Ed. note: The powerful, candid essays in “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape” have transformed the way we think about women’s sexuality. Jaclyn Friedman, “Yes Means Yes” co-editor with Jessica Valenti, explains the meaning behind the movement.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “no means no,” and you probably know what it means: if someone says no to any kind of sexual interaction, you must stop. But have you heard the phrase “yes means yes”?
“Yes means yes” is the slogan of a movement that aims to enhance understanding of sexual consent so that it’s clear and works for everyone. The “yes means yes” philosophy is that the only valid sexual consent is enthusiastic consent.
Where “no means no” suggests that, in the absence of your partner clearly objecting, you can do whatever you want, the principle of enthusiastic consent says that you shouldn’t do anything that your partner isn’t actively excited about (or at least excited to try). And if you can’t tell if your partner is enthusiastic, then ask.
There are numerous reasons for this shift. While “No means no” popularized the idea that women’s sexual boundaries must be respected (sad to say, a major accomplishment), it also inadvertently supported the pervasive cultural assumption that women only want to say “No” to sex.
It also created room for rapists to claim “She didn’t say no” as a valid defense, if the woman assaulted hadn’t verbally protested due to shock, fear, intoxication or any other reason.
Enthusiastic consent clears up this confusion, and in cases of sexual assault puts the onus on the accused to prove the victim was freely consenting, instead of asking the victim to prove she objected strenuously enough.
It also challenges the idea that women don’t want sex, by assuming that any sexual interaction requires the enthusiasm of all parties involved, regardless of gender.
Like most things, enthusiastic consent is read complicated in practice than it is in principle. Because we still live in a world that punishes women for having too much or the wrong kind of sexual desire, many women feel uncomfortable expressing enthusiasm for sex, even when they very much want a sexual interaction.
Still, enthusiastic consent has the potential to transform the way we think about and engage in sex for the better: by fostering direct, open communication about consent and pleasure, by reinforcing the idea that women can be plenty enthusiastic about sex on their own terms, and by creating a culture in which the only good kind of sex is the kind of sex that’s actively good for everyone involved.