“How do you know what you want to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to in bed?”
The first time I heard the question, it caught me by surprise. I was talking with a student journalist about my first book, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. The book is framed around the idea of affirmative consent — that “no means no” is not enough, and only a freely given, enthusiastic “yes” counts when it comes to sex. As the interview wound down, the reporter, a young woman, asked me the surprisingly personal question off the record. She wanted me to teach her how to know what she wanted in bed.
That was the first of many times I’d come to hear that kind of question from women young and old who have been so discouraged from prioritizing their own sexual pleasure. I heard it enough that I wrote my next two books to help women overcome that self-alienation, and help all of us change the cultural institutions that create it. Their distress demonstrates why we so badly need to change the way we think about sex — and why people who don’t actively pay attention to their partner’s needs in the bedroom risk violating them.
The collective anguish of all these women has been haunting me this week in the wake of the publication of a Babe.net piece about one woman’s evening with Aziz Ansari, which ended, she says, with him repeatedly disregarding her verbal and nonverbal boundaries as he pursued his own sexual agenda. I’ve lost track of the number of people in both low and high places who’ve written that the encounter was “fair game.” The response reveals the deeply ingrained ways our culture believes a woman’s resistance is a fun challenge for men to overcome, and that “consent” is a free pass one can bully out of a woman if persistent or crafty enough.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But to change things, we need to talk about how we can better educate young people in this country about sex, consent, and pleasure.
We don’t prioritize sex education in this country
The basic principle at the heart of affirmative consent is simple: We’re each responsible for making sure our sex partners are actually into whatever is happening between us. Since decent human beings only want to have sex with people who are into it, this shouldn’t be a hard sell. But if you’ve been raised to think of sex as a battle of the sexes, or a business deal in which men “get some” and women either “give it up” or “save it” for marriage, it can still be a jarring idea, like suggesting to someone that there’s something they could breathe other than air.
In the absence of comprehensive, pleasure-based sex ed, we rely on media and other cultural institutions to model what sex should be like. Whether you turn to abstinence propagandists, mainstream pop culture, or free internet porn to fill in those gaps, you’re likely to wind up with an incredibly narrow and bankrupt idea of how sex works, one that positions men as sexual actors, women as the (un)lucky recipients of men’s desire, and communication of consent as lethal to both boners and romance.
(That’s not to say there aren’t a few good models out there for those who seek them out. One of the sexiest movies in recent memory — Call Me by Your Name — shows a man breathlessly asking another man if he can kiss him. It is scorchingly hot.)
We already prioritize educating kids on safety outside the realm of sexuality. Take the risk of getting injured in a fire: In any given year, around 3 percent of US school-aged kids will encounter a fire at school. The odds of a student being injured in one of those fires are so small as to be functionally zero. It’s likely that the fire risk to American students is so low in part because we prepare them so well to stay safe. We teach them fire safety every year starting in kindergarten, and build on that knowledge with regular drills, until responding to the threat of fire becomes second nature. Imagine if we prepared students that well to take care of each other during sex.
Sex ed in US public schools isn’t regulated by the federal government, and the resulting patchwork of curricula is a de-standardized mess. Nineteen states require sex educators to teach that sex should only happen after marriage. Only 24 states and Washington, DC, mandate that schools teach any kind of sex ed at all. And only one — California — mandates that students receive education in affirmative consent.
Affirmative consent changes the morality at the core of sexual interactions
The need for affirmative consent education shouldn’t be taken to imply that perpetrators of sexual violence are just hopelessly confused. Studies show that most rapists are perfectly aware their victims aren’t into what’s happening. And social science has also clearly demonstrated that men (and women!) are perfectly capable of understanding social cues, even ones where someone is saying “no” without using that actual word.
It’s impossible to know for sure what Ansari was thinking on the night in question, but this is a seasoned performer who knows how to read a crowd, and a “relationship expert” to boot. It strains credulity to imagine he truly thought she was excited about what was happening between them. What’s much more likely is that he didn’t care how she felt one way or the other and treated her boundaries as a challenge. Either way, his alleged behavior was dehumanizing.
Teaching affirmative consent does something profound: It shifts the acceptable moral standard for sex, making it much clearer to everyone when someone is violating that standard. I think often of the two men who intervened when they came upon Brock Turner assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford — they knew instantly that something was wrong, because she was clearly not participating. Contrast that with Evan Westlake, who in high school witnessed his two friends raping a semi-conscious girl at a party in Steubenville, Ohio. When asked why he didn’t intervene, he told the court, “Well, it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”
I’m sure there are many differences between Westlake and the two men in the Turner case — and these cases are different from the Ansari situation — but the one that stands out to me is that Westlake was raised here in the US. The two men on bicycles in Palo Alto were Swedes, raised in a country that teaches healthy attitudes toward sexuality and gender in school, starting in kindergarten, including lessons on not just biology but healthy relationships, destigmatizing taboos around sex, and, yes, affirmative consent. They knew that a woman who is lying still and not participating in sex is a woman who isn’t consenting. And it prompted them to take action.
Affirmative consent, when taught well, also removes heteronormative assumptions from sex ed. If we’re each equally responsible to make sure our partner is enthusiastic about what’s happening, gender stereotypes — such as that women are passive and men are aggressive — about sexuality begin to break down.
It also requires that we teach and model sexual communication. Good consent education teaches students things like how to overcome awkwardness and make sexual communication feel like a fun part of the action, the importance of paying attention to body language, and the most vital part: that if you can’t tell if your partner is having a good time, you have to check in.
We need to teach girls that sex is supposed to be pleasurable
Consent education does something else transformative: It tells girls that sex is supposed to be for them.
When I speak at schools, I always ask young people if the clitoris was included in their anatomy diagrams, because it’s a quick test of whether sexual pleasure — especially female sexual pleasure — is part of the sex ed conversation. (It almost never is.) Traditional sex ed, when it’s not outright abstinence propaganda, focuses on telling kids how to avoid pregnancy and disease. Many adults fear that if we acknowledge to young people that sex might be pleasurable, it will encourage them to have it. That’s ridiculous.
Most kids figure out that sex seems like fun all on their own, and when we refuse to admit that basic fact to them, we just seem like unreliable sources. What’s more, countries with a pleasure-first approach to sex ed have roughly the same average age as the United States for first sexual encounters (around 17 or 18 years old).
But the most damaging thing that happens when we leave pleasure out of sex ed is that we allow girls to go on thinking that sex is something that’s not really for or about them. Boys learn not to worry about girls’ pleasure, and when girls and women have sexual encounters that don’t feel good — whether they’re just unsatisfying or actively abusive — they’re primed to accept that’s just how sex is.
Which brings us back, reluctantly, to what happened in Aziz Ansari’s apartment that night. This not a story about how inherently confusing sex is, or how women need to make throwing drinks in men’s faces great again, or any of the hot takes you’ve read recently. I get the appeal of these frames — they require so little of us. But cultures are made of people, and people can always change them. Even the sexual culture.
The Ansari story is, at its heart, about how much pain our outmoded sexual culture is causing. How this culture is so profoundly enabling of sexual violation that it comes to seem “normal.” Statistically speaking, it probably even is. But it doesn’t have to be.
This essay is adapted from the book Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All, by Jaclyn Friedman.
Jaclyn Friedman is the creator of three books, including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. Friedman hosts Unscrewed, a popular podcast exploring paths to sexual liberation.