A shirt for sale until recently on clothing store Forever 21's website is being blasted as "creepy," "offensive," "anti-consent," "rapey," and "pro-rape" by the media. Its message: "Don't Say Maybe If You Want To Say No."
The context in which I most frequently hear complaints about people saying "maybe" when they mean "no" is in the context of social gatherings. Most people have had this friend sometime, right? The one who always says they may swing by and never shows. The one who marks maybe (or, now, "interested") on Facebook events and always flakes. This sort of wishy-washiness or inability to state one's actual intentions in terms of social commitments is a complaint I've heard others make relatively often, and where my mind first goes reading the slogan on this Forever 21 shirt.
But beyond that—i.e., even if you think mine is a naive interpretation and clearly the shirt is laden with sexual connotations—the interpretation of it as promoting rape or diminishing the importance of consent directly contradicts the words on the shirt. If anything, the shirt promotes good sexual consent etiquette and encourages assertiveness about one's sexual wishes. Read as a message about sex, it says, hey, if you're not into something, say so in a clear and unequivocal way.
So how can that message possibly be construed to promote sexual violence? Because we live in era where not blaming rape victims for what happened to them—a worthy sentiment on its own—has morphed into a mandate never to suggest sexual-assault prevention behavior in any way. Nail polish that detects so-called date-rape drugs? Women shouldn't have to wear special cosmetics to keep rapists at bay! College administrators discussing locations and situations common in campus sexual assaults? Women shouldn't have to curtail their social lives to avoid being raped! Promote assertiveness in young people about their sexual intentions? Teach rapists not to rape, not victims to avoid being raped! We've gone from a world where the worst conservative parodies about liberal reactions of this sort are now routine across left-leaning social media and feminist blogs.
In response to the current outrage, Forever 21 issued an apology Monday. It also listed the controversial shirt as "sold out" on its website.
When you read through stories about campus sexual assault cases routinely, one facet that sticks out is how often victims say they "froze," or "shut down," and either said nothing about their wishes or gave vague responses like "I don't know." The people they later accuse of assault, meanwhile, say they didn't know their actions were unwanted. A lack of clarity about sexual boundaries is certainly an issue for young people today (and probably always). An affirmative consent standard—the idea that only "yes means yes"—is supposed to help mitigate these misunderstandings, and as a social norm (rather than a legal standard) or launch point for discussion of sexual consent, I don't think it's a bad idea. But "unfortunately, no one else can bear the burden of deciding who we want to have sex with, and then articulating it forcefully," as Megan McArdle writes. "And a feminism that tries to compensate for this, rather than teach young women to be firm about their own sexual wishes, is counterproductive."
For our messages about sexual boundaries and consent to be the most effective (and at all feminist), they must also emphasize to young people the importance of expressing their own sexual desires clearly, be these desires affirmative, negative… or even maybe. Sometimes one really does mean "maybe," and that's okay, too—as long as people don't say maybe when they really mean no.