If you have been living in the United States in the past few weeks, you would have felt a palpable sense of change in the air. Discussions surrounding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 to serve as a Supreme Court Justice have taken an unexpected turn since Christine Blasey Ford and, more recently, Deborah Ramirez ’87 have taken the brave and bold decision to come forward with allegations of sexual assault against the Supreme Court Justice nominee.
More specifically, the Yale campus has energized in an especially electric way. Phone banking, boycotts, walkouts and statements of support towards these women have flooded our news feeds, conversations and familiar campus spaces.
But a more subtle sense of change is also in the air. A very unexpected and quite unprecedented shift has become evident in the way in which the Trump administration has responded to these allegations. For the first time, the instinctual reaction is not to dismiss these accusations, but rather to find a way to circumvent them and exonerate Kavanaugh, without undermining the women themselves. The statements coming from the White House follow the lines of argument that support the existence of some sort of misunderstanding or confusion surrounding the identity of the assailant.
Don’t get me wrong — this line of reasoning remains outrageous and profoundly offensive to the bravery and character of the women who have come forward and dared to face these traumatic experiences that have impacted their lives. But, at least, this time there is some semblance of respect towards these women. Even if it stems from a politically motivated perspective of trying not to further alienate the electorate in light of the upcoming midterm election, this shift in attitude marks a huge success. It is evidence that the activists, supporters and survivors of the #MeToo movement who have fought to convince people to believe victims of sexual misconduct have managed to achieve some semblance of change, even if it isn’t the kind of change most of us would like to see.
Recognizing small victories is really challenging when you are attempting to fight a longstanding system of oppression amid deeply ingrained cultural norms that silence victims to avoid unsettling assailants. Still, it is really important to make note of these small victories because they illustrate that even if the battle is arduous, this is a fight worth fighting.
However, there is another side to this discussion that the predominant rhetoric has failed to address. This side has less to do with blatant forms of sexual violence and more to do with cases that lie in what a lot of people have come to call “the gray areas of consent.” These conversations, in some ways, are even more difficult to have because they inherently involve a certain level of ambiguity. How do you address cases where you do have consent, but the consent stems from complex power dynamics or feelings that are hard to express and decipher? What happens when people say yes without actually meaning it? Former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee brought this up in her comedy show “Full Frontal” in a way that I feel captures this complex issue very eloquently. She says that “it doesn’t have to be rape to ruin your life; and it doesn’t have to ruin your life to be worth speaking up about.” Elaborating on that point, Bee goes on to express a fundamental truth that should be self-evident in this day and age, but for some reason is not: we need to elevate our standards for sex and establish a criterion more substantial than “not rape.”
Our culture’s approach to sex often revolves around the idea that men are meant to pursue and women are meant to respond. In her article, “How Can Women Feel Comfortable Saying No When They Are Told They Can’t Say Yes?” Heather Hensman Kettrey of the Peabody Research Institute explains that “young women’s sexual desire and pleasure are viewed as secondary to young men’s desires. This can set young women up to accept unwanted advances and participate in undesired sex for the purpose of pleasing a male partner.” In her work, Kettrey cites a study conducted on 7,000 participants which found that one third of young women prioritize their partner’s pleasure over their own.
In a blog post on “Psychology Today,” Kathryn Lively justifies this attitude as the product of a child-rearing process that pushes girls to be “nice and to be more in touch with their own and other people’s feelings,” while, at the same time, teaching boys to be “less attuned to people’s feelings, and to win.”
Recently, one of my friends showed me a meme that said, “Girls don’t mature faster than boys, girls are punished from an early age for the same behavior that boys are allowed to indulge in well into adulthood.” I believe this captures the essence of what this conversation is centering around as well: the double standard placed upon girls and boys with regards not only to what is acceptable, but also what is expected in terms of sexual encounters.
From an early age, women are coaxed into accepting not only a passive role in sexual encounters, but occasionally even a physically discomforting one. In a study titled “The Female Price of Male Pleasure,” culture critic Lili Loofbourow explains that, in our culture “women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.” Loofbourow notices that cases such as that of Aziz Ansari point to a deeply distressing social phenomenon — in an effort to absolve ourselves and those we care about from the blame, we tend to portray perpetrators of rape and sexual assault as sexually deviant, social miscreants; we tend to think of them as abhorrent exceptions rather than quotidian rules. Once the banality of those incidents becomes inescapable, however, “our instinct is to normalize. To insist that this is just how men are, and how sex is.” Loufbourow then encourages us to think more critically: If you asked why “Grace”—the anonymous subject of the “Babe.net” expose on Ansari— didn’t leave, why not take it a step further and, instead, ask, “Why are women enduring excruciating pain to make sure men have orgasms?”
Part of the answer lies with the fact that, against our better judgment, we feel that we asked for it. And asking for it includes a no-return policy: Once you say yes, you relinquish the power to say no. After the dish has been placed on the table, you are required to eat it. But why is that? What is wrong with ordering a dish and sending it back after it arrives? What if it’s not what you asked for? What if it’s too salty, or not salty enough? What if the dish is nothing like it was advertised, or what if you just had too many appetizers and are no longer in the mood for it?
There is, however, a delicate nuance in changing the female sexual experience: In order for women to be able to say no, and mean it, they first need to be taught how to say yes. Deborah Tolman, a professor of social welfare at the City University of New York and author of the book “Dilemmas of Desire,” expresses the view that a culture which views women as objects of men’s sexual craving, “rather than subjects who possess their own desire, can make women vulnerable to the wants of others.” Ensuring that women do not consent to unwanted sex requires teaching girls and women to prioritize their desire and pleasure in a way that empowers them when they find themselves in an unwanted situation.
This effort requires a reconceptualization of consent as a complex, dynamic and multidimensional model rather than a two-fold “yes or no” paradigm. In “The Journal of Sex Research” Zoë Peterson and Charlene Muehlenhard published an article that makes the argument for a more complex model of consent. The current model of consent as we understand it today “conflates wanting and consenting” by assuming that consent and wantedness are one and the same. Conflating wantedness with consent, the researchers argue, impresses on women and girls that, if they consented to something, it must have been because they wanted it.
The #MeToo movement and its aftermath have brought about a newfound degree of awareness on topics relating to sexual assault and gender inequality and has succeeded in stimulating conversation and shifting cultural norms. That success is both incredibly powerful and absolutely necessary. So is the fact that, perhaps for the first time in history, society is demanding that men step up and check themselves, re-evaluate their privilege and seek to truly understand and respect their sexual and romantic partners.
However, the movement will remain incomplete as long as it fails to inquire as to why it is so difficult for women who find themselves in situations of ambiguity to vocalize their discomfort. Sex should never be a no-return policy, which is why consent as a metric to evaluate what constitutes an acceptable sexual encounter is not enough. If we truly wish to foster a healthy and safe sexual environment for women, we need to start by rethinking consent as a dynamic concept that encompasses desire and intention and that can be withdrawn at any time.
Sophia Catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org .