The Dangerous Insufficiency of ‘No Means No’

Again and again, #MeToo stories have involved men who are skilled at respecting the letter of the law—and much worse at respecting the spirit.

A stop sign
Alan Schein / Getty

There is an approach to the giving of constructive criticism that is sometimes referred to, in the corporate world and beyond, as a compliment sandwich. The method, if you’re not familiar with it, goes, basically, like this: If you have a criticism to make of someone, you couch the complaint in a pair of compliments, thereby cushioning the complaint’s negative emotional impact on the recipient. You’re doing amazingly, but that said if there were one thing I’d like to change, it’s that your sales numbers are terrible/your work ethic is horrible/I keep seeing you napping at your desk, but ultimately thank you for being kind/a Pisces/so deeply pure of heart.

I mention the workings of the sandwich because of the statement Les Moonves issued to The New Yorker in Ronan Farrow’s story detailing allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against the CBS chief executive—allegations made by several women who have been in his employ, and allegations which, Farrow suggested, reflect a broader culture of misogyny and impunity at the network. The statement went, in full, like this:

Throughout my time at CBS, we have promoted a culture of respect and opportunity for all employees, and have consistently found success elevating women to top executive positions across our company. I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career. This is a time when we all are appropriately focused on how we help improve our society, and we at CBS are committed to being part of the solution.

So, yes: Moonves (in concert, ostensibly, with his and CBS’s legal and PR teams) offered a statement that is, in its bread-meats-bread contours, a compliment sandwich, given to CBS itself: 1) CBS is doing amazingly; 2) Yes, mistakes were made, and they are regretted immensely; 3) But ultimately CBS is committed to being part of the solution.

What’s tellingly buried in the innards of this particular sandwich, however—the mustard of the thing, if you will, downplayed but crucial to the integrity of the overall product—is the substance of Moonves’s statement: “I always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that ‘no’ means ‘no.’” It’s worth pausing on that line for a moment, despite and because of the way it has been doubly buried: first, in Moonves’s statement itself, and second, in the news, announced on Monday, that Moonves will stay on at CBS even as he is investigated for sexual misconduct.

I always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that “no” means “no.” What this is, effectively, is the language of the anti-rape movement, weaponized. What it is, however, even more specifically, is the outdated language of the anti-rape movement. There’s a reason, after all, that feminists have generally moved on from the obsolete simplicities of no means no to focus instead on the ethics of affirmative consent and enthusiastic consent. There’s a reason the anthology published a decade ago by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti is titled Yes Means Yes!, exclamation point and all—and a reason, as well, that its subtitle is “Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.” It is active affirmation, rather than passive acquiescence, that feminists have fought for. It is voice, and bodily integrity, and the centering of women’s perspectives after those perspectives were, for so long, marginalized. Feminists fought for the ability to say “no” so that, ultimately, they could have the ability to say “yes.”

It’s striking yet not surprising, given all that, that one of the most powerful men in Hollywood—a man who has performed his feminist allyship in the past, and who currently has a collection of lawyers and PR professionals at his disposal—would resort, still, to insisting on his respect for no means no. The phrase itself, and the logic that props it up, are relics of a time when “don’t rape women” was still treated as a moral argument rather than a moral fact; they are artifacts of an age that found women, still, having to spend their time asking for the most basic measures of autonomy and power and personhood. They emerged from a period when no, when it came to unwanted sexual encounters as to so much else, was all women had.

No means no, in the statement issued by Les Moonves and in broader principle, is related to a word the executive and his team chose to describe his behavior toward the women who made allegations against him: advance. As in I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. The term is revealingly martial in its assumptions, in the notion it summons of conquering armies, of action and reaction, of power held over a nameless recipient. These are notions that remain, even among those who are younger than the 68-year-old Moonves.

In the story published this winter, detailing a (nameless) woman’s sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, the woman, after attempting to offer an exceedingly lengthy series of nonverbal cues to let him know that she wanted to slow down, resorted to a modified version of no: “I don’t want to feel forced,” she told him. “Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun,” Ansari replied, according to the report, demonstrating that he, too, understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that “no” means “no.” And demonstrating, as well, how thoroughly the tenet of “no means no” has spread across the culture: to the extent that it can operate, now, as euphemism. He knew what she was saying, even as she didn’t quite say it.

And yet, of course—the conqueror, the vanquished—the woman, in all this, was put in the position of merely reacting to Ansari’s desires and actions and entitlements. The interaction portrayed in the Babe story was not a dialogue so much as it was a monologue with an audience that had the choice either to applaud or refuse to, and little else. So is one of the interactions reported in the New Yorker story, in which the actor Illeana Douglas describes Les Moonves grabbing her; “violently kissing” her; pinning her down, her arms over her head; blocking the exit to the room they were in; and making her feel, overall, like “a trapped animal.”

Douglas, in the retelling, did not say, explicitly, “no”; instead, in response to the “advances” she described, Douglas initially remained “limp and unresponsive”—in shock about what was happening. It was only when Moonves pulled up her skirt, she said, and “began to thrust against her,” that “her fear overcame her paralysis.” But even then, aware that the man causing her such fear was also the man who had power over her career, she tried to leaven the situation with jokes. To do what women are conditioned to do: to consider the needs of the other person, at all costs. Even though, as she told Farrow, “it has stayed with me the rest of my life, that terror.”

In all this, no itself was useless. No was implied but not specifically uttered; and, of course, it shouldn’t have needed to be. In the scene Douglas describes, one partner is “limp and unresponsive,” and the other thrusts against her anyway. The statement Moonves made in response to her allegations suggests a two-way dialogue, which is to say that it also suggests a certain revisionism. According to Douglas’s account, he let the actress go, yes, finally, shaken and confused and self-doubting and never quite the same again. But: Is that a defense? She was limp, and I persisted, but after a struggle I finally acknowledged her resistance and let her go: Is this an explanation that, after everything that has happened this year, really serves as an exoneration? Aren’t the events described so much more than, as one of Moonves’s CBS colleagues called them, “deeply regrettable”?

It’s worth noting, as well, that even Harvey Weinstein, who has now been indicted on charges of first-degree rape, at least in some of his interactions with the women upon whom he made his own “advances,” understood the basic sanctity of no means no. His method, it seems, was simply to try everything he could to greasily manipulate the no into a yes: ignoring the no, effectively, while—as far as the letter of the law went, at any rate—abiding by the wishes of the woman. Here is a portion of the exchange, recorded as part of an attempted sting operation conducted by the New York City Police Department, that Weinstein conducted at a hotel with the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in 2015, when she was 22:

Weinstein: I’m telling you right now, get in here.
Gutierrez: What do we have to do here?
Weinstein: Nothing. I’m gonna take a shower, you sit there and have a drink. Water.
Gutierrez: I don’t drink.
Weinstein: Then have a glass of water.
Gutierrez: Can I stay on the bar?
Weinstein: No. You must come here now.
Gutierrez: No …
Weinstein: Please?
Gutierrez: No, I don’t want to.
Weinstein: I’m not doing anything with you, I promise. Now you’re embarrassing me.
Gutierrez: I know, I don’t want to. I’m sorry. I cannot.
Weinstein: No, come in here.
Gutierrez: No, yesterday was kind of aggressive for me.
Weinstein: I know.
Gutierrez: I need to know a person to be touched.
Weinstein: I won’t do a thing.
Gutierrez: I don’t want to be touched.
Weinstein: I swear I won’t, just sit with me. Don’t embarrass me in the hotel. I’m here all the time.
Gutierrez: I know, but I don’t want to.
Weinstein: Sit with me, I promise—please sit there. Please. One minute, I ask you.

The contours of it are at once horrifying and familiar: coercion. Manipulation. Entitlement. Weinstein’s repeated attempts to exert his own wishes, to wear her down, to guilt her, to cajole her, to weaponize the widespread abhorrence of awkwardness. Weinstein’s insistent counterings of her utterances of no with his own. (No, come in here. No. You must come here now. ) All of it, however, at least in this case, technically in accordance with the simplistic moralities of no means no.

What’s missing in this interaction, of course—as it is missing in the interactions that have been reported about Moonves and Ansari and so many others—is even the most basic form, and even the most basic expression, of empathy. What’s clear is all that is sacrificed when no means no and its easy tautologies are allowed, still, to be the principles that govern sexual consent. “Sex is like boxing,” John Oliver once summed it up. “If both people didn’t fully agree to participate, one of them is committing a crime.” This, morally, is an infinitely better principle. And you know what’s an easy and reliable way to judge whether both people involved fully agree to participate? The word—and the ethic of—yes.