The Gray Area Between Yes-Means-Yes and No-Means-No

Recently, I had an argument with a friend. I had shared a blurb on Facebook about the recent Yes-Means-Yes law enacted in California, and he immediately retorted his disgust before I had even refreshed my homepage.

Rather than have a heated public debate, because I’m lazy, I texted him. Aside from his aggressive and personally attacking comments, the gist of our conversation went as follows:

His argument:  Yes-Means-Yes laws don’t solve any problems because “they said yes” and “they didn’t say no” are both still hearsay in court. These laws substitute kangaroo courts on college campuses for real reform of the criminal justice system. It’s not realistic to expect long term couples to always explicitly and verbally consent to sex, and it’s not appropriate to impose our choice of how people should consent to sex any more than it would be to impose our choice of what sex they should have.

My argument:  If romantic partners cannot consent explicitly and verbally, they have no business having sex. This legislation will encourage conversations which clarify potential sexual misunderstandings, as well as provide an operational definition for existing sexual battery and assault lawsuits. This is no different than the logic behind drivers licenses for people who intend to drive. It all comes down to public safety. The government isn’t determining how consent can be given; it’s defining what consent is.

Flash forward to last Sunday morning. My boyfriend and I were joking around, and the topic of penis sizes came up. He mentioned that he hasn’t measured his in a few years, and my morning grogginess reassured me that it would be a great idea to measure him, right then and there. So, I started fondling his genitals, despite his apathetic groans. That’s when he threw me a curve ball.

“I feel like I’m being raped,” he said.

Wait, what? What?!

Horrified, I froze. I then hounded him for more information. With a heavy sigh, he blurted out, “No, it’s fine. Just… it’s fine. Just keep going.”

“No, it’s not okay. What did you mean? What’s wrong?” I asked.

A few pokes and prods later, he shyly admitted that he didn’t want me to touch him how I just had. He wasn’t up for it, but, he hadn’t fought it, either. He just didn’t say yes.

Did you hear that smack? That was my hypocrisy hitting me square in the face.

I have preached for years that receiving continued, voluntary, excited ‘Yes!’es is paramount to sexual conduct, yet I engaged in sexual conduct with my boyfriend’s body without ever asking for his permission. Shit.

I spent most of that fateful morning crying into my boyfriend’s chest as I reflected on the ghosts of relationships past, desperately trying to remember instances where I might have forgotten to ask for permission before intimately touching a lover.

Glancing back to my earlier argument with my anti-Yes-Means-Yes friend, I failed to verbalize that I was talking strictly about penetrative sex. The oversight I missed was foreplay, the kind of casual caressing that intimate partners often engage in without preemptively asking for consent. As my friend suggested, yes, intimate partners do sometimes take each others’ bodies and sexual availability for granted.

So if my boyfriend didn’t want “it”, why did he not say something?

Biologically, sexual responses can quickly become uncomfortable for a man’s body, regardless of penile tumescence, he explained to me, and socially, internalized masculine behavior scripts shame any man who perceives a sexual opportunity and does not exploit it. Combine those physical and psychological factors, and whammo! You get a mountain of biopsychosocial discomfort between your body’s pre-arousal and post-orgasm phases.

Misunderstandings happen, even in feminist relationships with excellent communication, and this experience brought a fatal flaw of my current romantic relationship to light. My boyfriend and I realized that he is hyper-attentive to my ‘No’s but ignores his own. Although we have adopted more of the No-Means-No model than the Yes-Means-Yes ideal for this time being, he has promised to learn to respect and verbally express his own limits in the future, and I now know the importance of continued hyper-attentiveness to all partners’ consent.

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