Calcaterra & Carithers: In Response to “Yes Means Yes”

“Yes” doesn’t always mean “yes.”

by Katherine Carithers and Paulina Calcaterra | 5/24/18 2:20am

We are writing as individuals who are deeply engaged in sexual violence prevention and response work at Dartmouth.

By encouraging people to accept that real consent is enthusiastic consent, we are hoping to foster a culture in which people want their partner(s) to be 100 percent confident in their decision to engage in sexual activities together.

The Dartmouth’s recent op-ed“Yes Means Yes” by Jillian Freeman ’21 critiques the language of “enthusiasm” for not being objective, which is true. Different people do not express enthusiasm in the same way. However, “enthusiastic consent” refers to the clear, unambiguous expression of desire. It is difficult, and maybe even impossible, to express genuine enthusiasm when harmful power dynamics and coercion are present in a sexual interaction. Therefore, unenthusiastic consent is not consent. Dartmouth policy and many state laws recognize that a coerced “yes” is an invalid form of consent. As a result, spreading the idea that “the word ‘yes’ ... always demonstrates consent” propagates misinformation. 

These concepts are especially important to understand because sexual coercion is incredibly common at Dartmouth; this community needs to legitimize those experiences of violence. The 2017 Dartmouth Sexual Misconduct Survey, featuring responses from a total of 3,147 undergraduate and graduate/professional students, found that “approximately a third to over half” of respondents “know someone who has been forced or coerced by another person to do something sexually they did not want to do.”

Additionally, the concept of “enthusiastic consent” asks people to consider the following: why would someone not be enthusiastic, yet still say yes? Primarily, it is because communities, both within and beyond Dartmouth, are fraught with power imbalances. These dynamics impact sexual encounters and can lead to coercion. The presence of direct or indirect threats and pressuring can push people to participate in behaviors they may be uncomfortable with in order to avoid various forms of retaliation. This is an evidently true statement. There is a tragically rich history of retaliatory violence against individuals who reject unwanted sexual advances. This is just one reason why some people might feel that saying “yes” is necessary to get through an unwanted encounter. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that there are instances in which people might say “yes” to activities to which they do not consent.

Beyond the question of coercion, the phrase “real consent is enthusiastic consent” is related to broader barriers to having healthy and positive sexual relationships. Many accept as a norm that people should put up with and engage in encounters that are not enjoyable or pleasurable for them. But pleasure should be at the heart of conversations around sexual encounters. Enthusiasm should not be a weird or burdensome expectation.

We also want to address the claims about false reports that were made in “Yes Means Yes.” There is a difference between regretting a sexual encounter and walking away from an experience feeling violated. Conflating these experiences perpetuates the idea that many allegations of sexual assault are “false reports” made in bad faith. The idea that people are looking for an excuse to make “false reports” is outrageous. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience; no one asks for it. People do not label a hookup that they regret sexual assault as an “easy way out.” Often, for a survivor, coming to terms with the assault is difficult in itself, let alone facing the backlash, blame and invalidation that many survivors experience.

Although false reporting does occur, the rates are low. According to a 2012 report by the National Sexual Violence Research Center, a review of the literature indicates that false reporting rates are between 2 percent and 10 percent. This means that at least 90 percent of reports are true. Furthermore, these false-reporting rates are consistent across other crimes. For instance, at least 10 percent of auto theft reports are estimated to be false reports made to reap the benefits of insurance claims, according to research on auto theft prevention by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many people also conflate unfounded reports with false reports. However, just because a perpetrator is not found responsible for their actions in a criminal or college investigation does not mean that a survivor made the report in bad faith or with “malicious intent.” Instead, there may be a lack of evidence, witnesses or other resources that are necessary to obtain a finding of responsibility. 

Ultimately, being intimidated or pressured to mumble “‘yes,’ ‘sure’ or ‘okay’” to things one is not fully comfortable with is not consent. Clearly, yes does not always mean yes. Ideally, it would be that simple, but we exist in a society rife with power imbalances and coercion. As a community, Dartmouth should work to correct power imbalances rather than ignoring the impact they have on interpersonal interactions. Misunderstanding these issues can be incredibly harmful to survivors and the entire community. 

Most importantly, to survivors of sexual assault who may have felt invalidated by the ideas presented in the op-ed, “Yes Means Yes,” we see you and we hear you.

Calcaterra is a member of the Class of 2019 and Carithers is a member of the Class of 2020. Calcaterra and Carithers are Movement Against Violence facilitators and Sexual Assault Peer Advisors. Calcaterra also serves as executive chair of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault.

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