As difficult as it has been, the #MeToo moment has given rise to a lot of really important discussions. Completely contrary to the occasional infuriating calls for “more nuance” (generally masquerading for “give the poor harassers who aren’t rapists a break”), most of what I’ve seen of it has been an incredibly nuanced conversation. Everyone knows the difference between Aziz Ansari and Harvey Weinstein. Everyone. But we’re nuanced enough to realize how their behaviors are related, and audacious enough to decide that we’re done just calling out the very very worst of the worst. What we want is to remake the entire culture.
There have been a few people I respect a lot who have expressed concern that this could lead to a sex panic. I sympathize with their concerns, but I don’t see it. (Here’s a good complete rebuttal of that idea.) This conversation, this movement, is not targeting the marginalized, it’s targeting the powerful. It’s not targeting unusual kinds of sex acts or relationships, but usual ones. But the most important thing about it, is that it is not anti-sex. It is decidedly pro-sex.
See, when you come down to it, the fear behind people who resist the idea of making enthusiastic affirmative consent the social standard is that if women aren’t pestered into having sex they’ll never want it.
I’m quite certain that that’s the exact opposite of the case. There are a whole lot of situations—flirting in more contexts, admitting to someone you have a crush on them, falling into bed with someone quickly—that many women would be a lot more likely to do a lot more often if it were safe and welcomed.
If they knew that their consent would be respected, and revocable. If they weren’t worried about being hounded forever (not to mention possibly beaten up or shot) because they responded to an overture just long enough to discover they weren’t interested. If they trusted the motives, and expected to be seen as a full human being and not a conquest, not a pawn in office politics, not a quid pro quo where if they said no they would find their promotion or audition turned down, or their name dragged through the mud as slut. If they had access to functional birth control, including a morning after pill, and abortion if it failed.
You get my drift. In a culture where things like that were givens, yes, more interactions would end more quickly on a “no.” But I would argue that far more would also get to yes. Far from the straight-laced downer of a world in which people who have never seen what sex is like with a woman who really wants to be there seem to imagine, a world where affirmative consent was the standard to be expected and respected would involve, eventually, more sex (not to mention much better sex).
How do we get there? Lots of pieces are in motion, but I want to add one. When it comes to situations like that described with Ansari, there has been a lot of discussion about whether women have an obligation to own their power and say “no” sooner, more clearly and forcefully. While I think that sounds like a great muscle to exercise, there has been a lot of ink spilled about the very real reasons why women in the current world we live in often don’t do so, and I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of judging people until those conditions change.
But here’s an easier thing that I will call on more people to do, which is necessary to get to a healthier culture around sex: say “yes” clearly when you mean it.
Every time you play hard to get, you undermine this whole fight, because playing hard to get is super hard to tell from saying “no” when you mean “yes.” By doing that you discredit not only your own future no-saying, but that of everyone else. (That this happens is, to be clear, absolutely no excuse for ever not respecting a no. Erring on the side of not violating the person you are with is always, always a higher value.)
To allow women to give clear yeses, everyone needs to give up slut shaming (which dissuades women from giving enthusiastic yeses) and relationship advice like “make him work for it” and “guys don’t settle down with women who are too eager.”
This does not mean that anyone should give a yes when they don’t mean it (of course!). Taking your time when that feels right is not the same as playing hard to get, which specifically involves refusing to admit what you want.
But we cannot fix rape culture while playing hard to get is the norm. Especially not while we’re calling on people to recognize and respect non-verbal cues and a “soft no.” To protect your other people’s soft no, it’s time to give up the soft yes that doesn’t look very different.