And About that “Yes Means Yes” Thing…

Today’s earlier post was mainly designed to situate myself in a given context, without really spelling out my opinion on the issue itself, but I’ve also been thinking about the Yes Means Yes book proposal/call for submissions itself. The language of the call is one thing, the response to criticism of the concept is another, but then there’s that…the concept.

On the surface, I’m all for teaching “enthusiastic consent”, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s really really important to be teaching boys and men what it means to actually respect a sexual partner, really solidly emphasizing the definition of mutuality and consent, and getting far, far away from the idea that women “play” hard to get or good girls don’t or seduction is part of the point or whatever whatever whatever. But there’s a caveat to the importance of that message, and it’s a big one: who are we talking to, here?

The relevant target audience for that particular message is boys (or young men…or, hell, older men if they’re even still a little bit teachable). It’s not feminists, and it’s not women. It has a role in women’s discussion of sexual violence, sure, but that role is mainly in recovery, not in prevention. I kind of didn’t get it initially when I read the critique that suggested (among many other things) that all this was doing was placing an emphasis on women who felt pressured to consent to do so more “enthusiastically”, but the more I think about that, the more it makes sense.

Rape culture includes these notions of male virility, sexual potency and dominance at the same time as it incorporates messages that women require coercion and convincing in order to enjoy sex. So targeting a collection of essays about rape prevention at women by focusing on announcing female sexual enjoyment is something, but it seems like we’re putting the cart before the horse, here. Because as long as we’ve skipped the part where we actually teach these misguided young men the true meaning of consent, and the part where we mention that breaking down her “defenses” and “scoring” and competition and etc etc etc are not actually a de facto presumed part of sex or even, possibly, the best part of sex, and the part where we acknowledge that in many, many cases, this “excuse” is total bullshit, then I can absolutely imagine being in a scenario where I know that what the man I’m not entirely interested in fucking wants to hear from me is that he’s the best I’ve ever had and that I just can’t resist and that I’ve been turned with one switch into exactly the little porn star he’s always wanted, and I know that it’s a hell of a lot easier just to act that part than it is to really try to assert that I’m not all that interested…and then we’re right back where we started, aren’t we?

Defining rape is really, really important. To my mind, being able to define instances when I’ve been raped has been a huge part of the battle…in my recovery. In at least a couple of cases, including the first and by far the most physically violent, I didn’t actually say “no”, and it was damned important for me to recognize all the ways I was communicating my lack of consent without actually using that word. But that’s all after the fact. Targeting this at me, or even targeting this at younger women who are still learning that it’s okay to be a sexual entity, it’s not up to them to play out the standard hard-to-get good girl script, and who haven’t yet learned the asserting boundaries concept is not the key to dismantling rape culture. It’s just not.

There’s a difference between feminism that centralizes and genuinely empowers women and feminism that continues to place the onus for problems on the shoulders of the women who are affected by it in the first place. And while I’ve been somewhat hesitant to declare an opinion in any of these issues, and I’ve been inclined to sit back and say “well, what the hell do I know anyway, and isn’t it arrogant of me to say I can tell one way or another, and I’m just a nobody while the women who are writing these things are clearly so much better than me so I should just shut up”, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, point blank, that this is one of the latter.

I wrote a post a few months ago on the Hathor feminism site called Feminist Victim-Blaming. I think the points I made there stand with respect to this kind of thing as well. Telling women that if we can just be feminist enough, if we just embrace our own sexuality enough, if we just assert ourselves, if we just acknowledge our enjoyment of sex and use our willingness to dismantle the gatekeeper imagery, if, if, if…well, it’s still about what women can do to keep themselves from being assaulted and abused and hurt, isn’t it? Which is not to say women can do nothing, and we need to sit back and wait for the men to do all the work and let’s-create-another-false-dichotomy of the issue, but…

Here’s what I said then, and I think it applies to this idea as well:

Feminism represents strength and empowerment for women collectively, but it can’t provide a cloak and shield for individual women. At best, I’ve got some added knowledge of the early warning signs of abusive behaviour, but my feminist club membership kit didn’t come with a beeper that detects the “abusive entitled asshole” level in every individual I encounter.

The number of times/number of guys to whom I say yes and the extent to which I understand that only yes, yes, yes is enjoyable sex is not going to help me if and when I meet one of the guys who not only doesn’t give a crap what I say, but who would actually rather I put up a bit of a fight, because it makes him feel like more of a man. And I think lots of these women know it and miss it anyway, just as they missed it when they were blaming the feminist victim because it was way more fun to giggle and say “feminists do it better”.


13 thoughts on “And About that “Yes Means Yes” Thing…

  1. Jay says:

    Can’t talk much now (at work), but had to say:

    1.) Total agreement with you.
    2.) What you say is a large part of why I’ve been getting involved in feminism.
    3.) Whilst googling the concept of “enthusiastic consent” (never heard of it), I found this post, which is evidentally in response to the blog post you linked to:

    If you were interested.

  2. purtek says:

    1. Thanks
    2. Are you even a little bit aware of how energizing and refreshing and joy-bringing a statement like that is?
    3. Thank you! I’m definitely interested and hadn’t seen that one yet.

  3. […] In Which I Take A Side (or, When Feminists Don’t Get It) and And About that “Yes Means Yes” Thing… by […]

  4. BetaCandy says:

    YES. YES. Oh, god, Yes. (I am enthusiastically consenting to your post.)

    Jokes aside, you’re right when you say it’s that the target audience of this needs to be MEN, not WOMEN. When you target women with this information, we have to ask what you mean. And all I can get from it is the same message a lot of confused but dominant third-wavers have been sending me since 1993: that we have to prove we can get along with men via happy heterosexual relationships before we can claim to be feminists.

    Target the very same book at men, and the picture entirely changes. I’m not sure it’ll help – I still think that sane men don’t have it in them to “wear down a woman’s defenses” let alone rape her; in my experience, most men need a fair amount of encouragement every step of the way, and the slightest resistance backs them right down with feelings of not wanting to impose.

    I’m still bothered by the “rape culture” being defined as something that excludes the rapes of children and men, but your point about who the target audience is was like a lightbulb going off for me.

  5. purtek says:

    My post is totally reciprocating your enthusiasm, and is watching with caution in case there is the slightest resistance. My post is good people like that.

    I agree with everything you’re saying about sane men not doing these things, and I think that’s why “rape culture” can’t dismiss the rapes of children and men. This is why the “conventional feminist wisdom” was developed in the first place, really. There’s something about this that’s trying to situate the issue in much more comforting terms, and the terms aren’t comforting at all–the terms are fucking fucked up, and that’s the point.

  6. Jay says:

    You two are hilarious.

    Purtek: no, to be honest, I had no idea that my comments could have such an effect…and I’m a little taken aback. Frankly, a lot of what you’re saying here falls into my “common fucking sense” folder, and (in the course of my investigation into the murky–not to mention dangerous!–depths of feminism) finding so much common sense is refreshing and encouraging to me.

    Beta: re: “sane men don’t commit rape”…could I get a clarification? I agree, but then, I think that this makes us (me, at least) look at the definitions of sanity and consent and so on and try to explain the amount of drunken-advantage-date-rape and “if you loved me you’d do it” heavy-handed coercion out there (among other gambits). I’ll probably deal with this a little in an upcoming blog post (where I talk about Robert Heinlein), but we both know there are a fair number of men who can rationalize “if she didn’t say no, it wasn’t rape” and/or “if she wanted it, it wasn’t rape”, and still consider themselves free and clear on the “sane men don’t rape” condition. Were you basically saying our culture (some aspects, anyway) are in the business of instilling insanity into young men?

  7. izzy99 says:

    Have to come back and study this post.

    What irks me: college students have a party (or high school); young woman (or girl) gets raped. Public outcry: “well she should not have been drinking”. Why not: “well, he should not have been drinking”.

    The reason the myth that females want to be persuaded is how often boys wear down an “in love” girlfriend, seducing her out of (often) her virginity. The way I see it he is playing on her vulnerabilities and feelings of love. When someone says no they do mean no, but salespeople do not accept no for an answer.

    Teaching that rape is wrong, teaching boys that females are to be respected might help prevent rapes in the future. Doubtful as long as men rule the world.

  8. purtek says:

    Were you basically saying our culture (some aspects, anyway) are in the business of instilling insanity into young men?

    I don’t know if Betacandy was saying this, but I’d certainly like to be. I mean, you’re right–in many ways all of the examples you cite are totally socially sanctioned, and many, many, many people would consider them within the realm of normal human thought…you (meaning Jay) have heard some of the details of the assaults I’ve experienced, and you know that for a long time, I struggled to define any of them as rape. I can no longer think of that behaviour, that level of rationalization, as anything other than culturally supported insanity. That any man can do those things and things that are even more blatantly hateful and violent to another human being and still walk around and feel reasonably okay about his place in the universe…well, the only way I become comfortable living in that universe, these days, is to call that “insanity”. YMMV.

    Izzy99: I recommend you also read a lot of the links in the post entitled “In Which I Take a Side (or, When Feminists Don’t Get It)”. The linked articles contain a lot of background on the concept of enthusiastic consent and victim-blaming, which I hope you would find thought-provoking if you have some time. I love your salesperson analogy, and I think you’re totally right about how this connects to the same kind of culture that turns the focus back around on female drinking.

  9. BetaCandy says:

    Were you basically saying our culture (some aspects, anyway) are in the business of instilling insanity into young men?

    PRECISELY. I think entitlement to that degree should be defined as pathology, but instead it’s defined as “boys will be boys”. We’ve created an archetype of manhood that’s capable of hurting people and feeling fine about it – that’s sick. I don’t know whether individuals who’ve embraced the idea “she meant yes because of what she wore/where she was/what she didn’t say” are redeemable or not, but I do believe the first step is for society to stop thinking that people who behave that way are normal.

    THEN we can look at enthusiastic consent as THE alternative rather than just AN alternative. Because most people don’t leap at a chance to embrace a higher standard for their conduct; it has to be demanded of them.

  10. […] and followed her links. I pored over the article and comments on Tekanji’s blog. Then Purtek posted again, and led me to this glorious critique. I can’t add much to the criticisms they’ve leveled at the […]

  11. Jay says:

    Okay, that was what I was thinking…just wanted to be clear.

    That said, I agree that a person who is capable of rationalizing rape and/or not capable of seeing the effects is has on women is mentally skewed. But I think this is a form of eminently redeemable “insanity”…as it’s based not on one’s biochemistry, but one’s psychological framework. And the earlier you start, the better chance you have of undoing what amounts to more or less “cultural brainwashing”.

    I used the above phrase hesitantly…I’m a big believer in free will and people being able to make their own choices, rather than being “controlled” by some over-arching…whatever. But I can’t deny that one’s thoughts are limited by the way in which one was taught to think…and that maybe I’ve been giving society waaay too much credit in how they teach people to think.

    I’m finding myself comparing this to the way things like slavery used to be publicly accepted. I don’t know if Thomas Jefferson was insane in the way we’d normally define it; it was just something he’d grown up with, and that took him a long time to change his mind on (I don’t believe he freed his slaves until his death…whether that was moral cowardice or not, I leave to the individual). And it can’t be chalked up to simple institutionalized bigotry…Jefferson was, for example, extremely opposed to prejudice against Native Americans; yet he had no trouble being prejudiced against Africans, and saw no contradiction. And lots of people of Jefferson’s time (and later) never did come to that realization, that slavery is simply wrong, and that blacks were no different than whites.

    If this was a similar case of “institutionalized insanity”, I think it’s a good precedent that these “cultural insanities” are reversible. While he haven’t eradicated race prejudice (far from it), I believe it’s been shown that people who’ve absorbed racism from the cradle can be “cured” of this…we can similarly have hope for sexism/patriarchy/whatever you want to call it.

  12. purtek says:

    Jay – I am absolutely in agreement with what you’re saying re: the definition of insanity here. It’s a word that perhaps we should be using with more caution, given the potential connotation of lack of responsibility as well as non-mutability of the traits, which is an element I may give some additional thought to.

    The point is that this is an absolutely unacceptable, irrational way of thinking. But I also agree that it’s changeable, and that there are pre-existing models for how to change it, which is the only thing that gives me any hope at all.

  13. BetaCandy says:

    Jay, those are good questions and I’ve wondered about them myself. I don’t know where the line is between cultural programming and an individual’s responsibility to notice the cultural programming is hurting people. That’s why I prefer to think in terms of the standards culture sets.

    Example: in the 80’s, a topic on talk shows and news shows was how boyfriends and husbands would often turn away in revulsion from a wife or lover who’d been raped (and I mean clear-cut brutal stranger rape) or treat it like some form of infidelity. This was due to a longstanding cultural ignorance about rape which allowed men to think of rape as something that soiled a woman, made her unfit for their future use. There was also certainly a failure to understand post-traumatic shock symptoms and be patient with someone recovering from a violation.

    30 years later, it’s almost unthinkable that a man who loves a woman would think “eww, gross” and dump her when he found out someone had raped her, despite the fact that that’s how people thought for thousands of years! But we had a national conversation about it. We showed men in TV shows and movies being there for women and reassuring them they weren’t repulsed, etc. We showed women they had a right to expect better.

    I’m sure the problem isn’t gone (no problem ever is) but now dumping someone because she’s been victimized is not socially acceptable. And we changed that in 30 years.

    There’s a lot more we can change.

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