Just say yes

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape

Feminists have some unfinished business. For all the increased equality, freedom and opportunity, the lingering threat of sexual violence continues to keep women “in their place.” The 30 writers of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, however, believe a societal shift toward truly valuing female sexuality can help stop rape.

Edited by Jessica Valenti, founder of the popular blog Feministing.com, and Jaclyn Friedman, a queer writer and performer, Yes Means Yes won’t blow the minds of any feminists. We’ve heard these concepts and narratives before. While some of the book’s essays come across as too academic, the remaining personal stories of struggle and survival deeply resonate, making the book painful to read at times.

Yes Means Yes begins with Margaret Cho’s introductory essay, a heartbreaking account of her first sexual experience at 14 with an older man. She didn’t really want to do it, nor did she enjoy the experience, but as a “fat, gothy nerd, I thought I should have been grateful,” she writes. “I didn’t say no because I didn’t think I had a right to say no.”

While the concept of “no means no” has somewhat empowered women over the years, in terms of eradicating rape culture, it’s been ineffectual. So what does that leave us?

Forget “no.” These authors suggest that, when it comes to sexual encounters, we should instead seek an enthusiastic “yes!”

Telling women to be careful or to take a self-defense class sends the false message that women can prevent rape. Maybe a woman trained in self-defense can prevent her own rape, but this does nothing for girls and women who’ve never taken a class or don’t have access to one. Who will prevent their rapes?

Further, “rape prevention” perpetuates the idea that sometimes rape is the victim’s fault—if only she hadn’t consumed so much alcohol or worn such a short skirt. But, as Friedman writes, “Rape is not a risk inherent in unregulated partying or sexual behavior. Need proof? Consider this: It’s not a risk for nearly half the population.”

Indeed, as shown by the book, long-held individual emphasis on rape prevention and recovery fails to recognize the deeper social reasons for rape, thereby neglecting potential solutions.

For instance, a Sri Lankan woman who survived incest to become an angry riot grrrl writes about how “the nonprofit industrial complex turned rape crisis centers and incest resources that were once run out of somebody’s basement … into increasingly depoliticized centers focused on sanitized versions of recovery, with no politics allowed.”

But politics and rape culture are indistinguishable, as evidenced by backward laws that double-victimize women.

Co-editor Valenti writes about how, until 2008, Maryland law stated that if a woman wanted to stop during intercourse and her partner refused, it wasn’t rape, because once a woman is penetrated, “‘the damage is done.’” Teenage girls in Florida don’t have an expectation of privacy while wearing skirts, so if a peeping Tom wants to snap a picture, he can do so without repercussions. “Marital rape” didn’t even enter the vernacular until the late 20th century; before that, a wife was considered a husband’s property to do with as he pleased. Women as autonomous beings? Yeah, right.

When it comes to the power dynamic between men and women, the conventional narrative goes like this: Sexuality is a product women have and men try to get—any way they can.

Instead, the writers in Yes Means Yes advocate that every single sexual encounter should be, as one male essayist writes, “marked by mutual enjoyment and respect.”