Reviewing “Yes Means Yes!”: Everyone Should Read This

It’s about damn time someone collected and polished the stories and manifestos of sex-positive feminists, whose blogs have been gaining traction in Internetland, but not so much in the traditional, stuffy publishing industry. The choir of voices represented in Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti’s book, subtitled Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, comprise the first feminist anthology I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and I promise I am not exaggerating when I tell you that you should run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore and buy it. Buy it buy it buy it.

Or do what I did and download the Kindle App for your computer and, for the low price of $9.99, it will magically appear on your desktop in seconds. And then you will be so entranced that you won’t even notice your eyes are bleeding from reading on a computer until the book’s finished.

Just to clear up any potential misconceptions the book’s title might cause– yes, all of the essays touch on sexual assault in some form,  but this is not only a collection of survivors’ tales. That’s what I was expecting, but Yes is a supremely broad anthology that includes essays about the role of female perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault at Abu Ghraib, how society tells fat women they are worthless for not fulfilling their divine duty of arousing men, the biased way the media portrays black rape victims, and how boys are raised in a sex-ed vacuum that quickly fills with a disrespectful, conquering attitude towards sex.

In addition to being comprehensive, Yes is inclusive, with essays by at least ten women of color and five queer women, two of whom are trans. It’s refreshing and challenging to my extremely privileged white, cis, straight self to read about sexuality that’s not rooted in heteronormativity or white-centric ideas of expression.

Before I dive into a few of my favorite essays, I should note that, out of 27 essays, there was only one whose conclusions I questioned. “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” by Julia Serano (a transsexual woman who is writing from the perspective of having once been male-bodied), discusses the “predator/prey” mindset which suffuses traditional male/female sexual interactions, resulting in overly aggressive men and objectified, silenced women. The notion I took umbrage with was this:

I think that women who are attracted to sexual aggressors are primarily attracted to the rebellious, bad-boy image they project–an image that is essentially built into our cultural ideal of maleness.

Serano witnessed college friends consistently choose the “bad boys” over the “nice guys” (not to be confused with the two-faced Nice Guyâ„¢), who in turn found their sexual prospects looking up when they started acting like jerks and publicly devaluing women. It’s nitpicky, but I’m just not convinced that women, as a whole, trend towards crass, rude dudes, no matter how many Jordan Catalanos or Jess Marianos the media tries to force on us.

It’s difficult to point to one essay and say, “This was one was the best,” especially as I’m convinced everyone will read and experience the book differently, so instead of “best,” I’ll just focus on what spoke to me personally.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s essay, “What It Feels Like When It Finally Comes: Surviving Incest in Real Life,” is the most confessional and personally forthcoming of the stories, and for that reason I think it’s likely to be the most moving for readers who have experienced sexual violence, particularly childhood abuse.

Lakshmi takes us on a detailed journey of both the typical expectations for abuse survivors and what actually happened to her after she left home, which, though it was messier than most proscribed, linear narratives of “healing,” ends with Lakshmi presently in a good, calm, happy place.

As a high school and college student, Lakshmi was steeped in the Riot Grrl movement, writing,

Instead of the grown-up incest narratives, those zines, Xeroxed and mailed to one another through penpal networks, told the stories of what it felt like to be a survivor when you’re still surviving it. Zines were the first place where I read girls like me writing about multiplicity, leaving your body,  struggling with sex, the exact terrible feeling of how it felt to be in the house when your dad was building up to hitting your mom. Not as “clients,” not as second-wave-feminist grown-up women who were going to support groups posted at the 1980s lesbian coffeehouse, but real, raw, messy, and now. We were the experts on our own lives, and we were saving one another by writing it all down.

After college, Lakshmi moves to Toronto (“a national border away from my family”), makes real friends for the first time in her life, does yoga, has great sex, and eventually has a live-in partner and fulfilling job at a non-profit counseling center. But what makes Lakshmi’s story different than many others I’ve read in the same vein, is that she never pretends as though any one thing was a miracle cure, as though she never relapsed and had to just take a break from people for awhile, as though being abused is like a foundation you can ignore once it’s bricked over with shiny, new experiences.

Just read it, you guys. Especially if you’re struggling with how to grow into a functional adult when you have this stuff littering your childhood, please read it. If I could take the book out of my computer and illegally email it you all, I would be that tempted to do it.

Another essay that I found to be particularly wonderful is by Latoya Peterson and called “The Not-Rape Epidemic.” It chronicles the statutory rape and various other violations that were practically epidemic amongst her childhood friends, but somehow seemed “not as bad” as the violent stranger-rape they’d been conditioned to watch out for.

I also heartily enjoyed “Reclaiming Touch: Rape Culture, Explicit Verbal Consent, and Body Sovereignty” by Hazel/Cedar Troost, which posits that if we “organize around body sovereignty”¦we’ll have the sum total [support] of everyone who wants their bodies back,” which is coincidentally a hell of a lot of people–GLBTQ people, fat people, people of color, polyamorous people, women of every stripe.

Troost outlines an experiment whereunder ze asked for explicit consent and requested others do the same whenever they wanted to engage in any physical contact, whether it was sexual in nature or as seemingly innocent as a friendly hug. Many of hir friends and family were initially displeased and it became apparent that almost everyone had internalized preconceptions about “owning” bodies other than the one they were inhabiting. Still, Troost soldiered on and reported,

Demanding total and ongoing explicit verbal consent is incredibly effective at restoring body sovereignty–my experience, as well as my lovers,’ has been that its impacts extend far beyond reclaiming touch and sex, as if that weren’t already powerful in and of itself.

I’m going to take hir up on hir closing challenge, which is to conduct your own body-reclaiming experiment. If anything supremely interesting or wacky happens, I will definitely share the story with you guys!

I need to wrap this up and I’ve really only skimmed the surface of Yes, but I’d like to take one more moment to highly implore you to check the book out. And to any and all who have already read the book, I’d love to chat more about it in the comments, swap more favorite essays, etc.

Oh, and one last thing: Any suggestions for more feminist lit. to read?

4 thoughts on “Reviewing “Yes Means Yes!”: Everyone Should Read This”

  1. I almost included the “Acceptable ‘Non-Consent'” essay (I really enjoyed it too) but was afraid the post would drag on too long–that was a very enlightening one because I honestly had no idea that some feminists were uncomfortable with submission or thought it was inherently unhealthy/inspired by the patriarchy.

    I’ll put Media Sexualization on my list for next week–thank you!

  2. This is one of those books that I recommend at every possible opportunity; a few of my favorite essays included “The Fantasy of Acceptable ‘Non-Consent’: Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us and Why She Shouldn’t” and “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States.” And like you, Meghan, I found the essay on explicit consent and body sovereignty really fascinating and thought-provoking.

    As for suggestions for more books, what about The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and Five Keys to Fixing It by M. Gigi Durham? I read it about two years ago and I thought it really struck a great balance between analyzing and critiquing the sexualization of girls while also allowing girls agency and acknowledging that they are or can be sexual beings, which is something that a lot of writing about the sexualization of young girls doesn’t always do.

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