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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Freeman: Yes Means Yes

Unenthusiastic consent is, in fact, consent.

I have recently seen signs around campus proclaiming the phrase, “Unenthusiastic consent is not consent.” It is imperative, and in the best interest of all students on this campus, to demonstrate why this saying is extremely problematic. Although catchy, this contradictory statement creates subjectivity around what actually constitutes “consent,” since the expression of enthusiasm is not objective. Consequently, cases could arise in which one accuses another of a crime as serious as sexual assault simply because although the first person said “yes,” and the second person took that as their word, the first person wasn’t genuinely enthusiastic about it.

This statement is dangerous because humans are fallible. Since there is no objective definition of what composes enthusiasm, each person has to decide for themselves whether or not they regard anything as enthusiastic. This subjectivity, paired with human fallibility, makes it incredibly easy for people to misinterpret others as showing or not showing enthusiasm. The word “yes,” on the other hand, always demonstrates consent in any situation, not just that of sexual encounters.

This can result in two very troublesome situations. In one, someone asking for consent misinterprets the tone of the other. Since the inquirer knows that the word “yes” universally affirms consent, they may believe they know the responder’s affirmative answer. However, the unenthusiastic responder can then easily accuse the inquirer of trying to take advantage of them, whether they feel genuinely or out of malicious intent. In this scenario, false claims of sexual assault or harassment may ensue. How was the inquirer supposed to avoid this? All they knew was that their person of interest said yes, which, by definition, declares consent.

Another situation can arise when one person asks another for consent. If the response is a consenting “yes,” a sexual act may ensue. Following this encounter, the consenter may possibly feel regret or other emotions that would cause them to want to take back their action. The phrase “unenthusiastic consent is not consent” implies that the remorseful individual can simply claim their initial response was “unenthusiastic” and therefore nonconsensual, which would constitute an accusation of sexual assault. This claim of unenthusiasm could be asserted at any time after the encounter occurs, making it an easy way out for displeased consenters who do not take responsibility for their words.

In these ways and more, this statement could give way to many false accusations of sexual assault — an extremely serious situation with lasting consequences for anyone involved. The statement is also, in general, completely incorrect. If someone says “yes,” or any of its counterparts such as “yeah,” “sure” or “okay,” they are choosing words that universally signify consent. Instead, it is important and beneficial to spread the idea that other responses, such as “maybe” or “I don’t know,” do not declare consent. Furthermore, it is just as important to remember that after consent is given, one may choose to take it back at any time before or during the sexual encounter. It is their right — as human beings — to always retain control over their body. In turn, this necessitates respect by the other party in the encounter. A better way to fight sexual harassment and assault would be to further the awareness of phrases that never signify consent, like those previously mentioned. This will give more options to those who must defend themselves if they ever feel pressure to say yes. Declaring that “yes” does not actually mean “yes” brings no true benefit or help to those who feel threatened. Neither does declaring that it only means “yes” when one wants it to — making it subject to however they are feeling at the time. In fact, this does the opposite, by allowing people to take back their words of consent days, weeks or even months following the encounter.

The most important point to take away from this is very simple: if you don’t want something, don’t say yes. Changing the meaning of that word, even for such a respectable cause as increasing awareness of sexual harassment, has innumerable and unnecessary consequences. Even if it is said with an annoyed tone of voice, in a sad manner or unenthusiastically, it is still “yes.” Society cannot normalize exceptions — in this case, the ability to claim unenthusiasm — for people who don’t want to be held accountable for their words. If you want to say no, do not say yes.