Friday, June 11, 2010

Yes Means Yes: Initial Impressions

Yes Means Yes is a book of essays written by feminists which attempts to provide a remedy to some of the underlying assumptions and models of sexuality and persons that can provide cultural sanction for the practice of rape, especially in the united states. The essays aren't necessarily confined strictly to that objective, but everything discussed is at least of tangential relevance to that critique. All citations here are from the 2008 edition (for a visual description, the one with the red, black and yellow cover,) and will be given in the format of ("Essay," Section writer, page number), thereafter (Last name, page number).

This is the first of what will hopefully be many blog posts in which I am giving my theological and personal reactions, from where I come from as a Christian, to the issues and ideas raised by this book. This post just has some initial impressions.

Hopefully I can present a charitable enough picture of what this book has to say that whoever reads this will be able to make a good decision about whether or not to read it for yourselves. I don't necessarily recommend that every Christian I know read this book; many conservatives and even a few liberals would term it crass and crude in places, and rightly so; so I urge persons who are contemplating reading this book and think they might be offended to ask themselves first if being offended will help them grow, or just make them miss the point. And, among many other things, the book is quite obviously about sex. So use your discernment there.

That said, there's a lot of stuff I like in what I've read so far. Now I definitely don't share my religious framework with a lot of these writers, and (as a consequence) there are many things in the book that are problematic from a Catholic perspective. But many of the critiques of the culture, at their core, ring true, and (when I think about them) strike me as stupid just like they strike the secular feminist movement. One thing, right off, just in case there's any misconception at allI do not believe these women are man-haters, and neither should you. They are not. However, I believe that a number of the assumptions that they make and a few of the resulting assertions are problematic from a Christian and, especially, Catholic perspective.

So I'm going to start with my worst initial impression, then move on to the good ones, which have arisen from the book as well as from discussions with the friend who lent it to me.

The idea contained in the first proper essay gave me my worst impression of the book. It was the idea that "an improved response to rape requires a broad-based approach, and involves challenging the entire right-wing agenda: the wars on sex, on women's bodies, on the poor, on people of color." ("Offensive Feminism," Jill Filipovic, 25) The part of that sentence I object to is probably obvious. I think it's safely said that at the least the "[war] on women's bodies" includes attempts to restrict access to abortion; I'm not sure what exactly these people would think of people like me who willingly converted to a religious perspective which, to some degree, teaches activism not just against abortion but also contraception. Now my friend has pointed out that the emphasis on autonomy signified in this passage can be limited by a religious perspective. I believe this; my issue with Filipovic's assertion stands. I realize that my religious perspective means that, for the movement which spawned this book, whatever response I make is likely to be a lower and less-improved response.

There's one other big impression that I had reading this which should be mentioned, because it's going to show up again. Earlier in her opening essay, Filipovic sates that "feminism and anti-rape activism challenge the dominant narrative that women's bodies aren't their own, they insist that sex is about consent and enjoyment, not violence and harm, and they attack a power structure that sees women as victims and men as predators" (Filipovic, 20). I'll sign my name to this sentence, depending on how we interpret that first "and". Do we mean activism that is feminist and anti-rape, or just activism that is either feminist or anti-rape? I kind of hope she means and, not or. If she means or, Christian challenges to rape must by definition be excluded from anti-rape activism on the basis of belief in a Creatorship of God which extends to ownership (even if persons also own themselves), to say nothing of what Christianity teaches about the point of sex.

Let's assume I can sign my name to that sentence, though, and move on to the deeper issue brought up, which is a dichotomy that Filipovic makes between sex being "about consent and enjoyment, not violence and harm." No matter what the secular feminist response to sex is, the Christian response can't be either of those. Obviously we can't seriously advocate, as Christians, a sexual model that promotes violence and harm. But we also can't speak about it just as a thing about consent and enjoyment. For the Christian tradition consent is a necessary condition for the morality of such an act, but it is not sufficient. Enjoyment certainly is a good bonus of sex, but it's not the point; in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant sexual ethics it is subordinate to unity, in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ethics subordinate to unity and to procreation. Some of the older (and more disgustingly spread, even if somehow not disgusting) models of sex have massive potential to aid and abet violence and harm that can be done to women. So what model should we be working for in Christian theology?

But let's get back to the consent piece, because it brings me to the first thing I really like and one of the big themes I've come to embrace from this movement.

The introduction to the book is a testimonial of a woman (comedian Margaret Cho) whose first time having sex was with a man who didn't quite get a no from her. But he didn't get a yes, either. Cho's description of the event should appall we who call ourselves Christians: "Before I knew it, he was on top of me. Then he was inside me. No ceremony, no foreplay, no warning, no consent. It never came up" ("Foreword," Margaret Cho, 2). Cho goes on to describe the various times and reasons that she has had "sex I have said yes to, and sometimes even initiated--that I didn't want to have" (Cho, 3).

As a key part of their solution to these problems of female sexuality, rape, and pressures to have sex, the Yes Means Yes movement has, appropriately enough, suggested that "if we established a model of enthusiastic consent instead of just 'no means no,' it would be a lot harder for men to get away with rape. It would be a lot harder to argue that there's a 'gray area'" (Filipovic, 21). This is the idea that I'm pretty enthused about, the idea of establishing a model of consent that is more active than passive.

There are a host of other little observations that are made in this book that I agree with. One essay, "An Immodest Proposal," asks the question of what the world would look like if women took more initiative in a sexual sense. Obviously my stipulations about the proper and moral context of this initiative differ from that of secular feminism, but within a marital framework, if we truly consider the husband and wife equal in dignity, regardless of whether we're complementarians or egalitarians, is there any good reason not to treat the two as having an equal weight not only in consenting to their bodily union, which the serious thinkers on the subject in the Christian tradition has already taken seriously, but also in initiating it, in asking for that special bodily intimacy? (If anyone thinks they have one, they're free to tell me. I'll respond as best as I can.) Another essay, entitled "Beyond Yes or No," talks about an improvement of communication between partners about what they do and don't like and enjoy as far as sex goes. Again, I have reservations with endorsing the same contexts for such things as the author of that essay, and I definitely don't endorse everything that they do as legitimate sexual practice, consent or no consent. But, in such a degree as a given practice is actually in-line with our dignity as persons and Divine intentions for sexuality, I don't see anything wrong with a husband and wife actually discussing what they like and don't like. Even the most conservative Christians shouldn't balk at this--Karol Wojtyla devoted the entire last chapter of Love and Responsibility to biological discussion and talked of the desire to satisfy the other person in terms of pleasure--not as a replacement of unity, but as an outcome desired by Love in a marital context.

Those are a lot of initial impressions, I know. I hope to continue posting these things; in the future they're going to be on an essay-by-essay basis. Look for more on the themes of the Christian response to sexuality, the 'commodity' model of sexuality that the feminist movement much despises (and with good reason), and places where I think Christianity plays nice--or doesn't--with secular feminism. Pray for me in this endeavor!

[This post has been edited to fix a horrific typo I noticed just now, after several years.]


EricBrooks said...

The logic of "consentual sex" is in no way something which can be applied to consenting to marriage. First of all, consenting to marriage is about a union of lives. While modern Christians seem to obsess over the sexual ethics, with some theology of the body people going so far as to suggest that sex is the ultimate realization of the union of marriage, really it's not the main point. Obsessing over sexual ethics obscures the reality of marriage, and applying the logic of "consentual sex" analogously to marriage adds fuel to the fire. Aside from the fact that agreeing to marriage is not the same thing as agreeing to use each other for pleasure, it should also be remembered that a married couple owes each other what's called the "marriage debt" which I'm sure would be horrifying to those who believe in "consentual sex" (though it should be remembered that men owe it to women as much as women to men).

You quote Cho as saying she has several times said yes to sex she actually didn't want to have. Maybe by developing a more rigorous language of consent this could be somewhat limited, but if people are being asked to make this sort of decision on the spot the grey area is never going to go away. In fact, it is the sexual revolution that has created this grey area. When sex is restricted to marriage, there is no such "did she really want it... really?" type grey area. This will not go away unless sex outside of marriage on the whole is condemned. "Consentual sex" cannot solve this problem. It is in fact feminism and the sexual revolution which have in the first place made "date rape" and other such difficult middle grounds between consent and violent rape possible, and they will only go away when we reject feminism and the sexual revolution.

If we are Catholic, why should we draw or understanding of the proper ordering of gender within society from a bunch of largely atheist revolutionaries who have sought to destroy the norms of marriage, when the saints have already taught on the subject? I see no reason, unless we are trying to impress the world by saying "don't worry, I'm not so crazy. I can be a feminist too." But why should we be trying to impress the world?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for this mini-review!

By the way, I think one thing that's really important to keep in mind when thinking about consent is that consent and desire are independent. It is possible to consent to something one doesn't want, and it's possible to want something one doesn't consent to. This is related to Cho's telling that she has said 'Yes' even though she didn't want to. Those cases need to be distinguished into cases where she really did consent, and cases where she was pressured in such a way as to invalidate her consent.

Once we distinguish consent from desire, we see that consent is a somewhat anemic thing--it can't bear the weight of being the primary determiner of permissibility in the sexual sphere.

Lee said...

Women were never "date raped" in some fashion or other prior to the feminist movement or the advent of the sexual revolution and they are to be credited with the creation of "middle grounds?"
I know that in arguing a point, we can sometimes overstate the case, but these statements seem to, in large part, disregard history.
This "we" is not Catholic, but would still encourage any Christian to use hyperbole advisedly, and avoid misrepresentation altogether, so that these do not sabotage potentially helpful insights.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

Thanks, guys.

I've given some responses to Eric's comment here. Though anyone who's actually reading this comment probably knows that already.

Shawn said...

@ Dan- I love the way you think
@ Lee- Thank you for saying charitably what I could not
@ Alexander- Very nice point, a great part of the conversation

As the only female commentor as of this moment, I will say that intimacy (which, from my angle, is the point of relationship in general, and marriage specifically) is certainly not limited to sex/intercourse (nor is intercourse a requirement for intimacy). Arrogance and entitlement are intimacy killers. Consent and desire will both be augmented by a move toward intimacy, which is fed by respect, self-sacrifice, and having your beloved's back...emotionally/physically/spiritually.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

Glad you stopped by, Shawn!

I agree with the point about intimacy not being limited to sex, and I certainly agree that sex is not a requirement for intimacy. I would ask whether it is really the historically Biblical Christian thing to say that intimacy is "the point of [...] marriage specifically." It may be a point, but not necessarily the point.

EricBrooks said...

Lee, I certainly did not say that no woman was ever "date-raped" or otherwise pressured based on a "grey area" before the sexual revolution and the rise of feminist culture. What I said, and what I stand by, is that these grey areas exist because of these (and other related) revolutions in culture. There is a big difference.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

Thanks for clarifying, Eric. I think a few of us had got that impression from the statement that "It is in fact feminism and the sexual revolution which have in the first place made 'date rape' and other such difficult middle grounds between consent and violent rape possible," that you meant feminism and the sexual revolution--and no others--had made such things possible.

CJ said...


" Obsessing over sexual ethics obscures the reality of marriage, and applying the logic of "consentual sex" analogously to marriage adds fuel to the fire. "

Your tone is absolutely wrong in this sentence, and yet part of what you say is quite right. Applying the logic of "consensual sex" analogously to marriage does add fuel to the fire, but the fire of the couples love. I hate to burst your bubble, but if you go into marriage thinking that your wife said yes to everything that day and that's final, you've got a fun little road to travel. Marriage is a life commitment, and while that yes on your wedding day is quite special, what is more is the yes that you say to that every day for the rest of your lives. This goes along with good ol' Catholic ideas. We don't do once saved always saved. We have faith shown by works. You can marry a person, but it is through your living of that vocation which shows that choice. Similarly, consensual sex, particularly the positive as suggest by the book, as well as Dan, gives a radical way of looking at this. God didn't say, " Well, she didn't say no..." to Mary. She gave her active consent to His Will, something we should all strive for.

So, I agree with your suggestion that sex outside of marriage out to be condemned; however, sex within marriage must be understood as well. This idea of active consent, while not getting us all the way there, does reclaim some of that essence. It is an active giving and an active receiving. Yes, there is a marriage debt. But that marriage debt in light of the Christian Gospel is not to be fulfilled in the way we view, say, the ten commandments. These are, in fact, marriage debts owed by Christ's Church, his bride. But she is not to fulfill them because she has to, but because she wants to.

Dan, good reasons why women shouldn't initiate? If that's the way the cookie crumbles in the relationship, far be it from me to limit the way God's love works in people; however, while most of these radical feminists will probably scoff at my suggesting this, I have rarely met a woman who doesn't wish for the initiate from a real man (I think you know how I mean this) and not just these petty boys we find in today's society. Physical archetypes would be the reason I would cite, but many people find the interpretation of physical realities woefully close-minded (though still living by the die-hard line of scientific method and empiricism). Plus, I'm still not sure how to apply such a concept in modern times.

CJ said...

Yes, I know Dan, I really need to proof these things before I post them. I'm just saying, they need to make these little editing windows bigger.

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