No Means No: The Meaning of Consent Online vs. Real Life

Rebekah Frank


It seems as though every day there is a new form of social media.  What started as Friendster and MySpace has morphed into Facebook, InstaGram, Twitter, Pinterest and Formspring.  These sites promote the free exchange of information of all kinds.  They have also led to the explosion of associated apps.  One recent addition to the fray is an app called Lulu.  Marketed to women, Lulu allows female-only users to anonymously rate their male Facebook friends without first gaining consent.  This might at first not seem like a big deal, but combined with other ways in which consent is ignored, it can potentially have large implications on the way people interact both online and in person. 


For decades, the phrase “no means no” has been used on college campuses and in sexual education classes across the country as a way to combat date and acquaintance rape.  The phrase has two main purposes:  to teach people to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances and to inform individuals how to hear, and respect, that rejection.  Despite the reality that laws in most states do no require women to actually utter the word “no” to be considered victims of assault, our national understanding of rape is so wrapped up with the “no means no” mentality that defense attorneys are able to successfully argue that unless a woman loudly and unequivocally says the word “no,” then her accused assailant was not in the wrong. 


As a result, many rapists have gotten the message from our justice system that they are free to take what they want because if she does not say no, then clearly she means yes.  Many victims have gotten the equally dangerous message that the odds of her attacker being punished are so small that the process of going through a trial to potentially come out labeled a “slut” simply is not worth it.


In recent years, many feminists have learned this same lesson and advanced a new, affirmative idea of consent:  “yes means yes.” The idea is that men should not keep pushing a woman to have sex until she says no, but should instead wait to act until she says yes.  Under this affirmative model, men could theoretically no longer justify taking what they want because of an absence of verbal denial and expect the justice system, equipped with a jury of their peers, to let them go with a slap on the wrist, if that.  “Yes means yes” essentially attempts to offer an alternative to our national understanding of victimization and works towards protecting the victims of assault as opposed to the perpetrators.


No matter which approach individuals prefer, there is no doubt that consent, or lack thereof, is a very important part of our understanding of victimization.  That being said, the term consent, thanks largely to our culture’s gendered understanding of the two sexes, is not an uncomplicated one.  It seems as though whenever a woman comes out and accuses a man of rape or attempted rape, the same questions are asked:  What was she wearing?  Why was she out at that time of night?  Was she flirting?  Was she asking for it?  How much did she have to drink?  Why was she behaving so irresponsibly?  Consent or no consent, rape is one of the only crimes where, time after time, the victim is blamed for her own victimization.  The court case, if it even gets that far, is more of the same.  Her sexual history is on trial.  If she is deemed “promiscuous,” her story is completely undermined.  One lie in her past and the case can be dropped.  Her lot is even worse if her assailant happened to be a wealthy businessman or a star athlete.  In those cases casual commenters and respected writers alike will present the idea that she invented the claim to somehow get ahead or get attention.  All this despite the fact that false rape accusations are a rarity.  Proving you have been attacked is not easy.  The Internet has made it harder still.


As access to the Internet has become more universal, the number of social media sites have proliferated.  People of all ages are free to go online and leave comments on any number of things: photographs, news stories, videos.  What is more, people are able to do so anonymously.  People are lot more free with their negative feelings and hurtful words when they do not have to answer for them.  This becomes evident when you look at the comment section of almost any article written about sexual assault and when you follow the stories of victims who have come forward with their accusations.  These mostly anonymous comments have real impacts. 


On Sunday January 5, 2014, one of the victims of a highly publicized rape case in Maryville, Missouri tried to commit suicide as a result of the terrible messages she received via social media.  The actual rape occurred on January 8, 2012.  The abuse she and her family have received at the hands of online commenters and members of their community continue to this day.  A common theme among these messages is that her presence at the boys’ home and her consumption of alcohol meant that she wanted to have sex.  Her complete incapacitation, which resulted in her being deposited outside of her home in freezing temperatures once the boys were done with her, was blamed on her.  She was the irresponsible party.  That she did not say no was the story.  To many people, her silence due to her inebriation was considered consent enough. 


This pattern is, unfortunately, all too common and it has been made into a sport by people like Hunter Moore through his now defunct website, Is Anyone Up?.  Founded by Moore in 2010, and closed by him in 2012, Is Anyone Up? was what is known as a revenge porn website.  Moore initially stated that he started the website as a means to display naked images that were voluntarily sent to him but over time it became clear that many of the images depicted on the site were obtained by hacking into individual’s computers and through submissions by a third party, oftentimes an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend attempting to shame someone.  These nude and sexually explicit photographs were accompanied by links to the pictured individual’s social media accounts, inviting online harassment, as well as their home addresses and places of employment.  Some of the victims, who were primarily female, were fired from their jobs.  Others were harassed endlessly by anonymous online commenters who called them all manner of vulgar names despite the fact that these photographs were submitted without their knowledge, without their consent.  Sometimes the photographs accompanying the personal contact information were not even of the victims themselves.  It hardly mattered. 

The result of publicized rape cases, which hardly ever end in conviction or punishment, combined with the proliferation of revenge-porn websites, aid in the normalization of lack of consent.  The online world does not exist in a vacuum, entirely separate from “real life.”  What happens on the Internet does have real consequences.  That is why apps like Lulu, originally launched in February of 2013, are so problematic.


According to its creators, Lulu has the stated goal of “empowering girls to make smarter decisions on topics ranging from relationships to beauty and health.”  According to the website, the first version of Lulu is a “private app for girls to read and create reviews of guys they know.”  Essentially, Lulu allows only those “girls” over the age of 17 to anonymously rate their male Facebook friends via drop-down menus. First, the girl is asked to define her relationship with a guy.  Second, she is asked about his looks.  Next comes his personality.  Is he funny?  Well-mannered? Ambitious?  Finally comes the ever-popular hashtagging.  Girls are able to label a guy with a choice of pre-written hashtags: #experienced, #manscaped, #sexualpanther, #wanderingeye, #questionablesearchhistory, etc.  There are no open-ended questions, rendering the process relatively limited and controlled.  After all of the questions have been answered, the app combines those responses with the responses received from other users and creates a numerical rating from one to 10.  It all seems relatively harmless until you put it into conversation with issues surrounding consent and assumptions of privacy.

The thing that makes the Lulu app problematic, aside from its heteronormativity, is the fact that it does not require consent from the men being rated.  Not only are men not able to see their own ratings, but they are not even informed of their presence on the site.  In order to determine whether or not they are being rated online, they have to either ask a female friend who is a user or download the app themselves.  In order to be removed from the site, men have to contact Lulu directly.  It seems easy enough; however, it does require the men to know two things:  that Lulu exists and that they are a presence on the site.  


Although having a numerical rating accompanying your Facebook profile that is only visible to some people is a far cry from having your naked photograph accompanied by your home address and telephone number, the crux of the issue is still the same.  This site allows individuals to anonymously bypass the norms of consent and put personal information about another individual onto the Internet. 


Every time an app is developed or a website is started that does not value the consent of the individuals featured, consent in real life matters just a little bit less.  The more and more we grow accustomed to exposing others online without their permission, the less consent enters into the equation when we think about what to do with, or to, another person.  A numerical rating might not ruin a person’s life or reputation, but would it hurt so much to ask the person’s permission before rating their abilities in bed or their relationship with their mother for thousands and thousands of people to potentially see? 


It is true, women have more often than not been the ones impacted by our society’s lackadaisical relationship with the idea of consent, but that does not mean that we should accept that as our lot and advance it by creating our own consent-free areas.  Lulu might seem harmless and fun, but it is just another way that we chip away at the meaning, and usefulness, of consent. 


Author Bio:

Rebekah Frank is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Rolands Lakis (Flickr); hehada (Flickr)
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