Oh Yes Means Yes: The Joy of Affirmative Consent

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Photo: Christoph Wilhelm/Getty Images

Most women have been there at least once. Staring at the ceiling, bored, while some dude pumps away. Thinking, but not saying aloud, “Ow, that’s my cervix.” Not bothering to redirect him toward the clitoris. Sort of getting a thrill from the overall encounter, but not getting off. Not even coming close. Faking it. There’s a long history of women — especially young, straight women — having sex that’s consensual but not really much fun. And an equally long history of their male partners walking home the next morning thinking, “Nailed it.”

These droves of sexually dissatisfied young women will be unwitting beneficiaries of a new law passed by the California legislature this week. At first blush, the law isn’t about them: It applies to women who didn’t consent, and who go to their universities with sexual-assault allegations. Thanks to the new statute, rather than ask a rape survivor how forcefully she said no, universities must ask whether both parties had “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” It adds, “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.”

Critics say this law is going to make consensual sex less sexy — that being 100 percent sure your partner is into it, or even stopping frequently to ask, “Is this okay?” is not hot. That university administrators will practically require written affidavits to prove sex was consensual, and the threat of a possible assault allegation will deflate boners on campuses from Humboldt State down to U.C., San Diego.

I beg to differ. Confirming consent leads to much hotter sex. “There are lots of ways to ask for a yes,” writes Thomas MacAulay Millar at the Yes Means Yes blog. “If you lean in to kiss someone and they lean in to kiss you back, that’s yes. If you ask someone if they want your cock and they say, ‘I want your cock,’ that’s yes, and if they put their mouth on it, that’s yes, too. If you’re fucking someone and holding them down and you’re both sweating and maybe bruised and you lean in and your hand is on their throat and you say, ‘can you still say no?’ and they say, ‘yes,’ that’s yes. We’re not kids here, right?”

Well, actually, incoming college freshmen are kids. Or rather, very newly minted adults. The thought of freshman welcome-week committees spelling out what MacAulay Millar just did? That makes me happy. The new law will force universities to talk to all students, female and male, about how enthusiastic consent is mandatory. Which means it will force universities to talk about what enthusiastic consent looks like. Which means, hopefully, those newly minted adults will do more talking about what turns them on and gets them off.

We’re still deprogramming the idea that nice girls don’t admit they like sex, let alone talk about how they like it. “We wanted to make the world safer for women to say no and yes to sex as we please,” write Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman in the introduction to their 2007 essay collection Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. “Women are not empty vessels to be fucked or not fucked; we’re sexual actors who should absolutely have the ability to say yes to sex when we want it, just like men, and should feel safe saying no.” This feeling of safety is not something that can be achieved by, say, using an app like Good2Go, which asks partners to indicate whether they’re sober enough and consent to sleeping with each other. It’s impossible to declare consent up front by checking a box, because hooking up or having sex usually involves a series of acts, not just one. A person who consents to one thing may not consent to another. Women (and men) have to feel safe indicating “yes” and “no” throughout a sexual encounter, rather than getting the conversation out of the way up front.

No matter what campus policies are put in place, there are probably still going to be some messy mornings-after. And sexual assault is still going to happen. Statistics show that most campus rapes are committed by a small group of repeat offenders who clearly don’t care about consent, be it verbal, nonverbal, or via an app. But most young men, it bears repeating, aren’t rapists. Even in the absence of a university policy, they are worried about inadvertently doing something in bed that their partner doesn’t welcome. And most men are actively thinking about whether their partner is enjoying herself. The new law makes life easier for both them and the women they sleep with, because it creates a compelling reason for both parties to speak up and talk about what they like. In essence, the new law forces universities — and the rest of us — to acknowledge that women like sex. Especially sex with a partner who wants to talk about what turns them on.