As a person who is sex-positive and believes the commodity model of sex has got to go, I couldn’t be happier to hear about California’s adoption of the “Yes Means Yes” legislation. For the first time, we’re seeing a performance model of sex held up as the standard.
If you haven’t read the fabulous 2008 compilation, “Yes Means Yes” or you’re not an economics major, you might be wonder what I’m talking about with these commodity and performance models. These are terms borrowed from economics that are often used to discuss society’s relationship with sexuality. (The commodity model of sexuality is a problem I’ve seen deeply affect the United States in particular, since we have the Puritan value system to thank for our historically fucked-up relationship with sexuality and we’re a painfully capitalist country, but I’m certain this is a global problem.)
You can read in depth about these models here, but the short version is that a commodity model views sex as a commodity (a product to be “bought and sold,” both literally and metaphorically) while the performance model views sex as a performance with consenting, enthusiastic participants. In a commodity model, women are the keepers of the commodity and it is up to men to “get” it from them, often by any means necessary. We can see this model displayed in our rhetoric surrounding sex:
- He got some
- He scored
- She gave it up
Even virginity is seen as a commodity which can only be kept safe (until marriage, generally) or simply “lost.” I don’t know about you, but I remember exactly where I put my virginity. (Not all men and women are so lucky, but that’s another post…) I should also note that I personally consider “loss of virginity” to the be first time you willingly gave your body to someone. Society seriously disagrees with me here– it insists that virginity has to do with hymens (which don’t actually break most of the time) and nothing to do with consent (really?), which can only be the case if sex is a commodity, rather than a performance.
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence like me, then you may know all too well that even seemingly mundane questions like, “When did you lose your virginity?” become panicky situations while you try and discern what’s actually being asked. If you want to know the first time I was penetrated, it’s when I was 5 years old. If you want to know the first time I gave my body to someone in shared intimacy, I was 17. (Not to mention that this idea that penetration = sex is highly problematic and erases the experiences of queer people, among others. Personally, my definition of sex is thus: If you can catch a venereal disease from it, it’s sex.)
Understanding the commodity model also gives us some insight into the nature of rape culture, which is a global epidemic. When we see women as the “keepers” of sex and men as the “takers,” it’s easy to see how we end up with this fucked-up perception that it’s OK to coerce a woman into sex, or it’s OK to ignore her when she says “no” or “stop” or otherwise makes it clear she is not interested in having sex with you. Men are taught that sex needs to be taken, that women will not “give it up” willingly, and that because women have a responsibility to pretend to be innocent, sex-hating prudes, it doesn’t really count when she tells you she doesn’t want it.
All in all, this is a sad state of affairs. If only we viewed sex as a performance model… That is, if only we could accept that women do like sex and can absolutely be active, enthusiastic participants in sex. This model emphasizes sex as an activity rather than a commodity and requires active consent. And boy, is consent ever important! Only a fool will tell you that consent “ruins the romance,” but that is a sadly common reaction to the concept.
Enter the “Yes Means Yes” legislation. Though rape and sexual assault on college campus is nothing new, lately it’s been garnering a lot of media attention. As a sex-positive and anti-rape activist, this is heartening news. I attribute it to the brave survivors across the country who are sick and tired of being silenced, belittled and disbelieved and are making their voices heard. Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” project is but one great example of the kind of activism that is popping up on campuses nationwide. The state of California has responded with their own activism: A new law that requires affirmative consent of all involved parties before engaging in sex. The law supports the performance model of sex and places the responsibility of obtaining consent on all participating parties. Where “she didn’t say ‘No'” or “I didn’t realize he wasn’t into it” used to be enough to get someone off the hook for raping another person, under the new law these pleas of ignorance will no longer get you a free pass on assaulting someone.
I think that’s a damn good thing, but every legislation has it’s critics. I’m going to address the two most common criticisms I hear regarding this legislation:
- This is policing the sexual lives of young people (i.e. the government has gone too far)!
- It’ll take all the fun/romance out of sex!
First off, this is not about sex. This is about rape. And conflating the two is yet another problematic symptom of rape culture. Conflating the two allows utterly insane assertions like, “She just regretted sleeping around and now she’s out for revenge.” This idea is only the slightest bit logical if sex and rape are the same. But they aren’t. One is an activity involving two (or more) willing participants, the other is a disgusting act of violence often likened to torture of one’s body and soul.
Still not sure? Here’s my favorite quote about rape versus sex:
“Rape is about violence, not sex. If a person hits you with a spade you wouldn’t call it gardening.”
I wish I knew who to attribute the original quote to, because it is spot on. Sex is merely the vehicle for violence when a rape is taking place. It would be like pointing to a person who is running for their life from an assailant and calling it “exercising.” You might be incidentally burning calories from the experience, but that doesn’t make it fun, consensual or exercise.
So, since we’ve established rape is not sex, only people who confuse the two are in danger of having their willful violence against another person policed. I’m OK with that. If you still think it’s overreach, then surely you believe any law that prohibits violently assaulting another person is governmental overreach? Right? I mean, you wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.
The second point is this idea that obtaining clear or verbal consent is somehow unromantic or “ruins the moment.” I mean, seriously? That’s like saying mutual respect takes the romance out of sex. Only a rapist would think something so disturbing.
Let me tell you a secret, friends: Consent is sexy.
It is unfortunately a safe assumption to assume that if you’re with a woman, she’s probably been sexually harassed or assaulted in her lifetime. She’s probably had very few sexual encounters that were centered around or even simply concerned with her pleasure. Keep that in mind, and maybe the idea that consent is sexy isn’t so shocking anymore.
Listen, I’m not always a “smooth operator” and there have been times where I asked for consent and it was a little bit awkward. But let’s be clear: It was awkward because I felt awkward and didn’t really know how to ask. Asking doesn’t have to be awkward. Have you ever had sex with someone and asked them during if they liked what you were doing? Was it awkward? It was probably sexy in the moment. Well asking for consent can be exactly as simple. Often times you won’t have to ask because the consent IS explicit in other ways, if you’re paying attention.
And that’s really the key– paying attention to your partner. The simple act of listening to your partner’s words and body language will make the entire sexual experience infinitely better for both (all) parties. Depending on the study you read, we’re said to use non-verbal language to communicate anywhere from 65% to 93% of the time in the world at large. Even on the low end, that’s a hefty majority of the time. So when we’re engaged in sexual activity, that goes up to approximately 99.99%. Bodies will tell you almost anything you need to know during sex, IF YOU PAY ATTENTION. I cannot stress this enough, you really do have to choose to pay attention to your partner. And I promise it’s not even hard once you’ve made that choice. Is she moaning loudly, yelling your name, arching her back and rocking her hips into you? KEEP GOING! Is she laying their quietly, motionless and appear to be staring into blank space? STOP IMMEDIATELY, there is a problem. (This catatonic-like state may indicate a flashback in a person who has experienced sexual trauma; at best, it means whatever you’re doing isn’t working for him/her). The language is similar for men– if he’s not particularly responsive, that’s definitely cause for concern and a good time to bring verbal communication back into the picture.
Do NOT rely a person’s sexual organs alone for this non-verbal communication. Women will get wet when aroused just like men get hard– but these particularly body functions happen automatically. Sexual organs, wonderful though they are, are pretty dumb. They respond to external stimuli without concern for context. So while this signal of arousal is a good thing in consensual situation, remember to take context into account. That is, if she’s struggling to get away from you or he’s telling you no, don’t ignore that because the person appears to be aroused. Brains are a critical element of good sex. So make sure your partner is with you mentally, not just physically.
Still don’t believe me? Here’s an example: Once I was dating this gal who I really had the hots for. We’d gone on a couple of dates, and I even spent the night at her house once where there was no funny business involved–true story, we really just slept… or at least pretended to sleep. (PRO TIP: Spending the night with a girl without fucking her, particularly if you haven’t rung that bell yet, is a great way to show you you respect her body and boundaries enough to wait. Not that you have to wait, if you’re both into it, but it also adds to the excitement when you finally do decide to take it to that level.)
Anyhow, after another fabulous date, she invited me to spend the night again and this time things did get all hot and heavy. It started out slowly, innocently, even, with us laying in the dark, tracing each other’s hands with our fingertips. The desire was thick and palpable in the air around us. It pretty quickly turned into passionate kissing and the discarding of clothes. And then, as she wrapped herself around me, between labored breaths, she simply asked me, “Is this OK?”
Even though the answer was pretty obvious from my body language and my response to her touch, her decision to take that second and a half to confirm with me that we were on the same page was literally the sexiest thing she could’ve done. My response? I don’t remember if it was “Oh God, Yes!” or “FUCK YES!” but you get the idea.
And, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, being able to say “YES” to your partner is both empowering and incredibly sexy. It’s arguably my favorite word to use during sex. As a survivor of sexual assault, it’s taken me a long time to find my way to a healthy relationship with sex, but every time I say “Yes” where once my “No” was so thoroughly dismissed, I feel sexier and more in control of my body. Every time I say “Yes,” I take a little piece of myself back. Every time I say, “Yes,” I am reminded that I am with a partner who respects me and cares about my pleasure, and this helps keep me in the moment (something crucial for any assault survivor).
Don’t you want to give your partner that opportunity? Don’t you want your partner to talk about how sexy it was that you asked? Don’t you want your partner to be reminded that you care about their pleasure? Don’t you want your partner to feel empowered and as an equal participant in this performance? So tell me, again, how is it “unromantic” or “unsexy” to ask? Because I just don’t see it. It sounds like a crappy excuse for focusing on your pleasure and yours alone– and that quality will always make you a terrible lover.
All that said, what really gets to me is this particular response to the “Yes Means Yes” legislation, and I’ve seen it in far too many comment sections: “How do we know [survivors] are telling the truth? This will just be used by vindictive women to put innocent men in jail!”
OK, first off, if the accused is innocent, s/he has nothing to fear from this law. If the person in question enjoys getting off on someone’s lack of consent, then they do have to worry.
But this idea that women who’ve been raped are merely “crying rape” in an effort to “ruin [a man’s] life” is pretty insane. Does rape sometimes get falsely reported? Yes, but no more often than any other crime. If you’re afraid of being falsely accused of rape and you’ve not committed rape, then you might as well worry about being falsely accused of armed robbery and identity theft too, because that’s the kind of frequency we’re talking about.
Also, let’s keep in mind that many “false reports” include REAL reports that were dropped due to police bullying or the victim not being “credible” enough because they’re a sex worker, for example, and everyone knows you can’t rape a sex worker! (Please note the tidal wave of sarcasm.) Here’s but one heart-breaking story of a woman who was brutally raped, but is considered a “false rape allegation.”
Secondly, more often than not, reporting rape ruins your life. I wish I were kidding. I am not in the least be surprised that most survivors don’t report their rapes. After all, in the current climate, the deck is stacked against you. Policemen won’t believe you, your friends and family will blame you, and if you’re one of the rare cases that ever sees a day in court, your very character will be put on trial while that of your assailant will be deemed “irrelevant” and s/he will probably go free. Why would someone go through all that for “revenge”? The answer is that they wouldn’t.
But, this attitude of distrusting women, of assuming they are not credible witnesses to their own experiences, is one of the biggest driving factors underlying rape culture. For centuries women have been painted as “irrational” and “hysterical” as a means of diminishing their power in an already male-dominated society. Not believing women when they say they have been raped is but one more method in the long-standing tradition of calling women liars.
When you bring up false rape allegations or question the validity of accounts told by survivors, you are furthering sexism and rape culture. You are putting your stamp of approval on society’s sick habit of raping women (and men and children) and then calling them liars, or worse yet, “sluts” who were “asking for it.” No one welcomes violence against their person, yet every time you stand against a survivor and say, “Yeah, but were you really raped?” you are condoning rape. You are condoning the system that forces women to live in fear every day of their lives. You are condoning the practice of making rape victims responsible for curbing their own freedom to accommodate potential rapists. You are doing a disservice to us all.
So, yeah, I’m excited about the new legislation. After all, this law makes it clear: Your consent matters. Your voice matters. Your experiences matter.
Maybe that’s the message that makes some people so uncomfortable– if you tell rape survivors (the majority of whom happen to be women) that their voices and their bodily autonomy matters, they might start believing it, and you might not be able to get away with rape in the future.
So, dear reader, want to do something to support sexual assault survivors of all genders, ages and nationalities? Because there is one, very simple thing you can do, starting right now, that will make all the difference in the world: Believe them.
When someone tells you their story, believe them. Better yet, be vocal, and tell them you believe them. Because I know first hand that the greatest fear any sexual assault survivor has (besides being assaulted again) is the fear of not being believed. It’s an extremely effective silencing technique, but you can counteract it. Believe survivors, and be vocal about your trust in them. Even if it means nothing to anyone else, it will mean everything to that survivor.