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The issue with ‘no’ - consent in a non-consensual society

We like to talk about pants with you. And yes we sell pants to you. But one thing that rarely gets discussed is who is allowed in your pants. Or not. And how you come to that decision. Yep, we're going to talk about consent. There will be no listicles, no golden rules to follow but a conversation starter on a topic "we're all expected to be well versed on but actually it's a topic we know very little about."

Inspired Jameela Jamil's quote from researching the last blog post we listened to her special two part series for BBC Radio 4 - the New Age of Consent. And that got us thinking, we need to keep talking about consent.

There are many avenues to explore consent around, from sexual violence and the #metoo movement to legal interpretations - we can't recommend enough that you tune into the Radio 4 programme for a fully immersive dive into the topic. In this blog post, however, we're going to explore consent from the point of view of modern society, specifically the word ‘no’.

👉We won't take no for an answer

A point that really hit home in the Radio 4 programme was a comment from Dr Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock - the issue of consent is made all the more complex when we realise that we live in a non-consensual society.

People, companies, governments are constantly trying to get us to do one thing or another outside of the bedroom. We are bombarded, our senses overwhelmed with messages trying to convince us to buy, shop, eat, drink, consume. Persuasion is pervasive. It slips into so many facets of everyday life. Companies are getting more manipulative in their methods to convince you to buy their products, targeted Facebook advertising, our searches tracked so they can re-market at us. And even when we say no to promotional newsletters - we still often get 'Are you sure?' And then there’s the people you know, like your friend trying to get you to join her on a night out, your aunt trying to get you to wear that dress for an event, your brother trying to convince you to watch one more episode, a colleague asking you on a date, someone asking you to dance. How often are we trying to get someone to do something? How often is someone trying to get us to do something?

On the whole we're not very good at saying no, hearing no or accepting a no.  

A million and one ways to say no

In a non-sexual context how many ways can you say no without ever using that word? I'm tired, I'm studying, I'd rather not, I've got to work late, I've already got plans, I'm washing my hair...etc. And the list goes on.

And there are nuances between between cultures. There's a running joke that the Irish never say no (or yes for that matter) but did you know there are no words for 'yes' or 'no' in Irish?. In Thai, "the closest thing to “no” is mai chai, which translates as "not yes", reports BBC Travel, GaijinPot writer Mark Kennedy suggests that saying no in Japanese culture is "an art form". Beyond the cultural aspects there are also gender, age and other power dynamics normalised in certain cultures where a direct no is avoided.

Saying no ≠ being rude | Hearing No ≠ rejection

A quick Google and you'll be overwhelmed with the number of blogs, tips and videos on 'How to say no without being rude in everyday situations'. Where does this idea come from?

Meg-John and Justin summarise it perfectly in their blog.

"We’ve been taught that it’s a rejection of us rather than just someone saying no to a specific thing. This is particularly so when it comes to sex because there’s this idea that sex is such a big and essential part of our being. So it’s easy to feel entirely rejected because so much of our identity can be suffused with the idea of our sexuality, sexual attractiveness and competence. This is also hard to do because we live in a culture that really primes us to be self-critical. So if we hear a no then it’s immediately something that we perceive to be a rejection of us."

They affirm the idea that 'no' is not ultimate but in fact relational and situational, realising this can help us hear 'no' better whether that be in a sexual context or not.

So how can we address consent in this climate?

We'll refer to Meg-John and Justin again; "What we really need to do is to change the non-consensual culture we live in where we all face pressure to not say no (or for nos not to be heard) and how this can permeate down into organisations, workplaces, communities, friendship groups and relationships. We can start by trying to make small changes in those arenas when there is less pressure and less at stake."

So much of the consent conversation has focused around 'Just say no' but when we're primed to persuade, to avoid saying the word and to perceive a no as a personal rejection - it soon becomes apparent it is not that simple.

There's a whole episode dedicated to the culture around 'saying no' on the Meg-John Justin podcast:

Analogies to the rescue

Here's a few analogies you can work with to get the consent conversation started.

Ok, so this video surfaced in 2015, so many of you may have seen it - but we're dragging it up from the depths of the viral archive because it is just that good.

And we'll throw in one more for luck.

More consent resources

Vlogger Hannah Whitton recommends these resources.

  • Bish - sex ed aimed at teenagers: https://www.bishuk.com/

  • Bish Training - aimed at those working with youth: https://bishtraining.com/#resources

  • Megjohnandjustin - their website has heaps of resources and plenty of podcasts to explore: https://megjohnandjustin.com/ 

"We should be aiming for more consent, not more sex," says Justin Hancock. And here at HARA we couldn't agree more.

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