Review: Yes Means Yes!

Yes Means Yes! edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti


This week makes it a month since I decided to forsake Atlanta for Denver. And in those four weeks, I’ve been harassed on the street more than I ever have been in my life so far. (Not that I think Atlanta is particularly superior in that regard, only that being at a women’s college was a very different context. Although I will say that there is a Hollaback Atlanta and not a Hollaback Denver.) There’s nothing like waiting to cross the street after a long day at work and getting honked at, whistled at, or have someone grab their crotch at you to remind you that, by daring to be female and in public, your very corpse is considered public domain by an alarming amount of men. Between that and the success of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (which I am not linking to), this summer has given me a fresh handle on the concept of rape culture.

All of this made me even more eager to tackle Yes Means Yes!, which has been on my list ever since I read Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. It was only recently, though, that a copy of the book passed into my hands quite serendipitously. The collection’s subtitle is “Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” and that should tell you all you need to know about why I wanted to read it. Yes Means Yes! collects twenty-seven (twenty-eight if you count Margaret Cho’s short introduction) pieces examining rape culture, imagining the ideal world of consent, and presenting strategies to navigating through the world as it actually is for those of us who want to make it into that ideal world. Inspired by the feminist blogosphere, Friendman and Valenti include “further reading” notes at the end of each piece so that a reader can move through the text topically, if they so desire, as well as more traditional footnotes at the end.

Heather Corinna’s “An Immodest Proposal” opens by outlining a supposedly ideal first time between a heterosexual teenage couple. It’s full of respect, communication, and proper protection, but Corinna explodes it by asking us where on earth the young woman’s desire was. “We heard her say yes, but we never once saw her beg the question herself,” Corinna states, and it’s exactly the kind of thing this collection is full of: observations that force us to face our own socializations, assumptions, and prejudices (182). Despite being a very loud queer feminist, I had never seen or thought of a scenario where a woman would ask her male partner for his consent. Overturning these assumptions is key if we want to move forward. For instance, in a later story, Friedman herself tells us that she didn’t fight back against her rapist because she had never been taught and had never seen that a woman could use her body to protect herself. To create a world where boys are taught that they have a right to say “no” or “yes” (instead of the assumption that menfolk are up for it all the time) and where girls know that their bodies can be sites of power, we first have to imagine them. It sounds simple, but it can be the most difficult thing.

Ultimately, the largest lesson to be learned by Yes Means Yes! is the concept of enthusiastic consent. Emphasizing that “no” means “no” is a great first step when teaching consent, but teaching that only “yes” means “yes” eliminates any supposedly “grey” areas. It’s a model where sex is a collaboration between two individuals, not something one party does to another. Thomas Macaulay Miller’s “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” reimagines the sexual metaphor changed from baseball—a competitive activity where one party wins at the expense of the other—to music—a collaborative activity that incorporates likes and dislikes. (He also touches on how an economic model—“why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”—only works if you think a woman’s sexuality is a non-renewable resource, instead of a subtle facet of herself.) As Miller states: “Because it centers on collaboration, a performance model better fits the conventional feminist wisdom that consent is no thte absence of “no,” but affirmative participation. Who picks up a guitar and jams with a bassist who just stands there? Who dances with a partner who is just standing and staring? In the absence of affirmative participation, there is no collaboration” (38).

While we obviously have quite a ways to go insofar as implementing feminist consent theory in sexual relationships, I’ve long been inspired by the Pervocracy’s concept of a far-reaching consent culture to apply this sort of thing to all human interaction. Only Hazel/Cedar Troost’s “Reclaiming Touch” goes in that direction. After experiencing a conference where everyone followed explicit verbal consent for any physical interaction, Troost attempts to implement it in her own life, telling friends and family that they have to ask if they would like to touch her face, hold her hand, or hug her. Some of them are very offended by this, and it’s that offense that both Troost and I find fascinating—the concept of “assumptive touch,” the idea that people feel allowed to your body. Obviously, there’s a world of difference between an unknown stranger and a beloved spouse, but Troost’s approach envisions a world where one says “yes” to touch before it happens instead of “no” when it does.

Obviously, I adored this collection (and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned how amazing Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s realistic survivor anthem “What It Feels Like When It Comes” is). Only two essays struck me as off—Javacia N. Harris’ “A Woman’s Worth” and Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last.” The first takes women willingly engaging in what Harris believes to be exploitative behavior. I do think she has quite a valid point. Aas a feminist, I’m obviously all for women doing exactly as they please, but actions undertaken with the most empowering of intentions can still scan as oppressive to those who don’t know that. Let’s unpack that! But Harris seems to be responding viscerally, not intellectually, to these behaviors in a way that shades slut-shaming. And Serano calls for straight women to stop being attracted to “assholes,” as that attraction makes them complicit in socializing men to be sexist. Given how much I adored Whipping Girl, I feel weird about feeling so weird about “Why Nice Guys Finish Last.” But Yes Means Yes! is supposed to be a collection of different viewpoints on rape culture, and those two are certainly different.

Bottom line: Yes Means Yes! imagines a world where rape culture is replaced by a collaborative model of enthusiastic consent. Well worth reading.

I received this book as a gift.

7 thoughts on “Review: Yes Means Yes!

  1. Ah, I think this book is so great. It’s on my library wish list to reread in the near future. I loved how many different perspectives were in all the various essays. Just such a good collection.

    I’m sorry you’re getting street-harassed! Rotten Denver! I shall hope for them to lose ignominiously at football this Sunday, and then all the bro-dudes will feel sad and angry. HA HA HA catcalling bro dudes.

    • Er, in case it sounds like I was being flippant about your being street-harassed, I definitely was not. Being catcalled on the street is so demoralizing–most often I say nothing because I don’t want to engage at all, and then I feel like I should have said something; or occasionally I say something but I never sound as tough and ferocious as I wanted to and then I fret about that later too. It is awful and I hope the Denver people cut it out. 😦

      • Oh, I didn’t think you were! You sound exactly like my friends from college; after one incident, we began knighting (daming?) ourselves with increasingly outlandish and misandrous titles to blow off steam. But thank you for being clear about it. 🙂

        My first week, I froze up—my fight or flight reaction is almost always flight—but I’ve started getting comfortable enough in non-threatening situations to yell back. Obviously, any good response is the response that makes you feel safest. I personally feel better after I yell back, but I was also a student actress, so it’s a lot easier for me to pull out “ANGRY MIDDLE-AGED SOUTHERN WOMAN” or “ANGRY MIDDLE-AGED NEW YORKER” at a moment’s notice. (I’m sensing a trend in my short career…) It’s not exactly what I want, but what I want is non-lethal laser vision, so. You know.

  2. I’ve run into that ‘assumptive touch’ issue myself. It’s so frustrating how many people decide that their “I want a hug” is more important that your “I would not like to be touched.”

    Sounds like an interesting book.

  3. Pingback: Saturday Morning Opinions: 2013 in Review | The Literary Omnivore

  4. The essay about touch and consent really got me thinking. Initially I thought it was taking things a bit far, but actually some people don’t like to be hugged, or have their hands held, for example. I would say that I don’t make that presumption straight away but generally unless someone has told me they don’t like to be hugged then I would hug them if I have before. I would hope that my friends would tell me if they don’t want it, but maybe I shouldn’t presume.

    It makes me think about the way a pregnant woman’s body is treated too. You hear about pregnant woman getting patted or rubbed on the belly without consent, even by perfect strangers, which I have always found passively presumptive. It might have been an interesting topic to explore in this book too

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s