Rape Culture and the Concept of Affirmative Consent

March against rape culture

March against rape culture

Throughout most of our history, rape was a property crime.

Today we do not, in the modern United States at least, think of a woman’s sexuality as a financial asset. But that is a recent phenomenon. For most of our history, rape was not treated the same way as other violent assaults because it wasn’t just a violent assault, it was also a crime against property.

You can see this view–of a woman’s sexuality belonging to her father and later her husband–in laws concerning rape and sexual assault. It was even possible for a father to sue a man who had consensual sex with his daughter because he had lost the value of his daughter. Based on this view, value is lost in terms of her work if she became pregnant and was no longer able to earn wages, or in terms of a future wife for someone else because of this stain on her character. Men could not be held accountable for raping their wives because a wife was a man’s property and consent to sex–at any time of his choosing–was part of the arrangement.

Lest you think that these laws are ancient examples of a culture that no longer bears relation to our current policies on rape, spousal rape was not made illegal in all fifty states until 1993, where it still may carry a less severe sentence than other rape offenses. The tort of seduction was technically on the books in North Carolina in 2003.

This context is important given our current cultural attitudes toward sexual assault. To understand this culture and how it can be amended, we need to look more deeply at the historical understandings of rape and consent.

Force Means No

The framework for defining rape underpins our understanding of who is required to prove consent or non-consent. The Hebrew Scriptures, which established longstanding cultural norms that helped form a basis for what was morally and legally acceptable in early America, make a distinction between a woman who was raped within a city and one who was raped outside of the city limits. The first woman was stoned to death and the second considered blameless (assuming she was a virgin). This distinction is based on the idea that it was the woman’s responsibility to cry out for help and show that she was non-consenting. A woman who was raped in the city obviously had not screamed because if she had someone would have come to her rescue and stopped the rape. The woman outside the city had no one to rescue her so she could not be blamed for being victimized.

This brutal logic, which is completely inconsistent with how we know some victims of rape react to an attack, was continued in the American legal system when our laws on rape were formulated. Rape was defined as a having a male perpetrator and a female victim and involving sexual penetration and a lack of consent. But it was again the woman’s responsibility to prove that she had not consented and the way that this was demonstrated was through her resistance. She was only actually raped if she had attempted to fight off her attacker. Different jurisdictions required different levels of force to show a true lack of consent. For example, fighting off an assailant to your utmost ability or even up to the point where the choice was either to submit to being raped or to being killed. Indeed, the cultural significance of chastity as a virtue that the female was expected to guard was so profound that many female Christian saints are saints at least in part because they chose to die rather than be raped or be a bride to anyone but Christ.

Potential canonization aside, it was consistently the responsibility of the woman alleging that she was the victim of a rape to prove that she had fought off her attacker in order to show that she had not consented. If she could not show that she had sufficiently resisted, she was deemed to not have been raped. Her chastity was someone else’s property, either her father’s or her husband’s/future husband’s, so it was always understood that someone, other than her, had the right to her sexuality. The assailant had assumed that he had the right to use her sexually and was only a rapist if she acted in such a way that a reasonable man would have known that she did not belong to him. Her failure to communicate that fact, that she was the property of some other man, was a sign that she had in fact consented. Therefore the rape was not his moral failing in stealing another man’s property but her moral failing in not protecting that property from being stolen.

Culture Wars

We can see the effects of this ideology in how we treat rape victims today. Although we don’t necessarily require evidence of forceful resistance, it is considered helpful in prosecuting a rape case. Rape shield laws may have eliminated the most egregious examples of slut-shaming victims, but an innocent or even virginal victim is certainly what the prosecution could hope for if they were trying to design their most favorable case. One of the first questions that will be asked of the victim is “did you say no?” In other words “what did YOU do to prevent this from happening to you?” The burden is still often legally and almost always culturally on the victim to show that they did not consent.

There is an alternative approach that has been gaining traction on college campuses and elsewhere known as the concept of “affirmative consent.” Take a look at the video below, which elucidates the differences between the “no versus no” approach compared to affirmative consent, which is often described as “yes means yes.”

In this video, Susan Patton and Rush Limbaugh both represent examples of rape culture. The contrast between the views of Savannah Badlich, the advocate of affirmative consent, and Patton, who is against the idea, could not be starker. To Badlich, consent is an integral part of what makes sex, sex. If there isn’t consent then whatever happened to you, whether most people would have enjoyed it or indeed whether or not you orgasmed, was rape. It is your consent that is the foundation of a healthy sexual experience, not the types of physical actions involved. In contrast, Patton expressed the view that good sex is good sex and consent seems to not play a role in whether it was good sex, or even whether it should be defined as sex at all. The only thing that could indicate if something is an assault versus a sexual encounter is whatever physical evidence exists, because otherwise, the distinction is based only on the assertions of each individual. Again we are back to evidence of force.

What is “Rape Culture”?

Rape culture refers to a culture in which sexuality and violence are linked together and normalized. It perpetuates the idea that male sexuality is based on the use of violence against women to subdue them to take a sexual experience, as well as the idea that female sexuality is the effort to resist or invite male sexuality under certain circumstances. It overgeneralizes gender roles in sexuality, demeans men by promoting their only healthy sexuality as predatory, and also demeans women by considering them objects without any positive sexuality at all.

According to this school of thought, the “no means no” paradigm fits in perfectly with rape culture because it paints men as being predators who are constantly looking for a weak member of the herd to take advantage of sexually, while also teaching women that they need to be better than the rest of the herd at fending off attacks, by clearly saying no, to survive. If they can’t do that, because they were drinking or not wearing proper clothing, then the attack was their fault.

“Yes Means Yes”

Affirmative consent works differently. Instead of assuming that you can touch someone until they prove otherwise, an affirmative consent culture assumes that you may not touch someone until you are invited to do so. This would be a shocking idea to some who assume that gamesmanship and predation are the cornerstones of male sexuality and the perks of power, but it works out better for the majority of men and women, who would prefer and who should demand equality in sex.

This video gives a brief highlight of some of the issues that are brought up when affirmative consent is discussed and the difficulties that can still arise even with affirmative consent as a model.

Evaluating Criticism of Affirmative Consent

The arguments are important so let’s unpack some of the key ones in more detail. The first objection, expressed in both videos, is how exactly do you show consent? Whenever the affirmative consent approach comes up, one of the first arguments is that it is unenforceable because no one is going to stop sexual activity to get written consent, which is the only way to really prove that a person consented. We still end up in a “he said, she said” situation, which is exactly where we are now, or a world where the government is printing out sex contracts.

The idea that affirmative consent will by necessity lead to written contracts for sex is a logical fallacy that opponents to affirmative consent use to make the proposition seem ridiculous. Currently, we require the victim to prove non-consent. Often the victim is asked if they gave a verbal no or if they said they did not want the contact. The victim is never asked: did you put the fact that you didn’t want to be touched in writing and have your assailant read it? The idea that a written explanation of non-consent would be the only way we would take it seriously is absurd, so it would be equally absurd to assume that requiring proof of consent would necessitate written documentation. Advocates for affirmative consent don’t want sex contracts.

In addition, even under our current framework we accept a variety of pieces of evidence from the prosecution to show that the victim did not consent. A clear “no” is obviously the strongest kind of evidence, just as under an affirmative consent framework an enthusiastic verbal “yes” would be the best evidence, but that is just what the best evidence is. That is certainly not the only kind of evidence available. Courts already look at the entire context surrounding the incident to try to determine consent. The process would be virtually the same under an affirmative consent model. The only difference would be that the burden would be on the defendant to show that they believed they had obtained consent based on the context of the encounter instead of placing the burden on the victim to show that, although they didn’t say “no,” they had expressed non-verbally that they were unwilling to participate.

The shift in the burden of proof is sometimes cited as a reason not to adopt an affirmative consent model. Critics argue that this affects the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Which is, rightly, a cornerstone of our judicial system. If this model did, in fact, change that presumption then it wouldn’t be an appropriate answer to this problem. But it does not.

Take another crime as an example. A woman’s car is stolen. The police issue a BOLO on the car, find it, and bring the suspect in and sit him down. They ask him “did you have permission to take that car?” and he replies “Yes, officer, she gave me the keys!”

He is still presumed innocent and, as far as this brief hypothetical tells us, hasn’t had his rights violated. It looks as though he is going to get a fair trial at this point. That trial may still devolve into another he said, she said situation. She may allege that she didn’t give him the keys but merely left them on the kitchen table. At that point, it will be up to the jury to decide who they believe, but that would have been the case in any event. He is presenting her giving the keys to him as one of the facts to show his innocence.

If a woman’s car is stolen we don’t question her about how many miles are on the odometer. We don’t ask if she wore a seatbelt the last time she drove it. We don’t care if she had been drinking because her alcohol consumption doesn’t negate the fact that she was a victim of a crime. We certainly wouldn’t force her to prove that she didn’t give the thief the keys. That burden would rightly be on him and we would be able to both place that burden on him and at the same time presume him to be innocent until he failed to meet that burden.

Adopting an affirmative consent model changes how consent is perceived. It is primarily a cultural change in understanding who is responsible for consent. Rather than making the non-initiating party responsible for communicating a lack of consent, affirmative consent requires that the initiating party obtains obvious consent.

That is how affirmative consent works. It wouldn’t require a written contract or even necessarily a verbal assertion. Context would always matter and the cases would still often become two competing stories about what the context meant. And it doesn’t mean that we are assuming that person is guilty before they have the chance to show that they did, in fact, get that consent. It just means that we are placing the burden of proving that consent was obtained on the party claiming that consent had been obtained.


There is no other category of crime where we ask the victim to show that they didn’t want to be the victim of that crime. A man who is stabbed in a bar fight, regardless of whether he was drunk or belligerent, isn’t asked to prove that he didn’t want a knife wound.

We need to change our cultural framework of rape and consent. When we are working under an affirmative consent framework what we are doing is changing the first question. Currently, our first question is for the victim: did you say no? Under an affirmative consent model our first question is for the suspect: did you get a yes?

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