I don’t say yes. I say oh, yes. I say yes, please. I paper his walls with my yeses. I come to with a boy on top of me. I am drunk, I am taking my shirt off. And I’m asking something over and over again: Do you think I’m pretty? Do you think I’m pretty? Do you think I’m, do you think I’m, do you think I’m—
I talk to a lot of people about sexuality. A lot of women, a lot of queers. Experiences like this come up again and again: Times when something feels bad, but we have a hard time saying what. When we feel disempowered. When there is a real, scary doubt about our “yes.”
The past fifty years of feminist activism have given us a language to politicize our experiences of violence: “Nonconsensual sex” becomes assault. That’s amazing. That’s revolutionary. That is a powerful critique of ideologies that lead us to systematically disrespect female and queer choice. Sometimes, however, we forget this more structural critique and talk about consent as an individual process—not asking “What kinds of power are operating in this situation?” but only “Did you or did you not say yes?”
Humans don’t exist in isolation, and it’s hard to make free choices in an unjust world. That doesn’t mean that marginalized people can’t consent. I’m very queer and very female, and as my roommates will tell you (the walls are thin), I’ve given some powerful yeses. But we need to think about consent not as the words two-or-more rational, free, horny agents exchange when they’re about to get down, but as a collective process of lowering barriers to empowered choice.
Let’s go back to that night to see what I mean. I’m a senior in high school visiting a friend. I am in deep, hormonal, emo love. She’s straight. She takes me to a party, where I have so much to drink my memory becomes dark water, brief flashes when I flicker up for air. I’m being kissed. There’s a boy, then another boy. I keep asking if I’m pretty. I keep saying yes.
In the morning I feel confused, hungover, memory fuzzy. I feel weird about what went down.
There’s a really obvious question here: Doesn’t it sound like I was too drunk to make an affirmative choice? I think the answer is yes. But I want to ask a different question, one more helpful in using this situation to think about how to have ethical sex: What systems of power produced such a fucked up experience?
Let’s think about the structure of the party, and what that tells us about ideological structures in our world.
The boys hosted the party, and they seemed to invite us with the expectation that something sexual would go down. There was plenty of alcohol to facilitate that. I’m not about to tell you to never have (respectful, negotiated) drunk sex. But we all know better than to touch someone who is incapacitated, or to use alcohol to coerce sex. Alcohol wasn’t the only form of “encouragement:” At one point early in the night, one of the boys literally bargained with me. “If you hook up with 'x,' I’ll let you hook up with my girlfriend,” he said. So to begin with, what went down reflected a culture in which sex is a goal to achieve by trading in other people’s bodies, whether through words or intoxicants. That mindset does not leave much space for meaningful consent.
The Corrupt Bargain of 2010 also evokes a whole host of assumptions about sexuality. The boy knew I had a crush on my female friend; he thought my bisexuality was hot, that his girlfriend was someone whose body he could offer, and that my desire for her meant I was particularly down to fuck. Ding ding ding, we’ve got a third: Stereotypes about queerness disempower us.
Finally, let’s think about the question I kept asking: Do you think I’m pretty? Saying yes to hooking up meant more than just hands on my breasts. It meant desirability. It meant acceptance. It meant getting out of my boring-ass town where nothing and no one went down and I was too nerdy and never pretty enough. We’ve been trained our whole lives to associate our worth with our sexualities, so saying yes to sex is often about a lot more than touch: It can determine feelings of value. So there’s an underlying cultural problem with how we associate sexuality and social worth.
Here’s the point. Feminists sometimes talk about “yes” and “no” like they’re uncomplicated. That’s a messaging thing, and it works: We want everyone who hooks up with anyone ever to do so only with an affirmative, active yes. Teaching that consent is always clear is a tool in making it so, by mandating explicit and affirmative articulation.
But ethical sex is hard. And it won’t stop being hard until we make cultures that enable meaningful choice, cultures wherein we minimize, as much as possible, power imbalances related to sex. That’s a tall order, but we’ve got to get there. For all the confused queer kids and weird mornings after. For all of us to feel safe and valued and of worth.
So we make complex decisions, and negotiate, and keep working at it, and don’t tolerate coercive bullshit, and do our absolute best. We take responsibility. We try our damnedest to create spaces in which our yeses can echo from the walls, wherein our yeses can motivate angry roommate keep-it-down-in-there texts, wherein “Am I pretty?” is replaced with “Am I responsive, am I respectful, am I kind?”
Reina A.E. Gattuso ‘15, an FM editor, is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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