Yes, no and sex
Early in my feminist “preaching,” I would often assert that “no means no.” Meaning, once a woman indicates even during the sex act itself that she has changed her mind and no longer wants to engage in coupling, her partner should stop what he is doing.
Of course, men friends would protest — good-naturedly of course or they would no longer be my friends — that that was easier said than done. Some insisted that once the implicit contract to engage in consensual sex gets underway, there is no way one party could suddenly abrogate it — by pushing the (usually) male partner away and scampering away.
The men would usually speak about it like a major social and personal law had been violated.
A few days ago, an article headed “When saying ‘yes’ is easier than saying ‘no,’” was published in The New York Times in which the author, Jessica Bennett, talks about a complex situation which “most women instinctively understand.” And that is: “The situation you thought you wanted, or maybe you actually never wanted, but somehow here you are and it’s happening and you desperately want out, but you know that at this point exiting the situation would be more difficult than simply lying there and waiting for it to be over. In other words: saying yes when we really mean no.”
It seems that terms to describe this iffy situation exist: “the point of no return,” “gray zone sex,” “begrudgingly consensual sex,” “lukewarm sex,” and “of course,” writes Bennett, “bad sex,” where “bad” refers “not to the perceived pleasure of it, but to the way you feel in the aftermath.”
The conversation around what constitutes consent, no matter how reluctantly and grudgingly given, comes at a particularly sensitive time (at least in the United States) when one man after another, one celebrity after another, has lost his job, his reputation, and it seems his future prospects due to charges of sexual harassment, exploitation, even rape. What’s been missing in the conversation, says Bennett, who is the NYT’s gender editor, is that “consent isn’t always black and white.”
“Sometimes ‘yes’ means ‘no,’ simply because it is easier to go through with it than explain our way out of the situation,” writes Bennett. “Sometimes ‘no’ means ‘yes,’ because you actually do want to do it, but you know you’re not supposed to lest you be labeled a slut. And if you’re a man, that ‘no’ often means ‘just try harder’—because, you know, persuasion is part of the game.”
Bennett quotes sociologist Harry Brod who says that “a lot of what we as young men learn as seduction is really more like preparatory sexual assault training.” Or, as a male friend of Bennett’s asserted: “In a man’s mind ‘no’ is always negotiable.”
These days, says Bennett, the “consent standard” for consensual sex relies on the woman actually, vocally saying “yes.” This is because “body language” in sexual scenarios can at times be unreliable—prone to being misread, misinterpreted, or overinterpreted. Men and women, writes Bennett, “have widely different understandings of consent.” She notes that in a study, 61 percent of men said they rely on nonverbal cues to indicate whether a partner consents, while only 10 percent of women said they actually give consent via body language.
But the problem of misinterpretation or miscommunication has deeper roots than mere cluelessness. “The reality is that no matter how many sexual harassment training programs we enroll in, or how much activists extol the virtues of consent, we are missing something deeper: Our idea of what we want—of our own desire—is linked to what we think we’re supposed to want, with what society tells us we should want. And most of society tells us—when it comes to women and sex, anyway—is wrapped in dangerously outdated gender norms.”
When I was in high school, classmates and older female relatives talked about the problem of confronting a young man who would ask you for a dance when all you want to do is to gossip among your female friends. “Don’t hurt his feelings,” we were told, “just dance with him and it’ll be over soon.” That was about dancing, but it might as well have been about sex.
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