Les Moonves and the Limitations of “No Means No”

This phrase was once a feminist rallying cry. It’s become something much darker.

Leslie Moonves.
Leslie Moonves in Las Vegas on Aug. 26.
Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images for Showtime

When the New Yorker confronted CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves with six women’s allegations of sexual harassment and assault, he offered a conciliatory response. “I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances,” he said in a statement. “Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely.”

Here, Moonves actively mischaracterizes the accusations against him as stories from long ago—Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece included allegations of unwanted kissing, genital-area touching, and explicit requests during business meetings for sex from as recently as the mid-2000s. The statement also laid out a willful distortion of the concept of sexual consent: “I always understood and respected—and abided by the principle—that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ ” Moonves said, “and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career.”

This justification for Moonves’ alleged abusive behavior cleverly transfers responsibility from the accused harasser to the people forced to endure his harassment while attempting to preserve their dignity and career potential. Under the “no means no” school of consent, any sexual indignity may be ethically visited upon someone until the exact moment she utters a clear and convincing “no.” When abusers try to prove consent by saying it wasn’t not given, they can easily shroud physical violations under the cover of “she never said no,” and people tasked with evaluating allegations can convince themselves that no one can really say what the alleged victim wanted at the time.

Moonves’ statement echoes the one Louis C.K. put out in November, after the New York Times published accusations from several women who said he exposed his penis and masturbated in front of them, sometimes in the workplace. “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” C.K. wrote in an apology. Like Moonves, C.K. conveniently omitted some allegations—according to the Times’ piece, he didn’t always ask. He also twisted the meaning of consent to serve his own desire to harass women with impunity: Even if C.K. did ask permission before every single time he masturbated in front of women, he doesn’t say whether they agreed. The majority of women who accused him say they didn’t say “yes.” If they stood there frozen, flattered C.K. to help themselves exit the situation, or just laughed uncomfortably, but didn’t say no, does that mean they consented? The “no means no” theory of consent, favored as it is by alleged harassers, would hold that they did.

The world that “no means no” imagines is one in which women are complicit in their own abuse merely for existing in the same place and time as someone who wants to abuse them. It asks people, mostly women, to be constantly on guard in the presence of those who might shove an unexpected tongue down their throats at a friendly meal or slide a hand up their skirts at a business meeting—as two of the allegations against Moonves claim—lest they be groped by surprise before they’re able to muster a “no.”

According to many of the women who spoke to the New Yorker, Moonves did continue touching them and making sexual advances after they rejected him. But even if he hadn’t, his invocation of “no means no” in his own defense should give pause to proponents of that philosophy. A man who repeatedly kisses and gropes women who have no interest in being kissed and groped by him isn’t a bumbling everyman, failing at the impossible task of reading women’s notoriously mixed signals. The reason he isn’t seeking consent is because he doesn’t care about consent—he cares about doing whatever it is he wants to do. He knows, at least subliminally, that it’s a lot harder to say “no” when you haven’t been asked, a lot easier to go along with something you feel gross or ambivalent about when it’s already happening.

It’s this bias toward compliance and against confrontation that Eric Schneiderman allegedly exploited in his reported pattern of abuse, too. The former New York attorney general, who was accused by four women of physical abuse, often in a sexual context, defended himself in the face of those May allegations with the same argument as C.K. and Moonves: that he’d never disregarded a woman’s “no.” One woman told the New Yorker that after Schneiderman slapped her in the face during a make-out session without her consent, causing her to scream and cry, he said he’d simply miscalculated what she’d wanted. “You’d really be surprised,” he allegedly said. “A lot of women like it. They don’t always think they like it, but then they do, and they ask for more.” By the time Schneiderman’s alleged victim had a chance to say “no,” that she didn’t want to be slapped, the deed was already done. If he thought she might have said “yes” of her own accord, without a surprise trial run, he would have asked her first.

“No means no” also erases essential context in stories of sexual harassment and assault.
The “no” you use to fend off a drunk stranger who lunges from across the subway car flows a lot freer than the “no” you must summon to rebuff the head of a major television network who’s just hired you for a job. The women who have accused C.K. and Moonves of harassment and abuse recounted feelings of shock and discomfort mixing with fear for their careers when faced with out-of-the-blue come-ons from these men, who knew they had the power to either make a woman a star or blacklist her from their entire industry. Those fears were apparently well-founded: Multiple Moonves accusers believe that their CBS careers were prematurely terminated after they squirmed out of Moonves’ grasp and declined to have sex with him. A “no,” or anything besides an enthusiastic “yes,” that comes from a place of social and financial dependence is hardly freely given. Moonves knew this—why else would he have focused so much sexual attention on women whose jobs were contingent upon his subjective goodwill?

The CBS board of directors decided on Monday to keep Moonves in his current role while an external organization investigates the allegations. The company’s decision not to immediately suspend or fire him might have been influenced by the somewhat muted public reaction to the New Yorker’s piece: Without allegations of rape or sordid details like open bathrobes and ejaculation into household furnishings, the Moonves story doesn’t fit the deranged-monster archetype we now expect from #MeToo-era exposés. But the quotidian circumstances of Moonves’ alleged abuse are exactly what makes his story so chilling. The women he reportedly victimized are describing a disregard for consent so practiced and casual that it feels like a comprehensive indictment not just of one famous TV executive but of an entire corporate culture. We now know just how common corporate workplaces that allow harassment to thrive are—in part because “no means no” remains the cultural standard for adjudicating claims of sexual harassment and abuse, in spite of the broad leeway it offers perpetrators and the heavy burdens of proof and responsibility it places on survivors. “No means no” was once used by anti-rape activists to affirm the rights of people to stop an unwanted sexual interaction with a single word. Now that accused perpetrators have perverted it for their own gains, it’s become a weapon against their accusers, a shield of plausible deniability for men smart enough to understand consent and avoid seeking it anyway.