Yes Means Yes Bill

A new law in California is expected to pass that would require affirmative consent on college campuses receiving public funds – see here. Notably, it doesn’t criminalize sex without affirmative consent, it simply requires disciplinary action at the academic level (which could include expulsion.)

I like the sound of the law, but it is definitely not the mindset I grew up with.

I remember reading this Dan Savage letter answer a while back that totally blew my mind.  It’s a letter from a man who tried to have a sexual encounter with his girlfriend and another couple.

The man describes the situation in his letter as such:

The minute the date started, it was clear she was having problems. It was nothing the other couple would have noticed, but I could tell she was not having fun. I must have asked her 20 times over the course of the evening, “Are you OK? Do you want to go home?” Each time she gave a monotone, “I’m fine.” When it came time to decide whether to go to their house, the same thing happened. I gave her as many opportunities to gracefully exit as possible, and she said no at each one. So, as you can probably guess, when it came time to actually taking off the clothes and getting down, she froze up, wouldn’t do anything, and we had to go upstairs.

I feel that, by not taking any of my opportunities to bow out, and then freezing up at the crucial moment, she completely destroyed the fantasy of mine. I think that what she did was enormously unfair to me and the other couple, and she should apologize. She only talks about how dirty and wrong it felt to her. I think that is fine that she felt that way, but then why the hell didn’t she bow out before agreeing to go over to their house?

And, Dan responds with:

I definitely could’ve guessed that your girlfriend would freeze up. I could’ve guessed that and I wasn’t there and I don’t know your girlfriend.

Your girlfriend wasn’t okay that night, CIC, and you knew it.

She was telling you what you wanted to hear, CIC, and you knew it.

You should’ve called the whole thing off, CIC, and you know it.”

When I read this, the idea that our sexual partners should be actively trying to act so that *we are ok* and not simply trying to get “whatever they can” out of us was totally mind-blowing.  I remember once, one of my ex boyfriends with whom the sex was routinely painful, said to me with frustration, “I can always tell when you’re about to ask me to stop having sex.” What he was essentially saying was, “I can tell when you are in pain, but I keep having sex with you anyway, hoping you won’t say anything this time so I can finish.”

I felt ashamed of myself for needing to ask to stop, so I would usually try to endure it as long as I could. However, his priorities seemed natural to me – that his pleasure should trump my pain.

Another ex of mine said “if you’re not willing to finish, don’t start being sexual with me” This had the effect of essentially ending our sex life, since I was always afraid to start something I may not want to finish. However, it also had the effect of revoking my ability to withdraw my consent if things took a wrong turn (another part of Dan’s letter which blew my mind: “Each of us has an absolute right to bail—to withdraw our consent—at any time.”) The few times we did start making out, I would continue with sex even if I didn’t want it because I felt like we had a “bargain” where my time to reject sex had already passed. One thing this ex never said was, “Why is it that you often don’t want to continue having sex with me? Are you not enjoying our sex life?” or “What can we do so you enjoy sex more?”

And, I don’t think we can really address these issues with a bill, but I think so many objections to it are based on a similar mindset that me and my boyfriends had. In an earlier version of it that was implemented on Antioch College, one of the young men said “If I have to ask those questions I won’t get what I want.” And, how do we move on from that?

I guess I’ve now taken the mindset that it would be better to be single and celibate than to be with someone who doesn’t care about your experience, which is a peaceful place to be. But, if decide to start doing things again, I think I’d ask for radical consent. One of my friends hooked up with a girl who asked for radical consent – before every sexual act, they had to ask the other one “can I do this?” say “can I kiss you?” or “can I touch your breast?” etc.

However, I think I’d change my question to be “do you want?” as in “do you want me to kiss you?” or “do you want me put my hand down your pants?” I don’t remember any time in my sex life where I was able to give enthusiastic consent, without worrying about what it would lead to. I might like it.