April 16, 2014

Can Women Ever Really Say Yes…?

Sex educators encourage people to get consent before engaging in sex. The implication is that men and women are free to consent to sex...but is it that simple?

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We’ve heard the mantra “No Means No” and most people agree (at least conversationally) that if a woman says, “no,” that “no” should be respected. But what about women who want to say, “yes?” Does that “yes” actually get respected? Unfortunately we have names for women who say “yes” too often, too soon, too enthusiastically, or with too many people, and those names are hurtful and demeaning. Men call women those names, women call women those names; and for what reason? Because women desire sex and want to have it.

Keeping Score

My parents grew up with the slogan, “a man will not buy the cow when he can get the milk for free” as a warning to women—avoid sex or you will not be marriage material (assuming all women are heterosexual and actually want to get married too). As Thomas Macaulay Millar points out in Friedman and Valenti’s Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape, contemporary American society has come to view women’s sex as a commodity, as a product— for example we say, “she gave it up,” or “he got some.” And in fact sex with the freshest, newest, least experienced woman is of a higher value; as we all know “fresh milk” is better than “stale milk.” So ladies, if you are heterosexual and want your milk to go at a higher bidding price, the moral here is to close your legs.

Is there a corresponding slogan for men? Not really, because that would seem odd, right? A man’s worth is not diminished by the increasing number of sexual partners he has had. More often than not, more partners make his worth increase, especially among other men. Is that sexual standard fair for men?

Why do we even view sex in this way – why is less more for women and more more for men? Is that fair to anyone? And if men don’t want to have sex and women do want to have sex, why should they be chastised for these wants and desires?

A Catch-22?

Women are held to an odd expectation. In some ways they are told it is okay to desire sex, and in fact sometimes wanting sex and lots of it is endorsed, especially by the media – music videos, TV, movies . Yet, when women act on desire for sex, their reputation is at stake and they are at risk of being labeled a slut. Now some women claim that they own that label, that they don’t care what others think and they will express themselves sexually however they chose. Men on the other hand are usually told a consistent message-have sex, have lots of it and have it as often as possible with as many partners as possible. The options are limited for both men and women in the heterosexual college culture. And the stakes are high for everyone who does not follow these rules.

Can women really say yes?

When women say no, it’s often not taken seriously or somehow not good enough-you know the common lines, well she was asking for it, she should have known better, what did she expect would happen etc. So interestingly, when women say no, it is often not really respected. And when women agree to sex, we think they are bad or slutty. Therefore, the question I am posing is, if women are not respected when they say no, and they are not respected when they say yes, what options do they have? And what about men, what are their options? I look forward to exploring these ideas and questions through this blog and I hope to get feedback to these interesting, but complicated questions.

  • Natalie

    It seems like you're raising the classic idiom: “damned if you do, damned if you don't.” If I'm going to be in that kind of “damned” situation, I'm going to do what I want–because at least I'll get what I want out of it rather than being damned for not doing anything. I think the issue lies in our society not acknowledging women as being sexual creatures—we, societally speaking, are still operating under many religiously divined morals, and until those barriers are acknowledged as a source for negative attitudes towards women being sexually active to whatever extent, I think the dual disrespecting of women and their right to be sexual will continue. You definitely nailed it (pun intended) when you mentioned the discrepancy in treatment of “promiscuous” men and women–Christian biblical lore encourages the spread of the male “seed,” and demands the loyalty of the woman who bears said seed to the man who provided it. The American definition of what constitutes as a “relationship” also comes into play here–monogamy and fidelity. Those words are ever present as the moral pillars on which we should stand, but in reality, very few actually ascribe to those norms. When we, societally, come to the realization that those morals may not be the best fit for everyone, and we become accepting of what are we actually do, rather than what a select group of “others” think we should do, I think we would be more accepting of everyone, and the name calling and judging just might stop.

  • Sonya

    Awesome job, Kristen!

  • Kristen

    Thanks Natalie! Yes I do agree, I think it is a long road toward changing these societal views of men, women and sex. I think the idea of “I'll do whatever I want” is a good one, but unfortunately we all live within the system in which these ideas exist, so opting out is difficult. I wish and hope more people will adopt your attitude though!

  • Theresa Haas

    Awesome post!

  • Lud Allen

    Ahhh in a very hetero sense this may all be true. What about in SSA circles. Do these same myths apply?

  • Ryan

    Producing unclear answers to questions like this is something people are actually very good at. There are many examples from all over the world of people avoiding culturally “incriminating” answers and giving themselves “wiggle room” (no pun intended).

  • Anoymous

    Before the age of reliable birth-control, these “morals” may have reflected a more practical purpose. Sex for a woman carried a larger risk and responsibility (physically-speaking).

    With the advent of better birth-control, these values changed (e.g, 1960's sexual revolution)… for awhile; then the very real danger of incurable STDs caused a bit of a backlash and returned our culture to an earlier age where sexual “purity” was again a desirable “virtue” with respect to a woman's future (or a man's future for that matter).

    The younger people I know are much more conservative in this respect than I was at their age.

    I don't know if there is truly still as much a stigma attached to a woman's sexuality as there once was or at least any more so than for men (of a particular age). I suspect both genders have a renewed interest in being discrete and careful and possibly even waiting for a certain level of emotional or life-partner commitment, simply because it would be less likely that such people would have contracted one of the many nasty infections; that is, if the social norm is to have few encounters and only with committed partners, the incidents of STDs should decrease.

    Often these mores and behaviors are not thought-through conscious decisions, but are enforced through peer groups and the simpler axioms reflected in the previously mentioned “standards”; one may not consciously avoid sex with promiscuous partners due to fear of STD or unwanted pregnancy, but rather as part of the societal norms that serve to decrease these events.

    Women and men alike need to understand themselves and their motivations for avoiding or engaging in sexual activities. And the culture needs to change to encourage this self-awareness as well as open communication regarding the various methods of birth-control and safe-sex.

    I would love to live in a world where it was not even conceivable to…
    …use sex as a weapon,
    …measure a person's worth by the number of partners or number of times one performed any particular sexual act, or by the genders of one's partners,
    …expect sexual activity or abstinence as a condition of any particular relationship.

  • Julian

    Messages sure are mixed. Would not be niced if the standard was how well you treat the other person?