Yes Means Yes


“I’ve been thinking about that line. I mean, what is rape or not? Like, what if it’s your boyfriend?”

A young woman asked me this over breakfast last week. I was so glad she asked. I was heartbroken she had to ask. That we haven’t answered this question yet. Definitively. For everyone.

We were in Missoula. A place we entered into having heard it was full of beautiful mountains, friendly people, and good hiking trails. All of this was true. What we weren’t aware of, but was raised at each show we played by participants between the ages of 19 and 48, was that it is a town torn apart by a federal investigation into the mishandling of reports of rape and assault. And from what I’ve read and what I heard from current students and recent graduates it could be any college town, really. It reminded me of where I went to school: the drinking; the worshipping of athletes; the language used by both men and women that shames women who drink, or hang out with those athletes, or “give it up” or are “withholding,” as if sex is a thing for girls to give away, while for boys it’s something to do.

And of course the focus on the drinking, the athletics, on Missoula in particular is a way to convince ourselves that rape isn’t happening here, but over there, in some specific, other place. It’s a way to shift responsibility for rape away from those doing the raping. It’s a way to shift responsibility for a culture that condones and perpetuates such behavior away from ourselves.

And for many young women it’s a way to try and shift out of our own pain, our own experience of being treated as less than human. Because we are not the ones drinking with the football team or being jumped by a stranger in a dark alley. We were already kissing him. He was our boyfriend.

“It’s just the football players. I don’t even know any of those people.”

That’s what the young woman told me before she went on to ask what I thought about that line. Before she asked me if you can be raped by your boyfriend.

I told her that no matter who it is and no matter how many times you’ve had sex with them before, only yes means yes. And that we should all be saying more than yes. This is such a given in my life now. I’ve almost forgotten what it is to feel uncertain. To second-guess the cause of one’s own sense of sadness/fear/powerlessness/shame because maybe I wasn’t loud enough. Maybe I didn’t say no. Maybe it’s because he was drunk or because I was. Maybe I allowed this. As if the burden fell on me to refuse sex. And of course women still think this, it’s reinforced all the time, on TV shows, in pop songs, in the news coverage of the cases in Steubenville and elsewhere.

How can we remake the world so we can’t even conceive of sex that doesn’t involve both people being present and pleasured?

If you’ve never thought about yes meaning yes or sex as performance instead of a commodity, please read these articles. If you’ve thought a lot about these things, please read them again, talk about it to everyone. Reach out to teenagers and college students. I’m so glad that young woman asked me that question. But let’s please make a world where she doesn’t have to.


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