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‘No means no’ to ‘yes means yes’: How our language around sexual consent has changed


This is part of a series about love in the #MeToo era.

Twenty-five years ago, long before the popularization of “yes means yes” or #MeToo or #TimesUp, the cast of “Saturday Night Live” made Antioch College — and its controversial rules about sexual consent — a punchline.

A group of women at the small liberal arts school in 1991 successfully petitioned for a conduct-code amendment that explicitly defined sexual consent as requiring an enthusiastic “yes” from everyone involved. Prior to this, sex was considered consensual as long as neither party said “no.” By 1993, Antioch had become a pop culture flashpoint — and a laughingstock.

Newsweek came to campus. Sex therapist Dr. Ruth doubted whether such rules over consent were necessary. And SNL wrote “Is it date rape?,” a sketch about a fictional game show contestant majoring in “victimization studies” whose goal was to categorize sexual scenarios as consensual or not. “Date rape!” she’d yell after hitting a buzzer. It made a mockery of it all, casting affirmative consent as a robotic, politically correct libido killer.

“I remember being so offended,” said Kristine Herman, one of the Antioch women who advocated for the consent policy. “This was funny to people, but it’s not funny when you’re at a police station or when somebody is getting a rape kit.”

It was one of the first times that our culture’s old understanding of consent — no means no — collided with an emerging one: yes means yes. But as often happens when small voices ask society for big changes, Antioch’s definition of affirmative consent slowly began to catch on. Activists such as Herman went on talk shows and spoke at student conventions. Universities across the country adopted similar policies. The feminist blogosphere in the mid-2000s began writing about the limits of a “no means no” mantra, exploring how the burden to get consent fell on the initiator — rather than granting permission to all parties to enthusiastically give it.

Then in 2008, feminist writers Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti published the anthology “Yes means yes!,” popularizing the phrase. California became the first state to write affirmative consent into law in 2014. The following year, Gloria Steinem co-wrote a New York Times op-ed supporting the “yes” sentiment with Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies at SUNY at Stony Brook. An editorial endorsement of “yes means yes” from the Gray Lady, which once cast doubt on policing verbal consent, followed days later.

Which brings us to today, the #MeToo moment, a time where famous actors are saying #TimesUp on sexual violence. The gray areas of intimacy that make consent conversations so complicated are finally being openly explored. The SNL skits are still happening, but this time they’re lighter on the mockery.

The language around consent has expanded far beyond what Herman and her classmates had to work with 25 years ago.

“There wasn’t this nuanced lens to talk about it,” said Herman, an advocacy director at Brooklyn Defender Services who specializes in gender-based violence. “We didn’t have a vocabulary. Things were either rape or not rape.”

As more and more women, and some men, publicly share their experiences with sexual violation, society is becoming more equipped with concrete examples and assigning them pop culture shorthand. Kimmel, Herman and Friedman all told The Washington Post that they’re hearing some people deploy that shorthand when trying to talk about their own experiences. A previously undefined uncomfortable feeling after a sexual experience can now be categorized as a “Cat Person situation” or a “total Aziz encounter.”

D.C. chef Rebecca Hassel, who moderates a women’s sex discussion group once a month called Women Uncorked, said “consent and communication come up constantly” among her cohort.

“I feel like Aziz happens all the time,” Hassel said. “Both parties were making so many assumptions, both parties were afraid of rejection.”

Learning how to speak the language of consent is akin to learning a new vernacular, she said.

“You have to practice,” Hassel said. “Just like you have to [practice] speaking in Spanish, or practice for job interviews as you’re graduating college, you have to practice this.”

Friedman said she is hopeful that our new consent vocabulary — and the growing shift toward acceptance of “yes means yes” — will help make sex talk feel less sanitary and be more about mutual pleasure.

“Part of what makes ‘yes means yes’ such an appealing proposition is that a.) it’s clarifying, and that b.) most people want to do what it says anyway,” Friedman said. “I would say that all decent people want to have sex with people that are into it. … At heart, it’s articulating a value that decent people already hold and it’s saying that we’re responsible to each other on some basic human level.”

And while #MeToo has empowered people who have long felt powerless in sexual situations to speak up and advocate for themselves, Kimmel said men, whom he studies, are experiencing a different kind of awakening — at least those willing to listen. After “Cat Person” and the story of Aziz Ansari’s questionable first date, “women started going through their own mental slide show,” Kimmel said. “Every woman was like: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been there.’ ” Many men, he said, went through a similar mental slide show but saw very different pictures. “All these guys were like: ‘Oh my God, I thought she liked it.’ ”

Which shows that affirmative consent is “actually in our interest,” Kimmel said. And “yes means yes” is “the only way to get there.”

“We have a long way to go, and we’ve come a long way,” Kimmel said. “Both are true.”


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