Feb 1, 2010

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

The world we envision is one in which genuine pleasure is celebrated—not feared, controlled or commodified. Where the only consent that matters is the kind that’s given freely and enthusiastically. Where each person’s body, regardless of gender, is theirs to do with whatever pleases them—and to keep safe from whatever doesn’t.
Yes Means Yes is a collection of essays about sexual violence, cultural perceptions of female sexuality, gender stereotypes, and the ways in which all three are connected to create a culture that legitimises rape and disallows female expressions of desire. It’s a book that expands our understanding of sexual violence to incorporate consequences and scenarios that most people have probably not considered before—and I don’t just mean anything beyond the stranger-in-the-bushes picture, though obviously it goes far beyond that.

I loved the fact that Yes Means Yes included a multiplicity of voices and perspective: cis women and men, transgender people, people of colour, immigrant women, sex workers, etc. They all talk about the varied ways in which Western culture’s attitudes towards sex, violence, and particularly female sexuality affect their lives. I suppose that a lot of people would argue that today’s world is overloaded with sex talk, but the problem is that despite all the sexual imagery and boastful talk that has entered the public realm, honest and frank conversations about sexuality are still rare—especially from a female perspective. Which is why books like this matter so much.

As with any essay collection, some of the essays in “Yes Means Yes” hit me more than others, but I found each and every one of them thoughtful, enriching, and often eye-opening. A few I particularly wanted to highlight:

“The Fantasy of Acceptable ‘Non-Consent’” by Stacey May Fowles surprised me because it dared to open a particularly problematic can of worms. I admire her for it, because I believe that anything that matters to people is worthy of honest discussion. The essay is about Fowles’ preference for a passive role and domination in the bedroom, and the fact that even among like-minded people, she has found that her preference is often pathologised: she’s accused of relinquishing control of her life, of being in an “unhealthy” relationship, and of trying to re-enact abusive sexual dynamics as part of a healing process. None of which, Fowles says, is the case. She says she feels patronised by people who make those assumptions, and carefully explains that a sexual preference is just that—a sexual preference. She also says that the domination/submission dynamics do not extend to how she and her partner interact outside the bedroom; and furthermore, she points out that the thing that makes these encounters possible at all is the fact that consent is always carefully negotiated beforehand.

“Invasion of Space by a Female” by Coco Fusco was one of the most upsetting essays to read, but one of the most enlightening too. It's about sexual abuse on the part of women soldiers in the army and in prisoner camps. Fusco carefully explains how the stereotype of the male sexual predator and the helpless female prey means that when the roles are reversed, sexual abuse is perceived as not quite real, or not quite as serious. The true obviously being that it is, in fact, as real and as serious as when a man abuses a woman.

“An Immodest Proposal” by Heather Corinna tells a story that I heard countless times in my teens: it’s a “nice” virginity loss story, one in which the girl is treated kindly and respectfully; but it’s also one in which she merely goes through the motions without feeling much of anything at all—this because she grew up believing that sex is not something girls do, but something that is done to them. Corinna’s alternative story is one that would make the world a better place in many ways.

Hanne Blank’s “The Process-oriented Virgin” is about the fact that when she was researching her book Virgin: The Untouched History, she met young women who didn’t see virginity loss as an isolated and defined moment in time, but rather as a learning process that could span several years and that was only finished when they felt it was finished—when they felt at ease with their sexuality. Blank tells us that she was initially taken aback, but the more she thought about it, the more sense this approach made.

Finally, “Trial by Media” by Samhita Mukhopahyay is about how black women feel particularly limited by the fact that they’re often cast into one of to fixed roles: the “respectable lady”, whose existence is asexual, and the “lascivious black woman”, whose sexuality is seen as excessive, pathological, and even threatening. And of course, these stereotypes mean that rape stories involving black women are treated by the media in ways that seem to imply that you can't “really” rape a women who is oversexual to begin with.

The central idea around which Yes Means Yes is built is one that may seem obvious, but still very much bears repeating: that sexual consent is more than the absence of “no”, and that the fact that we live in a world that doesn’t allow women to acknowledge or express desire, a world that still views sex as something men do to women, is damaging for everyone. If these are things you care about, please read this book. I wish the whole world would.

A few passages I wanted to share:
If women have the ability to fully and freely say yes, and if we established a model of enthusiastic consent instead of just “no means no”, it would be a lot harder for men to get away with rape. It would be a lot harder to argue that there’s a “gray area”. It would be a lot harder to push the idea that “date rape” is less serious than “real” rape, that women who are assaulted by acquaintances were probably teases, that what is now called “date rape” used to just be called “seduction”.
(From “Offensive Feminism” by Jill Filipovic)

Let’s be clear. By “rape”, I mean a sexual encounter without consent. Consent is saying yes. Yes, YES! This is the definition, in my experience, employed by today’s rape crises services. Their models for prevention education, however, fail to teach young people how to really articulate or receive consent. They instead focus on how to say and listen to “no”. “No” is useful, undoubtedly, but it is at best incomplete. How can we hope to provide the tools for ending rape without simultaneously providing the tools for positive sexuality?
(From “A Love Letter from an Anti-Rape Activist to Her Feminist Sex-Toy Store” by Lee Jacobs Riggs)

Survivors of any attack that doesn’t fit the most extreme stranger-in-the-bushes-with-a-knife paradigm are often reluctant to name their experience as rape. When the culture teaches you that lack of consent is measured only in active, physical resistance, when your actions are questioned if your date refuses to respect “no”, you’re going to have a hard time calling rape by its real name. This is one of the reasons why feminists had to (and continue to) battle so hard for date rape to be taken seriously in the first place, and the reason why the title of the first major book examining the phenomenon, published in 1988, is I Never Called It Rape. It’s a vicious cycle: Stigma and fear fuel guilt, shame, and denial, which our culture uses to shore up stigma and guilt.”
(From “An Old Enemy in a New Outfit” by Lisa Jervis)

While the predator stereotype affects men’s interactions with women, it probably has an even greater impact on their interactions with children. When I was male-bodied, I found that if I were to interact enthusiastically with children, women would often give me dirty looks. A trans male acquaintance of mine recently told me that the greatest loss he experienced upon transitioning from female to male was his ability to interact freely and enthusiastically with children. He teaches young children and has found that he has to modify his whole approach—for example, keeping more distance and not being as effusive or affectionate with his students as before—in order to avoid other adults’ viewing him as creepy or suspect.
(From “Why Nice Guys Finish Last” by Julia Serano”)
Reviewed at:
Book Addiction (A very brave post that perfectly illustrates why this book is so important.)


  1. This books sounds so interesting, thanks so much for this review! It covers so many of the issues that I was discussing with my students just a few weeks ago. I think I'll have to get hold of a copy soon.

  2. Oh Ana, perfect review. I'm so happy that so many people with be reading this review, and hopefully a lot of them will pick up this book. Because like you said, I wish the whole world would read it.

  3. Another one for the wishlist!
    This book looks very good, and the fact that Lisa Jervis is in it (I'm a big fan of Bitch magazine) makes me want to read it even more. Enjoyed your review :D

  4. I don't think I could read this without getting too agitated! I also don't think "a world without rape" is possible, because it's not just about sex and imagery and consent; it's about power and violence, and even just men establishing hegemony over other men.

  5. For some reason when you told me about this before I didn't catch that it was made up of essays. I think I could read that easier than a full nonfic book because I could spread it out over time, the way I can a short story collection. I think I must get ahold of this sometime.

  6. Some days I catch up on everyone's blogs and add nothing to my TBR list and some days it seems like every post is about a book I want. This looks so interesting and I think necessary, and an excellent book for me to read for the Women Unbound challenge. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. I am pleased to hear you enjoyed this book, but I think it might be one I would struggle to read. I like the idea of some of the essays but others leave me cold. I definitely think being a parent, makes it more difficult to read some books these days.

  8. A friend had recommended to me that I read this book, but she hadn't said much beyond the title. Thanks for providing the wonderful details in your review.

  9. Wow, this sounds very powerful and provoking. Always a good combination, right? :-)

    Thanks for the review!

  10. It would be hard not to love a book that honestly and directly addresses topics and issues that are usually avoided. I found all of the examples very fascinating. I actually took an elective class in college about sexuality, and had to write a final paper on a similar subject. It is something that not many people want to talk about. Great review as usual!

  11. I'm a big fan of Jessica and Feministing (her blog), but for some reason I haven't gotten around to this book. Thanks for reminding me about it.

  12. That sounds really good. Have you ever read anything by Carol Queen? She's a local San Francisco sex educator/activist (who is also a dear friend). Her books (and work) changed my life. "Real Live Nude Girl" is a terrific set of sex-positive essays, and "The Leather Daddy and The Femme" remains the best, most-fun erotica book EVAR. So sex-positive and focused on YES.

  13. My, this sounds like the perfect book for me to indulge in. I need to hunt this down. Thanks for putting this on my radar.

  14. This sounds like such an important collection of essays - something that needs to be read by everyone, like you said. It's great how we get to read the opinions of various people of every kind! Awesome review, as always.

    from Une Parole

  15. Such a powerful review of a relevant topic, Nymeth.

  16. This sounds like such an interesting read. I had a professor my first term in grad school who had done her doctoral thesis on this topic. She had interviewed 8th or 9th grade students about their attitude towards sex and when no meant no. It was a very interesting if frightening read. Because both the boys and the girls thought no meant no when first asked but then they started adding caveats to it. Scary scary!

  17. It's amazing how you're reading all these good books, and I can't find them anywhere in my libraries! *sigh*

    *Just thought I'd come over and sigh about it. =)

  18. I had not even dreamed that this type of book existed, and now I can't imagine not reading it! A lot of the essays that you pinpointed sound extremely relevant and informative, and a few of them speak to me personally. I am going to see if this book is available to me right now because there is a lot of information in this book that I need to explore. Thank you so much for reviewing this book. I can't tell you how excited I am to have read this!

  19. This sounds really good, but something that I'd want to read a little bit at a time.

  20. Stormfilled: You have lucky students - so many people won't even go there at all. And these things NEED to be discussed.

    Debi: If even one does, I'll be happy!

    Marineko: Her essay was one of my favourites!

    Jill, I agree! And the book covers that as well. I just left a lot out or else I'd have been here writing about it all day - which I kind of want to :P I don't think a world without rape is possible either, just like a world without any one sort of violence isn't. But I'll be happy with a world in which the majority of survivors don't stay silent because they know that if they speak up they'll be blamed.

    Amanda, I hope you read it! I'd so love to discuss it with you.

    Jenny: Yes, this is perfect for Women Unbound!

    Vivienne: The beauty of essay collections is that you can always skip ahead, though! In all seriousness, I think this might interest you exactly as a mother. It deals with so much of what young women today have to face. Not just the threat of sexual violence, but also pressures of all sorts, expectations, being comfortable with their own bodies, etc.

    Amanda, I hope you do pick it up sometime. It's an important book.

    Aarti: Right :)

    Sandy: That class sounds so fascinating!

    Cass: Another thing this book did was add a bunch of blogs to my "to check out" list, since so many of the contributors are bloggers as well.

    Daphne: I haven't, bit I'll look her up! She sounds wonderful.

    Michelle, you're welcome! :)

    Emidy, thank you! I really loved the variety of perspectives.

    Lightheaded, thanks! I do wish these discussions could take place more often.

  21. Zee: Eep, that DOES sound scary. But sadly, it's probably not that uncommon :\

    Michelle: Booo for the library not having them :(

    Zibilee, I hope you find it as rewarding and enriching as I did!

    J.T. Oldfield: It WAS a heavy read, but at the same time, I had too much trouble putting the book down to be able to pace myself.

  22. That quote about how men interact with children was really interesting! I've never even paid attention to that, but I think she might be right.

  23. Heidenkind, I think she is too. It's awful :\


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