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Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape [4 March, 2009]

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Edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti; Seal Press; 361 pages

What would a world without rape look like? Can we discuss rape without defining the subject of the attack as either a virgin or a whore? Can we think about rape as a crime if the woman also enjoys sex in consensual situations?

 Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti’s new anthology Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape goes beyond the simplistic victim-perpetrator model of rape analysis and asks us to rethink popular sexual tropes.  Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last” asks why non-sexually-aggressive men are often desexualized.  In “The Process-Oriented Virgin,” Hanne Blank suggests that the “first time” be defined not by a physical act but in purely subjective terms. So, for instance, if you are a lesbian, you might define your first time as the first time you had sex with another woman, regardless of whether you had sex with men prior.

Despite the occasional interesting piece, Yes Means Yes falls prey to a model of self-righteous victimization such a potentially ground-breaking anthology outght to resist.

Take, for example, “Killing Misogyny,” where Cristina Tzintzún writes about her long-term partner Alan’s repeated infidelity. Alan never coerces her into sex, and she admits that she stayed with him in order “to prove that someone as sick as he was was capable of transformation.”  Yet, she does not hesitate to write that she “knew Alan would rape me continuously of my love, my sanity, and my health…” The book uses the word “rape” in such a broad fashion as to render it almost meaningless, and it rests upon the idea of a pervasive “rape culture.”

Most of the writers would have us believe that women and children are constantly under the threat of rape, and that rape is inextricably interwoven into the DNA of daily life.  That contributes to sexual paranoia, but gets us nowhere towards understanding the specificities of rape and how to deal with it in different circumstances.  Surely the continued sexual assault of a child by her parents, the subject of Leah Piepzna-Samarsinha’s essay about incest, is rather different from the institutionalized rape of immigrant women at the borders, as discussed in Miriam Peréz’s “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough.”

Yes Means Yes rests at the nexus of two ideological points.  One is a liberal feminism so battered by decades of right-wing sexism that it spends all its energy reacting to the same instead of questioning how it might have become part of the problem.  The other is a burgeoning domestic violence/rape counseling industrial complex compelled to paint its clients solely as pathetic victims in order to get funding.  The one supplies the earnest foot soldiers for the other. Many of the writers work in women-oriented non-profits, but very few see the pitfalls of their work. An exception, Chicagoan Lee Riggs, writes of leaving rape crisis work because she felt “drained … within a framework that positioned the criminal legal system as the primary remedy for sexual violence.”

Finally, the book focuses so much on “female sexual power” and “healthy relationships” that it fails to ask a critical question: how do we counter the prevailing message that someone who is not in a relationship does not count?  The fact that people are made to feel incomplete without partners contributes greatly to their staying in abusive relationships.  Telling people that it is okay to be alone will not end rape, but it would go a long way towards forging exactly the kind of self-esteem and power that this book claims to want for everyone.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 4 March, 2009


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