When ‘yes’ doesn’t mean ‘yes’

Helen Dallas
Helen Dallas  / 

Trigger Warnings: Emotional and sexual abuse, victim blaming, gaslighting

“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.”

Except when it doesn’t. And although obviously catchy slogans are useful, they can also be seriously damaging. They can erase the experiences of vulnerable people - these people might be in the minority, but isn’t protecting minorities the whole point?

I’m talking about sustained sexual abuse within a relationship. I’m talking about sex when one party has given verbal consent, but this consent is tainted by  manipulation and coercion.

In my own case, I agreed to a lot of things that still trouble me. I’m endlessly thankful that it didn’t go further, because I’m terrified that I wouldn’t have been strong enough to refuse him; I certainly wasn’t able to refuse what did happen. He made me believe that I was profoundly undesirable. He made me believe that if I didn’t do enough and he left me, that I would never be happy again. He called me a lot of horrible things, and made me believe that my gender clouded my judgment, that I was a woman deluded by the Patriarchy and only he could think clearly.

If I didn’t do as he wanted I felt I was betraying my love for him (because I did love him, in a very twisted, frightened way) and then, later, I was boring and upsetting him if I didn’t want to do something. I never outright refused, but if I hinted at refusal, the emotional blackmail would kick in, the comments that I was being unfair, or that he wasn’t sure how he felt about me anymore, and my consent would follow like a good little lamb to the slaughter.

I have to live with the shame of that. I had to pick up the pieces of a destroyed year of my life and move forward. I had to learn to sleep again after three months of insomnia due to nightmares about him. I still have to deal with the flashbacks, the inability to be in certain situations without being overwhelmed by panic. On top of that, I have to deal with the constant feeling that it was my fault that this happened to me.

It’s grossly underplaying it to say that abuse is shit - more than a year after being dumped I’m still dealing with the repercussions of it - and it’s awful that on top of all that, people who’ve been through experiences that may well be much, much worse than mine are left feeling that any sexual encounter within an abusive relationship was consensual because they said “yes”, however coerced that “yes” was.

Technically, the law recognises that verbal consent may be given but not valid if it’s given under duress or manipulation, but for many obvious reasons it’s hard for victims to go to the authorities. All the usual problems of rape culture apply. The feeling of one person’s word against another puts many people off legal action, along with a desire to pretend it never happened, the terrifying sense of isolation and emotional entrapment in an abusive relationship and, of course, the fact that consent is seemingly always defined - wrongly - as verbal agreement. The reduction of consent to “yes means yes and no means no” validates all the guilt, all the doubt over whether it really was a crime committed by someone else.

One way we can combat abuse is for everyone, schools and universities especially, to start taking relationships had when young more seriously. In an NSPCC survey in 2009, almost 75% of girls surveyed aged 13-17 had experienced emotional abuse from an intimate partner. It happens a lot, and some aspects of our society know it - why do you think songs like Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” or Lana Del Rey’s “Off to the Races” are so popular? And yet, whilst the media’s fine with using this prevalence to market a product, so many people refuse to acknowledge that a relationship had when under 21 could possibly be serious enough that one partner could be damaging another. This really needs to stop. These people aren’t as much of a minority as they’re made out to be, they’re just silenced by society because there’s a quiet, totally wrong assumption that no 17 year old is capable of abuse.

I’m not trying to put anyone off sex for fear of being accused of criminal action, but we do really need to start acknowledging that consent is not simply getting someone to say “yes”. A lot more relationships than anyone would like to think are places where it’s effectively impossible to say no. This tends to get overlooked even in some otherwise really productive discussion, and we all really need to start being more aware of this.

It’s not easy, but it has an incredible impact. It’s important to recognise that for some people, there may not be a real choice, and the way we talk about consent should always be set up to include these people who are shunned and shamed so much.

Whilst we live in a rape culture, there may be no easy solution. But the least we can do is not be completely oblivious to the problem.