As a part of the ongoing discussions about redefining consent on college campuses, a few weeks ago, Vassar Alum Michael Kimmel ‘72 and well-known feminist and writer Gloria Steinem collaborated to write an op-ed featured in The New York Times encouraging colleges to adopt a less ambiguous “yes means yes” standard of consent.
“Even in America, women’s human right to make decisions about their own bodies remains controversial, especially when it comes to sex and reproduction,” wrote Kimmel and Steinem.
This comes in a time of heightened national consciousness about rape culture, with several prominent cases of inadequate reaction from high schools, universities, not to mention police. The light sentences of the convicted Steubenville rapists, the Columbia University student who plans to carry around the mattress on which she was raped until her rapist is punished, the Dartmouth student who encouraged the rape of another student: The list seems to go on and on without a foreseeable end.
Kimmel and Steinem’s article focused on changing the notion that consenting to sex is a mere absence of a “no.” According to them, using a verbal or non-verbal “no” as the standard for defining consent is inherently flawed. They use the example of an intruder in a drunk person’s home–clearly they did not consent to having their home burglarized simply because they were too inebriated to do anything about it.
They argue that taking the time to ask a simple question is much better for all parties and that an active affirmation is more desirable. “But seriously, since when is hearing ‘yes’ a turnoff? Answering ‘yes’ to, ‘Can I touch you there?’ ‘Would you like me to?’ ‘Will you [fill in blank] me?’ seems a turn-on and a confirmation of desire, whatever the sexual identity of the asker and the asked.” Steinem and Kimmel wrote.
“‘Yes means yes’ is a big improvement over ‘no means no,’ not only because it protects women, but because it protects men. Men can have no doubt about consent,” said Kimmel.
Kimmel went on to describe this stance as having more clarity for potential perpetrators as well, saying, “There’s no grey area. Yes can be a very exciting and sexy word. I see that as protecting men as well as women.”
As an extension of his discussion about the benefits for all from this conception of consent, Kimmel was particularly clear about the need for improved consent-related programming directed at potential assailants at institutions of higher education.
He said, “Clearly ‘yes means yes’ programs, bystander intervention programs, [and] all kinds of programs that engage men in ways that are sort of creative, make it clear that this is not a zero sum game, not a war between the sexes.”
However, not everyone is sold on including clarification for men as a goal or benefit of a standard of consent. Women’s studies major Sara Cooley ’15 is particularly critical of what she views as a prioritization of men in discussions of rape culture. She worries that focusing on this could detract from the simple fact that men should never assault women.
She said, “Prioritizing men in conversations about rape serves only to perpetuate the idea that, instead of actually not assaulting women, men must focus on not getting caught.”
She also had concerns that the article pushed what is sometimes called a “consent is sexy” campaign as part of a sex-positive standard of combating rape culture. Cooley said that, because consent is imperative, it should not be framed as either sexy or not-sexy, and rather as something that must be obtained continuously before and during any sexual activity.
“I think that the ‘consent is sexy’ attitude can be very dangerous because it implies that consent is just another option to improve someone’s sex life,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “Getting consent should not be framed as a tip leading to better sex (the matter of it being a turnoff should not be entering the discourse at all); consent is obligatory for sex to happen at all. If someone doesn’t get consent, it doesn’t make for ‘unsexy’ sex, it makes for assault.”
Cooley was not the only student involved in combating rape culture that also had criticisms for Steinem and Kimmel.
Another student, Tyler Fultz ’15, warned men who write about rape culture to be particularly cautious in how they choose to engage with it, and especially about whom they center on in their discussions and they ways in which they do so. He had criticisms of feminists like Steinem, who has had a patchy history with members of certain marginalized groups, most notably trans women.
“I believe that there are ways for notable people of these identities to write this type of article and have it be effective, but this requires them to be conscious of their place as a result of their identities and the audiences they are trying to protect,” Fultz wrote in an emailed statement.
He went on, “After reading this article, I really don’t think they do that. They maybe help introduce this topic to those who have had little previous exposure to it, but its casual ableism and insistency of legitimizing their views through the ‘consent is sexy’ rhetoric do not help the people this article should be meant for. Instead, it panders to those unaffected without thinking about what language would actually be beneficial for survivors, particularly those with multiple oppressed identities.”
In their critiques, both Cooley and Fultz focused on the language used to discuss rape culture. Both spoke out against some casual ableism that was present in Kimmel and Steinem’s article, noting that intersectionality is imperative in conversations about sexual assault.
“Since language is the base for feeding into rape culture, the casual ableism in the article shows how ineffective and ultimately violent Kimmel and Steinem are,” wrote Fultz. “Casually using ‘saner’ as a basis for legitimizing their views again says its OK to perceive differently-abled people as less than, and it is this perceptions that ultimately allows people to consider their bodies as exploitable.”
Cooley echoed these sentiments, and made sure to emphasize that a “yes means yes” rhetoric, while on the surface an improvement on “no means no,” does not necessarily account for cases in which a “yes” comes from fear or coercion.
She wrote, “Per usual, I think the use of ableist language like ‘yes means yes is clearly saner’ follows the pattern of mainstream feminism to disregard other forms of oppression that complicate issues like consent. For many women, especially women with disabilities, ‘yes means yes’ does not mean consent when the yes is coerced, uninformed, hinging on dependency on the partner or other situations in which there are uneven power dynamics.”
Obviously, a forced “yes” does not make for consensual sex, and Cooley is adamant that restrictions and nuance are necessary for a truly survivor-centered policy about consent.
“In general, Steinem’s feminist politics are rooted in sex-positive second-wave feminism, and it is no surprise that she is eager to embrace a ‘yes means yes’ attitude towards consent without any hesitation or restriction.”
To that point, Kimmel did note that the content that is presented to a news outlet, particularly a national or international one, often lacks subtlety.
“It makes a certain amount of sense that the mainstream newspaper will take the majority position and make it the only position. In an 800 word op-ed piece you don’t have a whole lot of time for nuance,” he said.
Kimmel went on, “To write journalism, you need to be very flexible and editable. You have to be willing to let go of things you thought were just brilliant, because your editor doesn’t think they are convincing or persuasive.”
Ultimately, however, there was one thing that everyone could agree on–the need for better consent programming at colleges and universities. Concrete ways to improve conditions on campuses and ultimately dismantle rape culture were important to Kimmel, as well as Cooley and Fultz.
For Fultz, introspection at institutions that pride themselves on being progressive, Vassar included, was necessary, and Cooley emphasized survivor-centered approaches and a push toward more proactive and less reactive measures.
Wrote Fultz, “There are still lots of shortcomings if Vassar wants to be truly survivor-centered, though some, but not all, of these shortcomings are the results of U.S. Department of Education mandates. Vassar, too, needs to examine where it can improve in being survivor-centered as it allows those affected, rather than regimented policy codes, to truly determine how best to assist survivors and prevent further violence.”
Cooley, too, had suggestions for tangible steps to improve safety on campuses. She wrote, “Dismantling rape culture includes working hard to raise awareness of the issue and keep raising it, not just with sub-par, optional orientation programming, but with mandatory workshops on healthy relationships, consent and bystander-intervention for all students.”
That was a stark difference between these two students’ stances and Kimmel’s. While Cooley and Fultz placed more emphasis on survivors of sexual assault, as well as preventing violence in the future, Kimmel had more to say directly along the lines of making “yes” a better standard of consent than “no.” But he, too, did agree at least on the need for colleges to start doing the work to change their own cultures of violence.
He said, “Colleges and universities need to step up themselves and start developing adequate programs.”