An article in the Atlantic this week discusses California’s new affirmative consent law, better known as the “yes means yes” standard for sexual assault cases. The author solicited responses from college students and recent grads, hoping to get a sense of what is really going on with college hookup culture and what will really happen in reaction to this legal change beyond his dramatized, fatalistic projections. A response was published by an anonymous male college student, who shared based on personal experiences that he’s abandoned the “yes means yes” law because, and this is paraphrased, it isn’t what women really want according to their “token resistance” in sexual encounters.
What’s illustrative about this conversation between authors is not simply that affirmative consent and female perspectives are often misunderstood, but also that relinquishing fear toward discussing what constitutes consent makes it easier to find common ground among those on either side of the debate about “yes means yes” at universities and beyond. If more people voiced their opinions honestly in this way, we would be closer to reaching consensus about consent. Let’s start talking about sex at Stanford.
Particularly in the context of a staggering “college rape epidemic,” talking openly about all sexual experiences — not just violent rape — is the only way to bridge the gap between male and female sexual perspectives, to reconsider the stigmatized shame about women’s desire and to get back to the business of sex being about what people want, not a strange guessing game or power struggle. There’s truth in the idea that empowerment and self-ownership begin in the bedroom. We will never agree on what consensual sex is if we don’t talk about it. But how do we make “the talk” work at Stanford?
First, people must choose to value these conversations. I attended an intimate discussion sponsored by the Women’s Coalition in my dorm that was meant to be a fun event to spark up a dialogue about consent, sex positivity and the cliteracy project. Only one participant was a heterosexual male — frankly, the target audience. Why do heterosexual men often dislike or feel uncomfortable joining the discussion? It’s time we abandon our defensiveness by asking and listening to each other as equals.
Second, people must pay special attention to personal stories. The anonymous response mentioned earlier was productive because it relied on individual accounts that highlighted his point of view. He describes sexual encounters with women in which he is expected to lead and take what he wants. He expresses frustration with the overwhelming pressure to somehow read women’s minds in some situations in which consent is, for him at least, unclear. Only through examining his side of these stories was I able to realize that while we disagree on the benefit of a new affirmative consent standard, we have similar frustrations with the sexual hook-up culture.
These frustrations include the undue burden of sexual leadership and power placed on men, and the lack of open expression about what people really want in the proverbial bedroom. Whereas he sees affirmative consent as something that worsens the status quo, I see it as something that could resolve it — by pushing us to make our wants clear as opposed to implied. Is our reluctance toward talking about sex and consent making it difficult to see where people agree, perhaps making the issue more contentious than it ought to be?
The truth is, sex is a part of life. While it is ubiquitous, sometimes it seems like we are too afraid to talk about it too palpably for fear that we will come off as predators — deviant and wanton — or worse, for many women, that we will be seen as over-sensitive by challenging the implicit notion of consent. Unfortunately, talking is the only way out of this trap because it normalizes our desires and concerns. California’s legal sexual standard now reflects a two-way view of wanted sex versus sexual assault propagated by dishonest, ambiguous or otherwise unwanted sex.
Let us catch up to this standard in how we engage in conversations about sex on campus, through active participation in relevant events, active discussion when possible and active self-education. The alternative? A world in which sex in all its permutations and all its mentions is stuck under the perpetual cloud of gray areas.
Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ Stanford.edu.