As a child, one of the first things you learn is the difference between “yes” and “no.”
When you were younger, you hardly misunderstood “no.” It was a simple two-letter word used to negate anything that you weren’t interested in.
Fast-forward to being a young adult with hormones who engages in sexual activities, and the word “no” is filled with renewed significance.
Glenn Scheyd, associate professor in the College of Psychology and chair of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, shed light on what the word “no” really means with regard to sex and how people interpret it.
“Yes” means “yes”
According to Scheyd, the basic idea of consent stems from the concept that “no” means “no.”
Scheyd said that even though saying “no” is the most overt way to communicate that you are not interested in sex, the absence of “no” does not mean that you have consented.
“If someone is incapacitated, they probably won’t be able to say ‘No,’ but that does not mean that you have the right to engage in a sexual act with [him or her],” he said.
There are thresholds for consent; on the lower end of this threshold is simple communication, such as saying “no,” and one of the highest thresholds for consent is found in California.
Scheyd said that, in California, colleges and universities are adopting a legislation that stresses affirmative consent.
“Affirmative consent means that the person has to actively say yes,” he said.
The legislation makes California the first state to adopt the “yes means yes” approach. This means that consensual sex can only occur if both parties have explicitly agreed to have sex. If this explicit agreement does not occur, then students can go to university authorities or the police and report the incident.
Scheyd said that it can prove to be difficult to ask someone for consent before every sexual act, especially if it is clear that both parties are interested, but he understands the necessity of the law.
“I think it’s there for the right reason, which is to ensure that people are safely over that lower threshold, and that there needs to be something more than just the absence of ‘no,’” he said.
Casual sex versus being a relationship
Scheyd said that when engaging in casual sex with someone for the first time, the person needs to be more careful about making assumptions about consent and will need more than just body language for confirmation. But, when a person is in a relationship and sex is a part of their routine, they still need to have some level of consent.
“In a relationship, there is a level of comfort, and you can feel more certain about what’s going to happen,” he said. “If your partner is changing [his or her] mind on a particular occasion, then it would be reasonable to expect that they would say, ‘No, not tonight,’ or ‘No, I’m not in the mood.’”
“Yes” then “no”
Scheyd said that it can be frustrating if your partner has expressed that they want to have sex and then, when the moment arrives, he or she changes his or her mind. But that frustration doesn’t mean that you can force the person to engage in sexual activities with you.
“The other person has a right to change [his or her] mind at any point, and that should be respected,” he said. “At that point, when the person expresses that they do not want to do anything anymore, the other party is obligated to stop.”
According to Scheyd, it doesn’t matter how frustrating or uncomfortable this makes the situation; pursuing sex after this point is damaging.
“Being forced to have sex causes a great deal of suffering, more than being told ‘Sorry, I don’t want to have sex right now,’” he said.
Scheyd said that, if being told “no” causes low self-esteem or deeply affects you, to the point where you start having negative self-talks, then the issue runs deeper than sex.
“If it’s hurtful at the moment, then it’s probably just the discomfort of the sexual frustration, but then, if it’s psychologically damaging to them, they need to step back and understand that rejection happens to everyone at some point in time,” he said.
Scheyd said token resistance is when a person “pretends” to not want to engage in sexual activity but intends to have sex.
Scheyd said that it’s unfortunate when people confuse token resistance for consent, but when people engage in it, there is usually a mutual understanding that it is a form of role-playing.
“It does create confusion if they expect the woman to say ‘no’, and, so when she does, they might disregard that,” he said. “[To be on the safe side], if the guy is the aggressor, and the woman says ‘no’, he should play it safe and stop.”
Scheyd said, after stopping, if the woman was engaging in token resistance, then she’ll ask, “Why are you stopping?” and, at that point, her partner will have clarity.
“It’s always worth it, to get some clarification if the situation is ambiguous,” he said.
Scheyd emphasized the importance of clear communication, and the best way to ensure that your partner wants to engage in sexual activity is to ask.
“Just asking will be more worthwhile and puts you on the safer side,” Scheyd said.
It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable that conversation is, it’s always better to know for sure.