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”.Reviewed at:(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”)
Book Addiction (A very brave post that perfectly illustrates why this book is so important.)