The #MeToo Movement has helped foster a critical shift in the conversation about sexual consent from “No Means No” to beyond even “There Must Be a Yes” to “There Must Be Enthusiastic Yes.” According to this view, consent must come freely, clearly, continually, and in a coherent state (i.e., not under the influence of drugs or alcohol). This shift is critical because it folds coercion under the umbrella of how we define assault. Coercion is sneaky because it can make it seem like consent was given, or at the very least, not withheld. It’s sneaky because it thereby shifts blame onto the victim instead of the perpetrator.
It might seem odd for an organization like ours to wade into the topic of consent and why we should promote expressing an “enthusiastic yes.” However, there is a reason why we should all be clear about what a freely-given, unambiguous message of consent looks like. It’s because so much of what looks like consent is actually coercion.
How Coercion Masks As Consent
One of the most complex parts of trafficking is that, for many victims, it can feel like they made choices that led to their exploitation–sometimes even continuing to make choices that kept them exploited, even after they understood what was happening. As a result, they are less likely to identify themselves as victims of trafficking (as opposed to domestic abuse or something similar). They are, therefore, more likely to feel shame for what they perceive to be their role in becoming victimized.
“Repeatedly asking someone to engage in a sexual act until they eventually say yes is not consent, it’s coercion.” (Source: Healthline, “Your Guide to Sexual Consent”)
Coercion is the use of pressure to induce someone to comply. For trafficking victims, this can look like financial pressure–taking on a risky job because there are few other choices for survival. Or in the case of a lot of online exploitation, it can come in the form of a friendship, where the trafficker is slowly grooming their victim to become primed for exploitation. By the time the exploitation happens, the victims have agreed to go along. But that agreement comes with either not knowing what they were getting into, feelings of uncertainty or reluctance, feelings of being pressured or not having a choice, or even feelings of resistance broken down over time. If they say “yes,” that’s consent, right? That’s what many will believe unless they’re made aware of what an enthusiastic yes looks like by contrast.
However, shifting the bar to enthusiastic consent does a much better job of accounting for power dynamics in play. It accounts for how hard it might be to say “no” if you’re scared or vulnerable, especially for those who’ve already experienced trauma and whose body might be in flight or freeze mode.
It’s an essential part, especially in cultures that condition them to obey their elders, of teaching children that they have rights to bodily privacy, integrity, and autonomy. In our “3-3-5” programs, we teach children how to identify their boundaries and to understand that they have the right to assert their boundaries. It’s a novel concept for many of them.
Without forthright conversation about these rights, children might never realize they have them. They need to know that if sexual contact involved someone older or wasn’t an “enthusiastic yes,” it was an assault, and it wasn’t their fault. And they need to know where to get help.
If you’re interested in learning more about enthusiastic consent, here are some helpful resources:
“Consent Is More Than Just a Yes to Sex, It’s an Enthusiastic Yes” (Source: The Swaddle)
“Your Guide to Sexual Consent” (Source: Healthline)
“Everything You Need to Know About Consent That You Never Learned in Sex Ed” (Source: Teen Vogue)