The Sexual Train Wreck Behind "Yes Means Yes"

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Over the past few years, American power brokers have developed a charming tendency to obsess over favored topics (putting “diversity training” at the top of the federal Office of Personnel Management’s priority list, for instance) while ignoring the colossal and urgent (like, say, that same office’s obvious vulnerability to crippling cyberattacks, which recently exposed millions of federal employee records to the Chinese).

On Tuesday, in that spirit, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a sweeping “yes means yes” bill into law, expanding the state’s sexual consent rules to include private colleges and universities. Both Nancy Pelosi and Lady Gaga love the concept—Ms. Gaga even co-authored a “yes means yes” op-ed with Cuomo—so you probably already know that it, just like passing bills you haven’t read and wearing dresses made entirely out of raw meat, is a really good idea. 

“The so-called ‘yes means yes’ standard,” Reuters reports, “defines sexual consent between people as an affirmative, conscious, and voluntary understanding to engage in sexual activity.” Anything that falls outside of the nebulous concept of “consent”—a gratuitous touch on the elbow, perhaps, as opposed to the formally agreed-upon nudge of the right lower kneecap—could be labeled sexual assault.

If this sounds clear as mud to you, it’s probably because—congratulations!—you’re not yet certifiably insane. “Yes means yes” laws, pioneered in California last September, aim to fight the widely reported and highly dubious “epidemic” of campus sexual assault. The laws are also, apparently, the hottest new bad idea around. The University of Minnesota is currently considering implementation of “yes means yes” rules; lawmakers in over a dozen states have proposed similar laws.

“It’s spreading pretty fast,” Alison Berke Morano, founder of the Affirmative Consent Project, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Ms. Morano’s group, launched in February, distributes sex contracts—yes, sex contracts—to college students. “The contract comes as part of a ‘Consent Conscious Kit,’” Ashe Schow of the Washington Examiner reported earlier this week, “which also includes a pen (to sign the contract, duh), breath mints, and a condom.” In a tragic oversight, the consent kits do not also include a pop-up, portable, and deep-voiced sex attorney—I’m imagining a young, velour-clad, bearded Barry White—to document your smooth, lawsuit-proof, pre-planned, awkward robot lovemaking moves.

The problems with this are obvious: With an explicit “yes” as a standard for every moment of sexual conduct, questionable accusations of sexual assault will likely shoot through the roof. But there’s a more serious issue at hand, coupled with a question that creeps into my brain every day that ends with “y”: Seriously, who are these people? Don’t they get exhausted with themselves? Have they ever had a day of fun in their whole life?

As I read about the sex contracts this week, a certain and rather glorious song kept running through my head: “Sex Farm,” by Spinal Tap. As you may know, Spinal Tap is a semi-fake British rock band that starred in the spectacular mid-‘80s mockumentary of the same name. And while “Sex Farm” may seem only tangentially related to our rising regime of byzantine campus sex regulations, a closer look at the lyrics shows a deeper, cosmic connection. Here we go. Gird your loins:

Working on a sex farm
Trying to raise some hard love
Getting out my pitch fork
POKING YOUR HAY

Want more? Of course you do. It’s 21st-century America, you’re surrounded by a weird band of leftist scolds—really, who saw that one coming?—and you’re starved for fun! But, before we proceed, let’s imagine “Sex Farm” as played out on a New York or California college campus, circa 2015:

Working on a sex farm
Hosing down your barn door
Bothering your livestock
THEY KNOW WHAT I NEED

Well. We had better stop there, because over the course of just those four lines, I’ve already been served one lawsuit, 16 undergraduates have issued trigger warnings, practically everyone in the room is crying, and Barry White has fainted in the corner. While everyone calms down, I’ll get to the main point: When you give it an honest look, the modern conception of “civilized,” “yes means yes” sex is much grosser—and far, far weirder—than the ethos held by Spinal Tap.  

“Yes means yes” policies, at their heart, imply that it is normal, healthy, and a good idea to have sex with complete strangers. (Controversial point from yours truly: Unless you are a fictional member of a fictional band, it is generally not.) But they also imply that it is normal and healthy to have sex with people you don’t trust. Why else would you have to draw up a sex contract? Why else would you need Andrew Cuomo to write your sexual rules for you? Despite years of “feminist” marketing, that’s not empowered in any way. It’s just creepy, and also kind of insane.

The ideology behind “yes means yes” is strange in another way: It implies, through its list of rules, prescriptions, and penalties, that sex is a clinical experience; that it is perfunctory, mechanical, and best overseen by bureaucrats. In this view, sex is like brushing your teeth, but with a thousand-page instruction sheet; like sneezing, but less exciting; like eating, but on a cardboard tray while waiting at the DMV. I don’t want insult Spinal Tap, but the “yes means yes” approach is almost like, well, a sex farm— not a lovely, open meadow with free-range chickens, but a joyless, humorless factory farm specializing in low budget, highly questionable chicken—ahem, “chicken”—nuggets.

Alas, these are the leading cultural norms pushed at colleges across the country. No wonder American campuses are such a goofy, sad train wreck. It’s a disaster that’s been in motion, of course, for a long, long time.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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