The Problem of Consent: Why Yes Means No?


Consent – perhaps one of those few moral paradigms that promote bipartisanship, unless you wear a blonde toupee. The ever-present motto of the idea – No means no. Contrary to the former, I claim that the more radical statement is true. That, almost always, Yes means no.

Freedom in Un-Freedom

To set the premises, let me indulge in slight formalization of the concept at hand.

Consent (Informed Consent): Agent A consents to B’s φ­-ing on A, under a certain description of φ­-ing, whether or not the offer was initiated by B1

The implicit assumption of freedom exists in informed consent. This precisely is where the contention exists. To quote Slavoj Zizek – We don’t really want what we think we desire.

Freedom, specifically political freedom2, is the ability to act according to what one wants. It is evident that what we want, ironically, is not what we want. Imagine the archetypal abusive dynamic, the drunk husband and the housewife. In most cases, at least initially, the wife wants to stay with her husband. However, it would not be uncontroversial to claim that the wife doesn’t want what she thinks she wants. Her wants are dictated by the psychological trauma and attachment issues that she possesses, originating from multiple potential sources.

A distinction, therefore, has to be made between our desires itself. In Meaning and Meta-Goals3, an argument for human nature is laid out, as opposed to Tabula Rasa. Ethical desires are those that align with our individual nature, and unethical desires constitute everything else4. Freedom then becomes consciously acting on that which aligns with our ethical desires. However, we resort to acting upon unethical desires, desires that orient themselves upon other ideals. Run-off-the-mill examples are the nine-to-five jobs and the institution of marriage, among others.

The Unknown Knowns

In the British Documentary film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology5, Slavoj Zizek introduces the film They Live6. The plot revolves around a pair of sunglasses that reveal the hidden messages of objects and institutions around them.

Before the glasses

After the glasses

The more interesting, and vastly prevalent, unethical desires exist dependent on ideals that we don’t know we know – the unknown knowns. The Pursuit of Happiness, Natural Rights, and Democracy compose some popular examples.

On the individual level, they impose greater power. Consider romantic attraction, a hot-bed topic in the discourse of consent. Here I make another radical assertion: We are not really attracted to who we think we are attracted to. Psychological research conducted in Attachment Theory7 provides strong statistical ground to affirm so. It hypothesizes and subsequently provides evidence, that romantic attachment types are determined by early-stage parenting. Sub-optimal parenting acts as a breeding ground for insecure adults, reflecting directly on future romantic relationships.

We have exposed only the tip of the iceberg. Ironically, even the existence of the iceberg is unknown, yet ingrained into how we view the world. The glasses of ideology orient our lives, and we remain oblivious to its presence. Thus, Yes means no.

Bonus: Why No still means No?

A perfectly valid question can be raised then: does No still mean No? Assume an agent A denies some φ­-ing, which unbeknownst to them aligns with their ethical desires. While φ­-ing might align with A’s ethical desires, the idea of freedom in consent implicitly means action taken upon this self-knowledge. Therefore, No remains No in all cases: even in the absence of self-knowledge.

  1. Eyal, N. (2019, January 16). Informed consent. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
  2. as opposed to the metaphysical question of freedom and free will
  3. Meaning and Meta-goals. Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 7). Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
  4. Can’t deny that there is slight wiggling room in trivial issues, a grey area where the lines blur.
  5. Zeitgeist Films. (2014). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
  6. They Live. (1988).
  7. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 20). Attachment Theory. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from

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