Friday, April 8, 2011

On Yes Means Yes

Feminists who postulate that boys must obtain a spelled-out "yes" before having sex are trying to establish rules, cut in stone, that will apply to any and every encounter and that every responsible person must obey. The new rule resembles the old good girl/bad girl rule not only because of its implicit suggestion that girls have to be protected but also because of its absolute nature, its iron-fisted denial of complexity and ambiguity. I bristle at such a rule and so do a lot of other people. - Mary Gaitskill, "On Not being a Victim"

A friend of mine sent me an article she said had made her think of me, and then casually mentioned it might be worthy of a blog post. It is, in many respects; but this is the one she's getting at the moment. I'm not sure if it's the one she expected. As some people know, I have a history of misinterpreting fairly clear-cut texts. I missed much of the conventional thought about Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and libertarianism, taking out of it a doctrine of selfishness that I feel has served me and my liberal-pinko leanings well. I missed the environmental lesson of the film Ferngully, seeing it instead as a feminist screed about men not being trustworthy. I was 15 and 5, respectively, when I came to these conclusions. So I can see how I could possibly be off-base regarding the feminist thought known, now, as Yes Means Yes. But I don't think I am.

I'm not aware of which feminists, exactly, the author was pointing to in 1994 who wanted boys to obtain a spelled out yes before engaging in sexual acts with women. I was 8 in 1994, so I think I have some excuse as to this particular hole in my knowledge. And it is entirely possible that, like in the anti-porn movement of the decade earlier, the mainstream feminist thought was, well, sex adverse. But this is the same argument that crops up now regarding this particular philosophy of sex, and I think those people making the author's claim now are missing out on a few key details.

Firstly, I don't see Yes Means Yes as a way to make sex and sexual actions more puritanical, or even to adhere to rules carved in absolute. I see this particular campaign as an attempt to change how we think about sex, and about how women relate to sex, and how men relate to women in the pursuit of sex. I'm of the mind that how we handle sex in America right now to be fairly unhealthy. I'm of the mind that in many instances, we are following the old rule book, where men are supposed to be the actors and women are supposed to passively accept sexual contact, or actively reject it. And when something comes up - like rape - we as a general society are quick to point to a woman's (or girl's) supposed deviation from this norm as a reason for that particular crime (case in point: Cleveland, TX). I see Yes Means Yes as a way of muddying up those rules. As a way of making the advancement of sexual acts more complicated, but the sexual acts themselves more fulfilling. As a way of turning the general thinking about women and sex from passively acquiescing to actively participating and actively seeking. As a way of making sex into a conversation, rather than a silent action. And along with that thought is this one: it is important to change the very structure of how we think about sex. Not just how we think about sex with our significant others, or with our flings, or with our friends with benefits, but in general.

We need to start having frank discussions about sex and sexual pleasure from a young age. We need to start not only telling women and men that both women and men have sexual autonomy, but supplying the language and the thought process for that very autonomy. That means changing the nature of the conversation from speaking up when things have become uncomfortable to having ongoing conversations about sex, sexual wants, sexual needs, and what we expect from our sexual partners. We need to change the conversation from a "I don't want that" to a "I want that, I want to try this, and I never want to touch that thing over there". And getting to the point where you know and can speak about that thing over there that you don't ever even want to try.

One of the more interesting points of Gaitskill makes in this article is talking about how she didn't have the ability to stand up for herself at specific moments, to stop what was happening at specific times. I'm not going to try and explain why Gaitskill herself was unable to do so; she explains it quite well enough on her own. But I will say that I think at least part of the problem is the fact (a) the rules to sex are nebulous (even now), but exacting if a person (a woman person especially) is perceived to have not followed them, and (b) the language of sex is shrouded and couched in euphemistic terms. Yes means Yes, for me, is about changing both of those things. It is about being able to say the word "uterus" on the floor of the Florida House. It is about not having overarching rules regarding what you should or should not do sexually, but about having your own set of rules that you can converse with your partners about.

I've been told that talking frankly about sex takes the, for lack of a better word, sexiness out of the act. That somehow the very act of verbal affirmation deflates sexual desire. I don't doubt that for some people that's true. But I think that's because, in general, we have this idea about what sex is. Sex is supposed to be an action. Sex is supposed to be wild and passionate and taking place in a moment of wild abandonment, and it would suck to put that sort of thing on the backburner to figure out exactly how your partner wishes to go about this, if your partner wishes to go about this at all. For my part, talking about sex in detail, talking about likes and dislikes, taking the time to figure out how to make talking about not-wants and wants, and still getting on with business (or, you know, not) is a sign that a person is ready to have sex. Not wanting to talk about it for fear that talking about sex makes sexy time go bye-bye is, for me, a strange concept. I want to talk about sex with my partner. Talking about sex with my partner generally leads to better sex. Talking about sex with my partner allows those times when the sex isn't so great to be understood better, so we can change things up for next time. Talking about sex with my partner makes sex that much more fulfilling, and more of a journey than simply an act accomplished.

The thing about changing the conversation from a "No means No" to a "Yes means Yes" one is that it has the ability to change the functionality about how we think about sex. If we change the model from a "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights" experience where we want to see how much we can do and how far we can go before our partner shuts us down to one where find out where our partner's boundaries are beforehand, we are less likely to violate those boundaries even accidentally. That's the place I want to get to.