Every Monday, The CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are featuring Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti.
A challenge to positive sexuality for all individuals comes in the threat of rape and the scripts around it that enable sexual violence. Rape culture, as Hazel/Cedar Troost describes in Yes Means Yes, “works by restricting a person’s control of hir body, limiting hir sense of ownership of it, and granting others a sense of entitlement to it.” It can sometimes be hard to pin down, as it is based in tropes so ingrained in society that they take a critical eye to explore; Yes Means Yes, however, employs that critical eye, and explores them well. These 27 essays lay out the problems with and solutions to beat rape culture. Together, they combine to create an image of a new world of positive sexuality.
A short review cannot possibly acknowledge every essay in this book, indeed, nearly every essay is worth highlighting in detail. The subjects of sexual violence and rape culture could be handled on a very surface level, but because 27 different perspectives from across races, classes, nationalities, genders, and sexual orientations are included, the book is detailed and surprising at times in its treatment of sexual violence, ranging from the sexual humiliation of military prisoners, to reclaiming bodily autonomy, to celebrating female sexual desire, and to healing the damage caused by limiting beauty ideals.
Solutions for the problem of rape culture are explored throughout all of the essays: a “performance model” of sex that treats sex as a collaborative activity, as Thomas Macaulay Millar describes; comprehensive sex education; an affirmation of female sexual desire; and removing the language of entitlement to someone else’s body. (For a great video based on Toward a Performance Model of Sex, click here).
A notably egalitarian new idea that is explored in the anthology is in Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last.” She points out a masculine version of the virgin/whore dichotomy: the assholes/nice guys double bind, in which so-called “assholes” achieve sex with women by treating them poorly, and “nice guys” who refuse to do that but then become “just friends.” In a related effort to destigmatizing the “whore,” Serano suggests that the “nice guy” should be celebrated, as long as he is not desexualized.
Rachel Kramer Bussel even contributes an essay that explores a troubling question: how do you practice enthusiastic consent without feeling robotic or unnatural? Her essay offers instructions on how to practice good sexual communication and how to discuss fantasies. This way, people can learn to treat consent as a “process” and not just a single irrefutable “yes” or “no.”
Even the format of the book is engaging, as it can be read two ways: from beginning to end, or thematically. A table of contents at the beginning of the book lists the essays in numerical order, while a second table of contents in the back groups them by themes such as consent, youth, race, sexual orientation, and right-wing politics. Then, at the end of each essay, essays with related themes are listed. This method was used to create a reading experience similar to that of a blog—which is not only unique in a feminist text, but in a print text in general.
Yes Means Yes is a sexuality anthology for the 21st century and offers a buffet of knowledge, theory, and personal stories to inspire, inform, and radicalize. By shaping the image of a safer and more human model of sexual relationships, the essays make advocating for sexual equality easier—the book is sex-positive ammo. It is easily required reading for sex-positive feminists, and all those who work to end sexual violence, young and old.