My Safeword is Yes: some thoughts on consent

A few somewhat devils-advocate thoughts on building a consensual culture, for a recent zine project on the topic. Trigger warning: some non-graphic discussion of sexual violence.


"Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no".
I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit bored of shouting this.

A favourite of anti-rape activists, this mantra is a vital starting-point in a culture that fosters the parallel violences of playing cut & paste with women's words ("No means yes and yes means anal")[1], and using threats, persuasion and force to do the same with our bodies. Until there is general agreement on the fact that, for example, a short skirt or shiny shoe or fetching hat is not semantically equivalent to the word "yes", we seem doomed to repeat this tediously self-evident phrase. But let's not stop there; let's not settle for the dull pedanticism and legalese that the reality of sexual violence thrusts upon us. We can do better than that.

It's not enough just to drum in the idea that, as the famously crass Home Office campaign put it, you must "get a yes before sex"[2] - just like you must brush your teeth before bed, always say your prayers, and sign on the dotted line. As Hugo Schwyzer points out, in a culture like ours, that yes becomes like the necessary signature on an inconvenient form: a technicality often won with coercion by any other name. "Too many of the 'yeses' uttered in dorm rooms and in the back seats of cars," Schwyzer says, "don't reflect authentic desire. Too many 'yeses' are coerced; too many quiet 'okays' and 'I guess so's' are interpreted as blanket permission".[3] "Whatever we wear, wherever we go...?" if I'm pulling my shirt on and edging towards the door while murmuring "yes", what the hell does that yes actually mean? In context, many of these eagerly-hunted yeses should be taken as a no. As Schwayzer summarizes, "the opposite of rape is not consent. The opposite of rape is enthusiasm."

We need to be imagining and realizing a world where not only consent but context, communication and desire are taken seriously. Where we learn not only to distinguish between a reluctant "okay" and enthusastic consent, but to give a shit. And when people can communicate respectfully we move beyond tick-boxes and signatures, beyond technicalities, beyond "yes means yes". As Dariush Sokolov put it, "it's not just that i say yes, or sign some contract, but that the space is always being re-created and re-worked, is always developing as we explore it together in a joint project".[4]

We can be playful. I know: the idea of being playful with consent can seem like playing with fire in our current context, where boundaries are so fucked up already that the only response seems to be to straighten them out, lay down the law. But we must dream. What is sex but a teasing playful conspiracy? Language is slippery; we can't continue to rely on yes and no to guide the way, where subtle pressure and conditioning are so pervasive as to render them half meaningless on their own. This is true, in inverse form, where trust and dialogue are concerned.

Sadomasochists know and relish this; safewords/gestures/signs, elaborate feedback mechanisms, are devised precisely to allow indulgence in the pleasure of screaming "No!" and not meaning it. (Ironically, consent to much S/M activity isn't recognised by UK law, and the same legal system that humiliates rape victims is happy to lock up consenting adults. If you think the state is our friend in this fight, think again.) Of course, safewords can become legalistic and perfunctory too. Chances are your partner's a girl who finds it as difficult to say "red bannana" in this particular instance as "no", or a boy who was taught that men don't cry. So, a masochist's "no" can be a "yes" - which, like any other yes, can really mean no. Confused yet? Then maybe you should take a breather while you figure it out between you.

If a yes can really mean no, what about the other way round? Don't bet on it. There's enough trauma in the world without adding more. That said, isn't it yummy to dream of a world where honesty, trust and consensual scheming take the place of these little two or three letter answers, this narrow misleading binary? Where these vague signifiers take their rightful place in the rich surrounding context of communication, verbal or otherwise?

Madam in your face is beauty, on your cheeks red roses grow.
Would you have me for your lover? Let your answer be yes or no.
"Oh dear oh, no sir no", still her answer to me was no.

"My father was a Spanish captain, went to sea nine months ago.
Bid me to always do my duty; bid me always to answer no.
Oh dear oh, no sir no", still her answer to me was no.

Madam if I tied your garter, just a little bit above your knee...
If my hand should slip a little farther, would you think any less of me?
"Oh dear oh, no sir no", still her answer to me was no.

Madam and I went to bed together; there we lay til the cocks did crow.
Loose your arms my dearest jewel, loose your arms and let me go!
"Oh dear oh, no sir no", still her answer to me was no.

Too often, the word "consent" conjures images of tedious legalese; po-faced diplomatic deliberation. But as this little folk ditty shows, it can be the most vital and playful part of sexual intrigue. Consent is actually our best bet, our guiding light, the ace up our sleeve. And it's not just about sex - Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone ranges in size from a double bed *upwards*.[6] Consent marks out participatory, non-hierarchical politics from the coercion of authoritarian power of whatever stripe. Taken as a fundamental principle, it points the way to a culture of consenting relations where process is valued over any yes/no tick-box, over the rapey justification of governments who point to your weary harangued pencil-cross, the short skirt of your exhuastion and fear. A culture far removed from this one, where my delicious bruising lover fears jail for GBH and the cop who kicks me in then arrests me for the same.

Far removed perhaps, yet sprouting up in double beds everywhere.


  1. See news story & analysis at
  2. Home Office (2006) If You Don't Get a 'Yes' Before Sex, Who'll Be Your Next Sleeping Partner? [campaign] PDF available at:
  3. Schwyzer, H. (2008) The Opposite of Rape is Not Consent; the Opposite of Rape is Enthusiasm [online]. Available at:
  4. Sokolov, D & Jools (2010) 'Two Sex Radicals Consider Kink' in Play!Fight!: Thoughts, Fantasies and Stories on Kinky Sex and Politics. Online version available at:
  5. As sung by Crucible on their album 'Crux'.
  6. Bey, H. (2003) 'Preface to the Second Edition' in The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Brooklyn, Autonomedia). p.xi.
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