Last night, while waiting for dinner to finish simmering, I flipped open this week’s issue of the Charleston City Paper, our local alt-weekly. This issue is the annual “welcome back college kids” issue, with advice on cheap eats, good places to go for dates, and ways to spruce up dorm rooms. Basically all kinds of great Charleston tips that I can appreciate even though I’m not a college student any more, because I’m on a tight budget. As I turned the page after reading a piece on local thrift stores, I saw this ad:
I could have applauded.
See, so often PSAs about rape and sexual assault focus on the materials in the first part of the ad, the part that is aimed toward young women. The part that says, don’t wear that, don’t drink this, don’t go to these places, don’t be out after this hour, don’t hang out with these people. The feminist in me tends to think that the culture of fear we instill in our young women serves to help keep them under control. Just thinking about it makes me want to crank up No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” and bop along with my teen idol Gwen. “Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand? This world is forcin’ me to hold your hand!” (Seriously, I wonder how many other 20-30 year olds can point to that song as a major source of their feminist awakening.)
We don’t have PSAs telling people not to get murdered, or not to get mugged, but it seems our society is more than OK with giving young women the idea that if they are sexually assaulted, it’s their own damn fault, as if most of them don’t feel that way after the fact anyway. The usual approach tends to leave me shouting: WHY CAN’T WE JUST TELL MEN NOT TO BE RAPISTS?
Which is why this ad is so refreshing. It says something that I wish was emphasized more often: people under the influence of alcohol or drugs cannot legally consent to sex. If you have sex with someone who is drunk or high or stoned out of their mind, you are raping that person. If you aren’t sure that the other person *really* wants to be doing what you’re doing with them, you’re probably raping them. This PSA asks, is hooking up with someone who is drunk, passed out, or asleep really worth potentially being kicked out of school and becoming a sex offender?
Really, I think the entire way our culture approaches sex leads to confusion about rape. Young people, especially here in the Bible Belt, are taught from an early age that sex is forbidden, bad, wrong, dirty, sinful. This leads young men, especially, to feel that sex (and sexual contact of other sorts, including making out) is always something they will have to talk, cajole, or coerce a young woman into. Thus, any girl who isn’t actively screaming NO! is obviously consenting as much as you can expect. Except I think (and this is an idea I’ve seen elsewhere on blogs I frequent) that “no means no” doesn’t go far enough.
There’s an idea out there that we should really be preaching “only yes means yes.” Unless your partner is enthusiastically consenting and participating, unless both parties are 100% comfortable, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Sex, and making out, and everything in between IS awesome, but it should never happen except between two people who are totally into it and totally comfortable. If “yes means yes” were our standard, there would be no question about whether or not the other person really wants to have sex. You’d have no doubt in your mind. It would be obvious.
But I realize that convincing sex educators, particularly those in my conservative corner of the world, to preach a message of “yes means yes,” which encourages enthusiastic consent, may be a bit of a stretch for now. My husband jokingly suggested “only marriage means marriage” might work (which, I’m not sure why a message of “yes means yes” would have to conflict with an idea about waiting til marriage for sex– people who wait for sex still make out and fool around). And so I will celebrate FINALLY seeing an ad that places equal burden on women to make safe choices and men not to take advantage of people who cannot consent enthusiastically to sex. And I will look for other opportunities, as I work on a college campus, to speak up for clear and mutual consent as a standard for sexual activity, and to keep an eye out for any ad that doesn’t speak to potential rapists at least as much as it aims at potential victims.