Yes Means Yes, But . . .

by Hadley Heath Manning
Much of the ambiguity and misunderstanding could be avoided if we took sex more seriously.

The state of California is considering a “yes means yes” law that would require “ongoing affirmative consent” during sexual encounters. Otherwise, these encounters could be considered sexual assault.

This is a misguided attempt to micromanage sex, and an insult to both men and women. The effort to expand the definition of sexual assault stems from the concern that there is a “culture of rape” on college campuses. Unfortunately, this problem needs more than a legal response. Naturally, if there is a “rape culture,” it needs a cultural response.

Instances of rape are real and horrendous. If a man forces a woman to have sex with him, he is the vilest of criminals and should be sentenced to severe prison time. When a woman goes to law enforcement with an accusation of rape, this should always be treated with utmost sensitivity and seriousness. Our justice system should weigh the evidence, find a verdict, and follow through accordingly.

But the activities in question in California — the ambiguous “Was it assault?” cases — are not so straightforward. Usually a young man and a young woman have put themselves in a compromising situation and have failed to communicate their desires, intents, and limitations to each another. Often, drugs or alcohol are involved. In such cases, a college man might find himself suspended, expelled, or otherwise punished by a college tribunal, even though his intent was never to rape or assault the woman involved.

These circumstances suggest that the two parties may not have known each other very well when the sexual activity took place. Ideally, before people become physically involved, they should be having sober and serious conversations about what’s okay and what’s not okay.

Problems, in other words, are much more likely to arise when strangers become sexual partners.  

Many would prefer not to acknowledge it, but really “rape culture” is strongly associated with hookup culture, or a culture that devalues sexual acts. If sex is just another activity people use to get high, by means other than (or in addition to) drugs or alcohol, then they’re missing the truly intimate nature of sex. Yes, sex can be fun and can release into our brains and bodies hormones that make us feel good physically. But sex is meant to be so much more than that.

Sex creates and maintains a bond between two people, sometimes in a way that transcends our human understanding. Perhaps that’s why, in nature, the act can come with serious side effects such as the life-creating condition of pregnancy.

If we want young people to avoid putting themselves in situations where they feel pressured into sex, we’ve got to change the expectation that sex is ubiquitous on campus and just another way to blow off some steam on a Friday night.

We’ve got to make saying no an acceptable — and, yes, even respectable — position for both college women and college men to take. Especially if you are at a frat party with someone you barely know, it’s not advisable to bare it all. This not only opens the door to miscommunication or unclear “ongoing affirmative consent” that might be misread in body language or nonverbal signals, but it degrades an act that’s meant to be shared by mates whose intimacy goes far beyond the physical.

Of course, many people do not share my view of sex.  But we should all be able to agree that if people are adult enough to have sex, they should be adult enough to communicate without government-imposed, DMV-style rules about how one must say “yes.”

It’s important to teach our sons and daughters that engaging in sex means making sure — even if it’s uncomfortable — that the other party is giving consent.  The best way to ensure that this is a natural and comfortable conversation is to instill in the next generation a respect for the sexual act as part of a more serious relationship, not an activity to be shared between strangers.

Yes means yes, but when it comes to casual “hooking up,” no is better.

— Hadley Heath Manning is the director of health policy at Independent Women’s Forum and contributing author of Lean Together.