Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Yes Means Yes!

[Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, editors. Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008.]

The very simple way of reconceptualizing sexual consent at the heart of this book provides a useful tool for efforts that seek to challenge sexual assault and to sexually empower women (and the rest of us). It also provides a possible lens through which we might, with suitable other ingredients, understand aspects of gender and sexual oppressions across a wide range of scales and including much of their intersectional complexity. The collection includes individual pieces that examine slices of this reality with great insight and power. Yet I can't help but feel that the collection as a whole does not do enough to challenge the oppressive mainstream of North American progressive political culture and to push readers, particularly relatively privileged readers, to deal with that complexity, those larger questions of social relations, and our own privilege as central rather than as add-ons.

The book's core idea is that of enthusiastic consent -- that the baseline for sexual activity or any other sort of intimate interaction is not just the absence of assertive objection, but the presence of explicitly expressed interest and desire: "Yes means yes." It's a simple idea but the advantages of using this phrase to organize our understanding of consent are many. Adopting it as expected practice in negotiating sexual encounters not only does the work of "no means no" in indicating that consent is the most basic of baselines, but it goes further and says that all of us have a right to active desire, to affirmative want, to enthusiasm. Technical consent -- the "yes" after badgering or implicit threats of break-up or just to avoid an argument -- may pass the "no means no" standard but they do not pass "yes means yes." It makes it clearer, too, that the onus in an instance of sexual assault is never on the victim for not saying "no" loudly enough or clearly enough, or for dressing a certain way, or for being racialized, or for being gender non-conforming, or for being a sex worker -- if the "yes" is not clear and enthusiastic and unmistakable, then nothing should be happening. This provides an even stronger place than the "no means no" standard (which it assumes and includes) from which to cut through the misogynist (and often racist) rhetoric that so often springs up whenever a sexual assault occurs. The approach can usefully be taken up by individuals as they go out into the world and navigate partnerships, by sex educators and parents as they support youth who are figuring things out, by communities as they set standards for conduct, by institutions as they enforce rules, and by writers and commentators as we make meaning from the world.

The shifted stance contained in, or at least implied by, "yes means yes" also affirms that the "yes" matters -- that understanding, expressing, and consensually acting on desire is a positive good which we should encourage and celebrate. At the most basic level this might be seen as an admonition against "slut shaming", but its subversive potential is much broader. Organizing an understanding of consent around each woman's (and each person of other genders') "yes" puts their desire, their standpoint, their agency, the importance of their ability to act to create the sexual lives that they want, at the centre in a way that "no means no" does not. It says not only, "You have a right not to be raped," but also, "You have a right to individually and collectively exert power in shaping your field of sexual and relational possibility." The concern is not just imposition (that is, violation of "no") but also constraint of agency and possibility (of "yes"). Both matter. It's about affirming the importance of a creative, self-determining power in the realm of sexuality.

Starting from the wholepersonhood and right to individual and collective agency of those experiencing gender and sexual oppression can provide a starting point for very powerful, very radical analysis of the world. That is, a "yes means yes" stance can do that but is far from guaranteed to do so. It can also lead to politics that are very individualistic and very centred on the experiences of people with privilege. I'll get back to that danger in a bit.


"Yes means yes," understood both as practice and as starting point for building an analysis of the world, cuts across a great many issues in my own life -- more than I have the space or the inclination to discuss here, certainly. (Though note, to maximize the clarity in what I say below, none of this involves having been a survivor or a perpetrator of sexual assault.)

One way in which the issues raised by this book touch my life is through the social enforcement of silence, shame, and hiding when it comes to sexuality. "Yes means yes" is both premised on and itself aims to foster contexts in which we can embrace desire and talk about it joyfully -- you can't say "yes" with conviction unless you've had a chance to figure out what you really want, and you are unlikely to be able to achieve it unless you can talk about it. The kinds of social regulation and punishment that create silence and shame are very much barriers to realizing "yes means yes" as a widespread practice. Not only do struggles with such things continue to be a journey when it comes to my own sexual and relationship practices (despite my gender privilege and other sorts of privilege), it also means that there is probably no other facet of life in which I have a more distorted ratio between large amounts of energy spent in politically inflected thinking and reading versus fairly sparse levels of publically presented writing. I raise this not only because I resent feeling unable to write about something so important. I also raise it to illustrate that, though it is experienced very differently depending on other ways in which our experiences are shaped by social relations, the tendency to surveil, regulate, and punish sexuality is widely experienced as a way in which gender and sexual oppressions are propagated and a mechanism by which a great many of us, even those of us who are privileged, are damaged. (It is also a way in which many of us, particularly many of us who are privileged, inflict damage on others, consciously or not.) These diverse experiences which have common origins in terms of how they are socially produced are potential sites for affinity and solidarity, if taken up in the right ways.

The other point I want to draw from the intersection of "yes means yes" and my own experience is an initial recognition of the immensity of what will be required to get us from where we are today to all of the implications of "yes means yes" becoming reality. This is both disheartening but also, if truly understood, a recognition of the utility of "yes means yes" as a starting point -- one of many that are possible -- towards something important and powerful.

In saying this, I'm thinking back to my teenage years. This was a phase or two of my life before I recognized that sexual and relationship practices could be done counter to dominant norms, let alone before I began to see a small subset of such practices as having anything to do with me. I had a very heterosexist and sexist understanding of sexuality -- queer sexual and relationship practices were, as I said, not something I could really conceive of at the time, and my understanding of sex was something done to disinterested women by bad men. This understanding was a product of material circumstances and not just intellectual error. In my family of origin, absence, silence, and a kind of passive tension, all of which I found powerfully shaming, were my main learnings about sexuality. In high school, there was one female peer whom I remember expressing desire in an open and honest way, but she was by far an outlier, and I heard nothing of the sort from any others. This was, of course, due to the sexist ways in which young women's sexualities are regulated and punished -- I'm sure most of them felt desire, and many acted on it, but only that one felt able to express it and own it in any non-intimate context I was aware of. When it came to guys, the "good" Christian boys didn't own their desires either or they treated them as something "bad" and controlling and subordinating those feelings (at least publically) as making them "good" people. The only guys who did express any sort of sexual interest openly and honestly were also guys who were frequently disrespectful towards women, not to mention jerks towards other guys (often including me). All of this reinforced my sexist understanding of sexuality -- sexist, and severely stunted in terms of my sense of what sexuality could mean.

Given this context, it is probably not surprising that at that stage of my life the idea of enthusiastic consent would've been completely unthinkable. Part of how this worked for me is related to things I have already said: I had heaps of shame about any and all manifestations of sexuality and absolutely no skills for talking about it, and a sexist understanding of sexuality that didn't even really recognize that the young women around me ever felt desire, or that young men weren't bad for feeling it. There was very little room for overlap between all of that and an ideal of enthusiastic consent.

However, early on in reading this book, I realized there was another element at play as well. Part of what was going on inside of me in those years was a bizarre conviction that explicitly asking for some sort of sexual interaction was a guaranteed way to hear "no." Yes, partly that was about my shame and my sexist understanding of sexuality. But partly it was because that is what my automatic and immediate reaction would have been -- in 100% of contexts earlier in that period, and almost 100% of contexts later, if someone had directly asked me if I wanted X or Y, the absolute imperative for me would've been to say no, even if that was a lie. Because desire was "bad," as I understood it, the absolute most important thing to do was to completely deny and hide any desire, even if explicitly asked in an interested and affirming way by someone who wanted to do something about it. (I still struggle with a moderated version of this impulse today.) So I was someone who absolutely understood the importance of "no means no" but someone for whom explicit communication about desire -- that is, "yes means yes" -- was unthinkable. I can recognize, looking back, that there were a number of instances in which I felt desire quite keenly and in response I neither touched uninvited nor broached the subject aloud but rather was present in ways that I hoped made it more likely that "something might happen," seemingly without an agent, and no doubt all the while oozing equal amounts of awkward desire and awful, burning shame. Which is super dysfunctional and, I fear, might have come across as creepy in one or two cases.

All of which is to lead into the point that this stuff is deeply enmeshed in the social circumstances which produce us and gets lodged deeply in our bodies. The introduction of enthusiastic consent in my sex-ed classrooms would've done very little to change any of this. Probably it would've been good for me to hear but I seriously doubt it would've changed much. I mean, sex-ed was something I experienced between -- well, I can't remember if it started in Grade 5 or Grade 7, and it lasted until Grade 9, because I didn't take phys-ed after I no longer had to. All three of the people I learned school-based sex-ed from were white men ranging in age from their 40s to their 60s, whose main qualification for teaching young people about sexuality seemed to be that they were already teaching us about sports. I remember that the first one in particular excelled at making us feel bad about ourselves whatever we were learning about, and that was just as true when it came to learning about sexuality. And even if they were all great, adding in a little bit about enthusiastic consent would've been only a very marginal shift in the overall context in which we were all figuring this stuff out.

This argues against one possible way in which "yes means yes" could be understood -- a shallow way that involves tinkering with a few surface things and calling the problem solved. That wouldn't have made "yes means yes" realizable for me, and I'm someone, as a middle-class white guy, with relatively plentiful social space for exerting agency in all sorts of ways. I can only imagine how inadequate it would be for lots of other people. So while I think there is value in educators teaching it and individuals taking it up and applying it as an expectation in their relationships, without much greater social transformation, it will never be broadly realized as an ideal. Even speaking just of my privileged self, there would need to have been significant shifts in sexual and gender regulation, especially masculinity, for me to have fully realized "yes means yes" in, say, my late teens. Thankfully, there are some indications that the book as a whole recognizes these larger implications of fully embracing what "yes means yes" might offer, and certainly individual essays do, but I don't think the book does enough with that recognition.


When we take up knew knowledge, we always go through a process of putting it into relation with our existing knowledge and experience as we figure out what to do with it. Because this is an active process that differs across different individuals and groups, authors cannot control how their work gets taken up in any absolute way. However, it is our job to try and understand and anticipate this process as best we can, not only because it can lead to us improving our craft, but because it is an important step in taking political responsibility for what we write. Our experiences of power and oppression play into these processes in important ways.

I always get the feeling that I'm on the right track when it comes to understanding the world when I find something that can be used to make sense of things at the level of the individual but can also be expanded outwards across a range of scales to make sense of the social world. I feel like the "yes means yes" shift in understanding consent is one of those things, or at least it can be. The way that I have read it into my existing knowledge means that it puts the focus on everyday/everynight experience in a way that emphasizes the centrality of people -- whole people -- and our agency, and that seeks to understand barriers to exercising that agency in individual and collective ways. It provides an entry point from which we can start a journey to understand our own experiences, how they are socially connected to the experiences of other people, and the social relations that produce us and organize so many lives into violence and oppression, sexual or otherwise.

I get the sense too that some of the essays in the collection come from a place of seeing "yes means yes" as part of expansive, radical political projects. Kimberly Springer's "Queering Black Female Heterosexuality" takes certain insights from queer struggles and applies them to challenging the ways in which white supremacy and patriarchy shape the lives of straight Black women. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha's account of being a radical queer woman of colour navigating a history of incest -- one of the most powerful pieces in the book, I thought -- is an awing illustration of the ways in which a "yes means yes" orientation can relate both to individuals challenging their own trauma and exploring their desires with movements for collective liberation. Miriam Zoila Perez's essay "When Sexual Autonomy Isn't Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States" draws some of the connections between borders and sexual violence against women. These and other essays are great, and they provide important insights for beginning to construct a radical politics beginning from "yes means yes."

However, despite the presence of these essays, I think there are lots of people who will take up the content of Yes Means Yes in rather a different way. I think that lots of the people who read it will have politics that are in the progressive mainstream and the feminist mainstream in North America. These things are often accompanied by a liberal-democratic understanding of how the social world works, which tends to make it harder to see how things actually happen socially. And they often treat struggles against colonization and white supremacy and capital (and, in the case of non-feminist progressives, patriarchy) as peripheral, and often result in political spaces that are far from friendly to indigenous people, people of colour, poor people, gender non-conforming people, and others. It's not that there is necessarily active resistance to acknowledging that, say, borders are central to how sexual violence is organized into the lives of some women, but that knowledge tends to be kept peripheral, just as the struggles that are grounded in that knowledge are also treated as peripheral by many mainstream progressives/feminists. There is a whole internet full of material out there to learn about this maintenance of centre and periphery in mainstream progressive/feminist politics in North America, so I won't go into it further. (Also, this is not to deny that similar dynamics related to power and privilege play out in more ostensibly radical milieus too -- they certainly do.)

I think that the way this collection has been put together does try to respond to this reality. It does, after all, include voices and politics that challenge such privileged, normative politics. You can be sure that you can find many a collection out there that is narrower. But I'm not sure this on its own is enough.

So, for instance, a left-liberal man taking up this book from a place of passive resistance to feminist politics would be hard pressed to finish it and set it down again without feeling like he has been challenged around questions of gender oppression and resistance. Gender oppression is integral to the politics of the book, at its centre, and not a single essay fails to relate to it in one way or another. Yet the other ways in which barriers to realizing "yes means yes" are put together for a great many women are not presented nearly as insistently or centrally, meaning that passive resistance by progressives or liberal feminists to transformative politics along those axes are challenged much less decisively by the book.

The thing is, I suspect that many, and perhaps the majority of readers coming to this book will have a liberal-democratic framework for understanding the social world and politics that already treats struggles of people who are colonized, racialized, gender non-conforming, and/or poor as in some senses peripheral. I think the positive outcome of the breadth of voices and analyses included in the book is that there will be entry points for readers with a wide range of experiences of privilege and oppression to get something useful from the "yes means yes" analysis and see it as something that speaks to their reality. Inclusion also provides at least an opportunity for those of us with privilege to encounter material that we otherwise wouldn't. The problem is, in doing this through the mechanism of including diverse voices but not directly challenging privileged readers around their complicity in the violence experienced by poor women and women of colour and indigenous women, it probably means -- and, yes, this is speculation based on my own experiences of political work and writing -- that the majority of middle-class, white readers will take it up in ways that treat the connection of "yes means yes" to struggles against racism, prisons, borders, militarism, and capital as peripheral. And so I think there is a real danger of "yes means yes" being taken up in ways that are pretty individualistic and that, in practice, are about relatively privileged people recovering their agency when it comes to desire at a personal level but not taking up the politics necessary for the kind of social transformation that will let all of us, as individuals and as collectives, have power to control our own lives, sexuality included. Politics that start from questions of desire can then easily become complicit with neoliberalism, with indulgent privilege, and with white supremacy.

I mean, of course we all need to start from our own trauma, and of course there is nothing wrong with paying attention to that which directly prevents us from a life rich in desire, pleasure, and connection. But the space for middle-class white North Americans, including yours truly, to do exactly that is currently premised on immeasurably worse experiences, including the imposition of sexual violence and massive sexual (and many other) constraints on agency organized into the lives of millions of women (and men) around the world. The way this book is put together doesn't make it as difficult as it could for a lot of privileged readers to take it up in ways that refuse to see that a world in which "yes means yes" is truly realized means a commitment to visions and struggles far beyond the commonsense in mainstream progressive spaces, including mainstream feminist spaces. I recognize that challenging this tendency to not see is not an easy thing to do, and a real answer must come from movements rather than any single text, but I think this book could do a lot more in this regard. But, of course, that might mean fewer people who would be challenged by such politics would read the book and therefore fewer people would get access to its important insights -- as I've observed in another review, the tension between getting the politics as solid as you can and reaching as many people as possible can be a difficult one to navigate.

I definitely recommend that you read this book. I definitely recommend taking up "yes means yes" as a personal practice and requirement, and as one useful place from which to deal with the inevitably misogynist (and often racist) narratives that arise around sexuality and sexual assault. However, I challenge all of us (definitely including me!) to take it up in ways that derive from it the personal benefits that it contains without allowing ourselves to lose sight of the true magnitude and breadth of the struggles necessary to make it an achievable standard for all of us.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Ms.Marx said...

Thanks for this post! I have been thinking about reading this book for some time, as I have otherwise done a lot of research on notions of enthusiastic consent.

I am especially interested in the parts where you wrote about why you wouldn't have been able to fully understand or embrace the concept as a teenager. As a mother of two young children, I have been working on teaching them enthusiastic consent as an everyday way of interacting with people on a variety of levels.

You wrote that "When we take up new knowledge, we always go through a process of putting it into relation with our existing knowledge and experience as we figure out what to do with it." This is very true, and it is exactly why I am working on teaching children to play using this premise... it works well for my 8 year old, who understands the rights to her body, to be touched or not to be, to hug relatives or not to... my youngest, however, has more difficulty with it, but then, he is also likely on the autism spectrum so interpersonal stuff takes more work with him sometimes. But it starts with something as simple as asking "can I tickle you?" instead of just assuming that it is ok to tickle them any time.

Anyway, I don't usually link to my own posts in other people's blog comments, but I want to make an exception here in case you (or any other readers) want to read about my thoughts on teaching children that yes means yes is as important as no means no...

Scott said...

Hey, Ms.Marx!

Yes, I remember reading that post when you first published it...thanks for including the link in your comment.

I think those practices with your kids are a great idea. I enact some with L, but not as consistently or as broadly as I should. There's actually an essay in the book that's specifically about enthusiastic consent for all forms of touch...not specifically about children, but about an adult who has experimented with enacting and requiring various versions and levels of it herself. It's interesting, particularly her accounts of resistance to it by other people in her life.

Anyway, I also look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book when you manage to find a chance, what with PhDing and parenting, to read it!

Scott 8)

Scott said...

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