“Yes Means Yes” teaches me to fight for healthy, shame-free sex

4 stars: “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape”, a book of essays collected by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti //

A number of these essays are amazing and helped me change my thinking and take on even more feminist, inclusive, and egalitarian views. This book takes on rape culture, sex work, misogyny, queerness, porn, sex education, consent, masturbation, the myth of sexual purity, and process-oriented virginity.

“Killing Misogyny” by Cristina Meztli Tzintzún goes into explicit detail about how even forward-thinking, “outwardly feminist” people can privately exploit the women in their lives; sadly, women are often encouraged to keep these instances quiet to “protect” the “good” men, instead of holding those people accountable.

Too many times in radical left circles, we uphold the image of the man who transforms himself from being hypermasculine and self-destructive to being hypermasculine and revolutionary, but fail to extend this same image to the scores of heroic, deserving womyn who have transformed themselves from victims of a life of subjugation and violence into radical, self-loving feminists who use these personal struggles as a catalyst to create radical social change… I believe we can tear down the walls of silence that maintain structures of misogyny and create safe spaces that are maintained through deliberate action, praxis, and love. [bold emphasis added]

“Who’re You Calling a Whore?: A Conversation with Three Sex Workers on Sexuality, Empowerment, and the Industry” is an amazing interview. In particular, I loved the sections that:

  • examined how sex workers also “commodify men”: (“I remember looking at guys in strip clubs and seeing dollar signs in place of their heads… You stop seeing men in the clubs as people — they are money in my pocket or not. I hate it when people assume that the only people commodified in sex work are the workers.”)
  • discussed how in an ideal world, clients would be polyamorous and have enthusiastic permission to sleep with / get a lap dance from / date etc. sex workers
  • how sex work can be empowering or exploitative (or both), and how this makes it similar to any other profession: (“An exploited woman is one who is not comfortable in her line of work, does not enjoy what she is doing, and is only doing it out of desperation, coercion, or because it seemed like the only way to make “easy money.” This feeling can be experienced by workers in any profession: ambulance chasers, attorneys, doctors, salespeople, et cetera.” However, because the stigma is much greater for a sex worker, an exploited woman would be… relegated to deal with feelings of shame and social rejection in silence.”)
  • the three women interviewed discussed being “particular and choosy” about what types of work they do and even what kinds of acts they will or will not perform or which clients they will be with

Another article, “An Immodest Proposal,” blew me away in its wholesome, gloriously-healthy dreams of how we could learn about and learn to engage in sex as young people if we only taught a different narrative than the current “It’ll hurt the first time” / “Save it for someone you love” / “Don’t have too many partners or you’ll be called a slut” bullshit teens are fed. This article made me a steadfast, vocal advocate for empowering sex ed for teens and young adults; I hope young people can enjoy good, honest, healthy, happy, communicative sex when / if they become ready. Women and girls have desires, and they are wonderful! Understanding them and learning to celebrate them is CRUCIAL to breaking down the patriarchal, religious, and oppressive cultural mores that I and so many others were raised under.

“Real Sex Education” by Cara Kulwicki also discusses how to teach teens about sex; my favorite section mandates that sex education doesn’t have to be graphic or “porn” to be qualitative:

“Letting teens know that women usually achieve orgasm through rubbing of the clitoris, whether with fingers, mouth, object, or penis, isn’t the same as screening an instructional video on giving good cunnilingus. It’s not the same as writing down the names of sex-toy shops on the blackboard or handing out diagrams of cool and exciting coital positions. And teaching that lubricants reduce pain and increase safety and pleasure during many kinds of sex should be thought of not as performance advice, but on par with vital lessons about condom use.

Real sex education… [teaches] that pleasure is an important part of any sexual relationship. It’s about teaching that there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel sexual pleasure and seeking it out, so long as it is done safely and responsibly. It’s about teaching comfort with one’s body and a lack of shame over desires, and that there is more to sex for all people than sticking penises inside of vaginas. Real sex education teaches how to go about making intelligent, safe choices, rather than just stating choices available… And I believe that teaching teens to make smart choices about sex must involve teaching them that having sex, partnered or alone, can be a smart choice.”

“A Woman’s Worth” by Javacia N. Harris dives deep into the realm of media, cultural expectations, and how women are wrongly judged for their “sexual value” rather than who they are (which can totally include their sexuality IF they want it to!). We need to take hard stands against content that demeans women, and we also need to “find ways to build ourselves up individually in the meantime” while we’re waiting for (and creating) art that empowers and celebrates women.

“Sex Worth Fighting For” by Anastasia Higginbotham looks at self-defense and encourages women to fight tooth-nail-and-voice against unwanted sexual advances, regardless of environment, company, or whether or not the advances are coming from someone you know or love. We can’t just envision a world where rape doesn’t exist; we have to combat it in our own lives and stand up for ourselves at all possible moments:

“We can learn to fight for sex on our own terms. Literally. With strong words, conviction, and certainty, with hands, elbows, knees, feet, and a “NO” so mean it chills the blood.”

This essay doesn’t victim-blame; encouraging women to stand up for themselves doesn’t mean that those who have been assaulted somehow failed, but it does demonstrate that we can RUN the very second that we feel uncomfortable, disrespected, or violated. I know that my own assault from someone I was dating is sticky because I didn’t ever vocally say no, and I didn’t leave. Instead, I froze up (which is an article of its own) and just mentally checked out, thinking that if I just let it happen, it would end soon. Had I read this article before that night, I might have been mentally prepared to say, Fuck it, fuck being polite, THIS IS NOT HAPPENING, and left with no explanations. I’ll never know for sure. But I do know that we need to say SCREW the societal expectation that women are supposed to be polite and smooth things over and take what’s coming for them. We are better than that, and good sex is worth fighting for.

“The Process-Oriented Virgin” by Hanne Blank is another of my favorite essays. It explores the notion that some people are redefining what constitutes the “loss” of their virginity; while I myself prefer to think about things in terms of sexual experiences rather than “losing virginity”, this essay is really important. Blank explains how some are discounting any sexual experiences where they didn’t orgasm or didn’t initiate or didn’t enjoy the encounter, etc. etc. The point is that these people are reclaiming what it means to become sexually active and are eradicating the notion that OTHER PEOPLE are the ones who decide when you “lose” your virginity; instead, she advocates for a new “cultural constant” that allows each person to subjectively decide when they have experienced sex. This is especially important for queer people, who don’t necessarily ever have penis-in-vagina intercourse, but who obviously still have sex — which they define and interpret. Enacting this definitive change “would change sexuality, gender roles, and maybe the world.”

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in dismantling gender roles, sex, and rape culture. I gave it four stars simply because I skipped a number of the essays and actively disagree with one, but I still think it’s an amazing collection and am a better person having read it.