It’s not an easy thing to fit my thoughts and reactions to Yes Means Yes into a review. This is an incredibly provoking collection of essays that takes an honest look at views of sexuality in America and proposes ways to change those views for the better. My reactions to this book come from a few perspectives. That of a criminal justice major, a social scientist, but most importantly, a woman.
Several of the topics discussed throughout Yes Means Yes are topics that I am familiar with – sexual assault is a huge topic in my classes. The ability to see the issues surrounding sexuality and sexual assault through different viewpoints is something I consider to be a huge benefit of this book.
The idea behind this book was to confront the view of sexuality in America and how it feeds the rape culture that surrounds us, and further, how we can change the negative ideas surrounding sexuality, especially female sexuality, by promoting and valuing female sexual pleasure. Ideally, achieving that goal, whopper though it may be, will lead to a decrease in the occurence of rape and take away the power from the systems that give rape the influence it has over women’s sexual power.
These are essays based in personal and professional experience. The contributors are women who have felt that their bodies were not their own, who have seen firsthand the painful effects of sexual trauma on survivors, and even a few men who realized that their education, or lack thereof, in regards to respecting women, and how to treat them, was missing something essential.
There is a huge range of topics that are discussed here… the influence of media on beliefs regarding sexuality, the discussion of what consent is – saying yes! as opposed to not saying no, those first explorations into your sexuality, the part the male sexuality plays and the fact that it’s not just women who need to rethink the way they relate to their sexual power, that sexuality does not come in one form (male/female) and that we need to fight for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or who are still trying to find their sexuality because their desires are not shameful – sexuality in general should never be shamed.
There are a few essays that really either hit home or made a deep impression on me while reading them. One of these essays is The Fantasy of Acceptable “Non-Consent”: Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us (and Why She Shouldn’t) by Stacey May Fowles. Fowles touches on a very important point in her essay. Many people look at the BDSM culture as a taboo, as disgusting, or dirty, or whatever other label you want to put on it, but those who are a part of this culture have something that many other sexual partners don’t… A completely open and honest line of communication. Because BDSM encompasses such a wide range of activities the partners have to discuss what is and is not okay. There is a safe-word, so if one partners is taking things too far, the other can let them know. I know far too many people willing to talk to close friends about sex, about what they do or don’t like, but when you ask, “Did you tell him/her that?” they respond with, “Well, no. It’s too soon,” or, “No, I’m not comfortable discussing this with them.” A whole other conversation could be had about that (you know, if you can’t discuss your sexual likes/dislikes with someone you probably should not be having sex with them), but the important thing is that most of us could use a lesson from the BDSM community.
Another essay that hits home is Sex Worth Fighting For by Anastasia Higginbotham. Part of this essay is Higginbotham speaking of her training in a self-defense class and feeling physically empowered and going on to teach the class, but the part that got to me was the internal battle she waged with herself. Finding the ability to revel in her body, her wants and desires, and learning to fight the anger she felt in herself for wanting sex because she shouldn’t be angry about it. Higginbotham makes a statement in the essay that, “Until we demand this education for ourselves and for girls, we’re all still floating in the same boats together, up the same creeks, generation after generation. Our minds are not free and our bodies are not safe.” She has a point, how can we fight for ourselves and our desires when we are never taught how to defend ourselves physically, and when we live in a society where women who embrace their sexuality are stigmatized?
The last piece I’m going to speak specifically about is Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality by Brad Perry. In one section he speaks about abstinence only until marriage education, something Perry refers to as a “goddamned travesty,” and I am entirely in agreement. Millions of dollars each year go to abstinence only education programs, programs that generally only cover your post-marriage, to make a baby only, woman only gets an orgasm by accident, vanilla sex. And really, what good is this education doing us, especially when somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-some-odd percent of high schoolers who make a vow of abstinence end up having premartial sex anyways. These programs shame those who decide to have sex before marriage and there’s no point in even discussing when happens when someone ignores a “no.”
As I read Yes Means Yes I found myself nodding in agreement, laughing, and getting teary-eyed because some internal string was plucked. I know what it is like to be stigmatized for my choices, and while I try to keep myself above that level of ignorance, it still hurts to be the recipient of that hatred and judgment. I’ve always been very open about my life and my choices. I don’t believe in hiding who I am as a person, even if I might not be so proud of some of those past choices. When discussions of sexuality arise I have no problems saying, “Heck yeah, I’ve done that!” or “No, that’s never really appealed to me.” I have no problems asking another person about their experiences, sexual or otherwise, but I always listen with an open-mind. I’m not looking to shame and blame, which are two things, of many, at the root of societies issues with women’s sexuality.
No one should have to live in a culture where you cannot be yourself, where you are shamed for embracing your body, for satiating sexual desires, for wanting to try new things. Sex should happen only with an enthusiastic ‘YES!’ from all parties. Sex should be about pleasure. Sex should be one of life’s feel goods, not just because its a physiological response, but because you want it and you’re enjoying it. Here’s to embracing sexuality and creating a sex-positive culture for the next generation, and on!