Does a woman’s “no” mean anything?

Here are two scenarios:

A. A woman is at a party. She’s drinking. A guy who is also drinking comes over to her. He starts flirting with her; she rebuffs him. He begins to kiss her. She resists. He goes further. She says no. He ignores her no, pushes her to the floor, and holds her down. She tries to resist. He continues to ignore her protests and forces her to have sex with him.

B. A woman is at a party. She’s drinking. A guy who is also drinking comes over to her. He starts flirting with her. She’s somewhat receptive but not super-eager. He moves in for a kiss, and she doesn’t pull away, then starts kissing him back. He goes further. She’s not really into it, but goes along with what he’s doing. She provides no resistance as he continues to go further, and by all outward appearances is willingly going along with the encounter, even though she’s kind of bored and really would rather not be doing this.

“Rape culture” and “enthusiastic consent” proponents would tell us that these two scenarios are the same in both kind and degree. Both are rape, and rape is rape.

The men in both scenarios are no different. Both are monsters, sociopathic evildoers who get off on humiliating and abusing women. A man who would hold a woman down and forcibly having sex with while she is struggling and saying no is exactly the same as a man who would have sex with a woman who willingly participates in the encounter with insufficient enthusiasm.

That lack of distinction is troubling enough. But the more troubling part is that, to these people, the actions of the two women are no different. The woman who is saying “no” and resisting a man’s sexual advances is no different than the woman who is willingly going along with sex that, in her head, she perhaps would rather not be having. Their actions make no difference.

The “no” of the first woman means nothing: her “no” is the equivalent of the second woman’s silence. Do we understand how profoundly wrong that is? How profoundly disempowering? It is saying that a woman’s “no” has no meaning. Her “no” is no different than her silence. Her resistance is no different than her willing-but-unenthusiastic participation.

How can feminists be arguing such a thing? This is why ideas about “enthusiastic consent” are nonsense. In equating a woman’s “no” with a woman’s silence, they are silencing women who say “no.” They are rendering that “no” meaningless.

I reject that. A woman’s “no” means something. We must insist that it means something. And insisting that “no” means something requires that we don’t say that it is no different than silence.

Those two scenarios, while both crudely drawn, are different. One is a forcible rape, a criminal act that warrants legal punishment. The other is a bad decision on the part of a woman who had the ability to say “no” but chose not to, and a bad decision on the part of a man who should have sought an enthusiastic partner but was willing to settle for somebody willing to settle. It is not a crime and should not be a crime.

By insisting that the second is not only a crime but indistinguishable from the first act in both intent and effect, these rape-culture feminists are ignoring women’s “no” just as profoundly as a rapist does. That is not okay, and just because it’s the party line on the internet right now does not mean that it should stand unchallenged.

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