Michael Kimmel and Gloria Steinem on Consensual Sex on Campus
By MICHAEL KIMMEL and GLORIA STEINEM
SUPPOSE someone you know slightly arrives at your home, baggage and all, and just barges in and stays overnight. When you protest, the response is, “Well, you didn’t say no.”
Or imagine that a man breaks into your home while you sleep off a night of drunken revelry, and robs you blind. Did your drinking imply consent?
Until now, this has been the state of affairs in our nation’s laws on sexual assault. Invading bodies has been taken less seriously by the law than invading private property, even though body-invasion is far more traumatic. This has remained an unspoken bias of patriarchal law. After all, women were property until very recently. In some countries, they still are.
Even in America, women’s human right to make decisions about their own bodies remains controversial, especially when it comes to sex and reproduction.
That’s why the recent passage of Senate Bill 967 in California is such a welcome game-changer in understanding and preventing sexual assault. The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously after a 52 to 16 vote in the State Assembly, now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, which is expected. It would make California the first state to embrace what has become known as the “yes means yes” law, because it alters the standard regarding consent to sexual activity on college campuses. It is the first state response to President Obama’s initiative on campus sexual assault, announced earlier this year.
Until this bill, the prevailing standard has been “no means no.” If she says no (or, more liberally, indicates any resistance with her body), then the sex is seen as nonconsensual. That is, it’s rape. Under such a standard, the enormous gray area between “yes” and “no” is defined residually as “yes”: Unless one hears an explicit “no,” consent is implied. “Yes means yes” completely redefines that gray area. Silence is not consent; it is the absence of consent. Only an explicit “yes” can be considered consent.
This is, of course, completely logical, and fully consistent with adjudicating other crimes. Nevertheless, it is bound to raise howls of protest from opponents of women’s equality and their right to make decisions about their own bodies.
“Yes means yes” has been the law of the land in Canada since 1992, yet the reporting of sexual assault has not skyrocketed with this higher standard.
In the 1990s, there was a similar conversation in this country when Antioch College, long a bastion of innovations in education, also decided that consent to sexual activity required more than just a failure to say no. Verbal consent, the new code of conduct stated, was required for any sexual contact that was not “mutually and simultaneously initiated.”
When the so-called Antioch rules were first enacted at that college, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. The anti-feminist chorus howled in derision at feminist protectionism gone berserk. “Saturday Night Live” parodied it. Charlton Heston added it to a list of examples of campus political correctness gone completely out of control. He told an audience at Harvard in 1999 that “at Antioch College in Ohio, young men seeking intimacy with a coed must get verbal permission at each step of the process from kissing to petting to final copulation — all clearly spelled out in a printed college directive.”
While doomsayers lamented that the new rules would destroy the mystery of campus sex, the students took it in stride. Instead of, “Do you want to have sex?” they simply asked, “Do you want to implement the policy?”
Of course some guys on campus were against it, in an honest way. “If I have to ask those questions, I won’t get what I want,” blurted out one young man to a reporter. Bingo.
But seriously, since when is hearing “yes” a turnoff? Answering “yes” to, “Can I touch you there?” “Would you like me to?” “Will you [fill in blank] me?” seems a turn-on and a confirmation of desire, whatever the sexual identity of the asker and the asked.
Actually, “yes” is perhaps the most erotic word in the English language.
One of literature’s most enduring works, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” concludes with Molly Bloom’s affirmative declaration of desire (considered so erotic, in fact, that it was banned for more than a decade after publication): “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
“Yes means yes” is clearly saner — and sexier. And that’s true for both Leopold and Molly Bloom, as well as the rest of us.