An Alternative To “No”?

by Dish Staff

In a recent meditation on the language of consent, which featured in one of the Dish’s roundups on the UVA rape debacle last week, Susan Dominus searched for a “linguistic rip cord” to help young women reject unwanted sex “without the mundane familiarity of ‘no’ or the intensity demanded in ‘Get off or I’ll scream'”:

One phrase that might work is “red zone” — as in, “Hey, we’re in a red zone,” or “This is starting to feel too red zone.” Descriptive and matter-of-fact, it would not implicitly assign aggressor and victim, but would flatly convey that danger — emotional, possibly legal — lay ahead. Such a phrase could serve as a linguistic proxy for confronting or demanding, both options that can seem impossible in the moment. “We’re in a red zone” — the person who utters that is not a supplicant (“Please stop”); or an accuser (“I told you to stop!”). Many young women are uncomfortable in either of those roles; I know I was.

In an ideal world, clear consent will always precede sex, and young women (and men) who do find themselves in a tricky situation will express their discomfort firmly. But in the imperfect world in which we live, new language — if not red zone, then some other phrase that could take off with the universality of slang — might fill a silence.

But McArdle pours cold water on the idea:

I understand what Dominus is trying to do, but I don’t think it will work.

Twenty-five years after I registered for college, we’re still searching for an alternative to the stark simplicity of “No.”  And unfortunately, there’s just no substitute. If you want to “teach men not to rape” — a formulation that floated around the Internet a lot in the days after the Rolling Stone story was published — then you need to give them a rule that can be clearly articulated, and followed even if you’ve had a few.

That’s why “no means no” worked so well, even if it wasn’t perfect. It’s a heuristic that even a guy who’s been sucking at the end of a three-story beer funnel can remember and put into practice. The rule obviously needed some refinement, by adding other equally clear rules — like “if she’s stumbling drunk or vomiting, just pretend she said no, because she’s not legally capable of consent.” But the basic idea, of listening to what the woman is saying, not some super-secret countersignals you might think she is sending, is exactly the sort of rule that we need in the often-confusing, choose-your-own-adventure world of modern sexual mores.