yes or no

On ethical sex and the complexities of consent in an unjust world

Over at The Harvard Crimson, student columnist Reina A.E. Gattuso has an excellent piece exploring the complexities of consent. Using her own sexual experience at a party as a high school senior as an example, she breaks down the power imbalances and structural inequalities at play. 

Experiences like this come up again and again: Times when something feels bad, but we have a hard time saying what. When we feel disempowered. When there is a real, scary doubt about our “yes.”

The past fifty years of feminist activism have given us a language to politicize our experiences of violence: “Nonconsensual sex” becomes assault. That’s amazing. That’s revolutionary. That is a powerful critique of ideologies that lead us to systematically disrespect female and queer choice. Sometimes, however, we forget this more structural critique and talk about consent as an individual process—not asking “What kinds of power are operating in this situation?” but only “Did you or did you not say yes?”

Humans don’t exist in isolation, and it’s hard to make free choices in an unjust world. That doesn’t mean that marginalized people can’t consent. I’m very queer and very female, and as my roommates will tell you (the walls are thin), I’ve given some powerful yeses. But we need to think about consent not as the words two-or-more rational, free, horny agents exchange when they’re about to get down, but as a collective process of lowering barriers to empowered choice.

She rightly notes that feminists can sometimes underplay the structural and cultural inequalities that make it more complicated than “yes” or “no” in our strategic focus on individual consent: “We want everyone who hooks up with anyone ever to do so only with an affirmative, active yes. Teaching that consent is always clear is a tool in making it so, by mandating explicit and affirmative articulation.” I’d argue this insistence that consent is clear is in part necessitated by the fact that there is an opposing tendency in the broader culture to portray it as harder than it really is — one that we know, for a fact, is exploited by serial predators who knowingly and deliberately rape and then find a cultural safe haven amidst wide-spread belief in constantly blurry lines.

But, as Gattuso adeptly illustrates, in order to build a truly ethical sexual culture — to eliminate not just the sexual violence that we’ve named but also the “substratum of violence we refuse to name as such,” as Alexandra has written — focusing on individual consent isn’t enough. As in so many other realms, we need a more collective transformation to “make cultures that enable meaningful choice, cultures wherein we minimize, as much as possible, power imbalances related to sex.”

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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