent may be withdrawn at any time and at that point, sexual activity must stop
  • previous consent does not mean continuous consent
  • consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated, for instance due to alcohol or drugs, or when someone is asleep

The bottomline is this: no does not mean yes; yes means yes.

As youth leaders, we can help push back against culture and show students what affirmative consent looks like. Yes, these kind of conversations are messy and risky and highly uncomfortable. But they need to happen.

I came across a unique approach this week, made by students from Carnegie Mellon. It’s an interactive graphic novel-experience called Decisions That Matter, where participants make choices and are confronted with scenarios. It’s certainly a fresh approach to the topic of consent, if not a Christian one. I haven’t done the whole thing, so I can’t say for sure if it’s suitable for high school students (definitely not for middle schoolers), but you could have a look at it to get some inspiration.

Have you ever talked to your students about consent? If not, how could you make this happen?

[Photo Credit: Vincent Anderlucci, Flickr, Creative Commons]