This week, controversial radio host Rush Limbaugh has sparked outrage for suggesting that men know that “no means yes if you know how to spot it.” The comments made national headlines and led to renewed calls for radio shows to drop Limbaugh’s show.
The concept that “no means no” is a famous anti-rape slogan. More recently, it’s given rise to the inverse — “yes means yes” — to encourage a more rigorous standard of affirmative consent. But, while those ideas are certainly becoming more mainstream among sexual prevention activists and on college campuses, there are still plenty of people who maintain a misguided belief that “no” can actually mean “yes” during a sexual encounter.
For instance, according to a new national survey of Australians, about one in six people believe that “women often say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’.” The same survey also uncovered a host of other victim-blaming attitudes; for instance, nearly 40 percent of the Australian respondents agreed that “a lot of times women who say they were raped led the man on and later had regrets,” and 12 percent agreed that “if a woman goes into a room alone with a man at a party, it is her fault if she is raped.”
Other research has found similar attitudes among the United States population, too. One 2009 study investigating Americans’ perception of acquaintance rape found that some people believe it isn’t assault even if a woman says “no.” According to the researchers, those people were less likely to value gender equality — they were more likely to subscribe to a “conservative, traditional, and hierarchical” worldview, marked by “highly differentiated and stratified gender roles.” A 2008 study confirmed that many college men interpret “no” as “yes” during their casual sexual encounters with women, partly because they ascribe their own attitudes about sex onto what their female partners attempt to communicate to them. More recently, researchers found that young men frequently pressure women to have anal sex and don’t necessarily think they need consent for the act.
Fraternities sometimes get in trouble for reinforcing these messages. Yale University was placed under federal investigation after frat brothers there chanted “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!” That fraternity ended up getting suspended. Last year, students at St. Mary’s University made headlines for a pro-rape chant that included the line “N is for No Consent.”
Sometimes, “no” can even legally mean “yes.” Last year, women’s rights advocates in Germany were outraged when an alleged rapist was acquitted despite evidence of the victim screaming “no.” Since German law defines rape as a crime that necessities “physical threats or force,” repeatedly saying no is not necessarily enough to prove a sexual assault. Similarly, defense attorneys here in the U.S. have also argued that perhaps saying “no” just isn’t strong enough to demonstrate that it was really rape.
Researchers believe that confusion over what “no” really means stems from some deeply ingrained gender norms. Men are socialized to be sexually aggressive, approaching sexual relationships as a “chase” and a “hunt,” and that leads many of them to grow up believing they are entitled to women’s bodies. Meanwhile, women are taught to be demure and are expected to display a resistance to sex. Many women have grown up approaching sex as something that simply happens to them, rather than something they’re an active participant in, and therefore aren’t always comfortable explicitly vocalizing their needs. Sociologists say that our current sexual “scripts” require men to know exactly what to do and women to accept their advances without anyone having a real conversation about it.
Along those lines, the pick-up artist community — the groups dedicated to teaching men how to convince women to have sex with them — often perpetuates the idea that “no” is a simply a temporary hurdle that men can learn to work around. “See those barriers for what they are and enjoy the process of getting past them, as she will enjoy watching you do it [winky face],” one pick-up artist site says in a guide to circumventing women who resist men’s advances.
Rush Limbaugh’s assertion that “no” can mean “yes” if guys just learn how to recognize it echoes decades of potentially dangerous approaches to sexuality. Fortunately, there’s a way forward in this area. The sexual assault prevention advocates in favor of the “yes means yes” standard — which recently became enshrined into law in California — argue that focusing on affirmative consent can flip the script on sex entirely. Instead of approaching sex like a male challenge that involves a passive female conquest, affirmative consent requires both partners to have a more open conversation about whether they’re excited about having sex.