Monday, November 04, 2019

When even yes isn't yes.

Published originally Feb. 16, 2018

In the beginning, there was “No means No.” Simple, direct. Which, of course, meant it couldn't possibly stand. Thus did it beget “Yes means Yes.” And now the noisy, inefficient engine of sexual politics has spewed into the dating environment a pair of new doctrines that further pollute the meaning of consent: "the enthusiastic Yes" and "sex after Yes." Taken together, they represent something like sex as Rube Goldberg might design it.

The two ideologies have long percolated in online feminist forums and academia's Women’s Studies wing (which sometimes seems to exist solely to make men out as criminals and make women feel guilty about bothering with us at all). They were brought to the fore by the controversy over what did or did not occur on an ill-fated date between actor Aziz Ansari and a pseudonymous woman, “Grace.” By now you almost surely know what Grace says: that Ansari repeatedly misread signals, pressuring her into unwanted sexual activity. Worse, feminists have painted him as an archetype for men as a class. As Emily Reynolds writes in the Guardian, “Ansari’s behavior was normal—and therein lies its true horror.” Reynolds and others insist that Grace's nonverbal cues should have alerted Ansari to her unease. In his defense, he might have been misled by the fact that Grace, by her own admission, accepted oral sex within minutes of arriving at his apartment after dinner and then reciprocated minutes later; perhaps Ansari interpreted those activities as nonverbal cues. Be that as it may, feminist theorists claim that such contretemps could be avoided by the requirement for men to receive the sort of ecstatic, unambiguous Yes that Grace never spoke.

One has trouble seeing how. Suppose a man intuits that a woman’s Yes is sufficiently forthright; are we to infer that if he honestly overestimates her ardor, he has become guilty of assault? It seems bizarre to put men in the position of having to decode the enthusiasm of a Yes rather than instructing women to bellow forth with an enthusiastic, unambiguous No.

But let's say the man does indeed think he detects a note of ambivalence in his partner's Yes. Is he obliged to function as human chastity belt and moral overseer for an adult woman who has indicated, however subtly, her agreement to sex? Even in healthy marriages, if both partners had to swear to giddy anticipation before each bedroom episode, conjugal intimacy would likely cease forevermore. For that matter, any given virgin couple (I'm told there are such things) will feel a surge of trepidation on their wedding day itself, after years of a well-considered relationship that presumably led them to this halcyon moment. Are those ad hoc qualms to be perceived as a talisman of doom that warrants more debate and procrastination?

Women will retort that men need to understand the nurturing, conciliatory nature of the female psyche: Here's the Washington Post's Molly Roberts on the Ansari controversy: “We know how it happens. A man wants sex after an evening out, and a woman feels obligated to comply... Even when she’s not enjoying herself, she thinks she should be, and she tries hard to convince herself nothing is wrong until—maybe that night, maybe the next morning—it becomes too clear to ignore.”

So there you have it. A woman acquiesces to the most intimate act between two humans—with a human she's not that into, no less—and it's still the guy's fault.

But that's not even the full extent of male culpability. Reynolds' emphasis on the woman's lack of enjoyment hints at the second postmodern wrinkle in the bed-sheets: sex after Yes. This paradigm, championed by leading feminist writer Rebecca Traister and a cadre of other young female voices, indicts the so-called “orgasm gap,” edging us ever closer to a definition of consensual sex wherein a woman's Yes is conditioned on the man's ability to provide a quality sexual experience. 


A man who falls short has, in failing to satisfy the woman, also failed to satisfy the terms on which the sex was premised. 

He is guilty of, retroactively, nonconsenual sex. 

Canadian writer Tamar Dina further argues that consensual sex in which the woman does not thoroughly enjoy herself is dehumanizing and akin to assault, because it reduces her to little more than a “gatekeeper to men's desires.” Or As Sady Doyle puts it in Elle, genuinely consensual sex “requires all parties to be visibly happy, turned on, and vocally expressing enthusiasm throughout the encounter.” 

Without a doubt, millions of women commit to sex during which they are never visibly happy or vocally expressing enthusiasm, then wake up hating themselves for going along with a man's seduction. 

But they went along

Ambivalent or not, they agreed to sex. Moreover, buyer's remorse is hardly unique to the bedroom. Many of us experience transient misgivings over virtually every meaningful decision or discretionary purchase. And lest you think it unseemly to compare sex to buying a new car or big-screen TV, consider: It wasn't so long ago that leading feminist voices were exhorting women to indulge their physical desires without strings or regrets: 

“It's just sex!” 

Today some of those same figures would complicate the sexual experience with a manifesto of caveats and assurances that not only require men to be psychic but, for sheer sobriety, rival the vows exchanged before couples say “I do.” 

All of which could be avoided by exhorting unwilling women to state, unequivocally, “I won't.”